I’m a Scientist and Greta Thunberg’s Speech to Congress Inspires Me

I was honored to meet Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old climate activist who started weekly climate strikes and the hashtag #FridaysForFuture, which have in turn inspired many young people to strike in their hometowns. Greta and her fellow members of the youth climate movement asked adults to join Friday September 20th for a global strike.

Moments before Greta’s powerful speech to members of Congress on September 18, 2019 in the largest room on Capitol Hill, the Ways and Means Committee room, she was preparing in a small room. Those of us with her stood a little away so that she might think about the words she was about to share with the world. Her father, Svante Thunberg, deftly encouraged us to speak in low tones while still engaging in friendly conversation. I remarked to him that I admired his first name because I appreciate that he shares it with the Swedish scientist and Nobel laureate in chemistry, Svante Arrhenius, who made noteworthy contributions in climate science by pointing out how different levels of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere would affect Earth’s climate (the so-called “greenhouse effect”).

Svante Thunberg smiled and replied that he grew up knowing that he was related to, and named after, the Nobel laureate. However, until recently no one in Greta’s family quite understood exactly what Arrhenius was honored for. Mr. Thunberg said he himself did not truly appreciate it until Greta started to seriously learn more about climate change. With a twinkle in his eye and mirthful irony he posited this as a kind of an indicator that even Arrhenius’s own descendants were not sufficiently aware of the climate science—which likely means this applies to most people. Sure enough, if you look at the Nobel Prize website page, “Svante August Arrhenius was born on February 19, 1859, the son of Svante Gustaf Arrhenius and Carolina Christina Thunberg.” Greta is distantly related to Svante Arrhenius.

Full circle: we have now received two warnings from Swedish thinkers, one from the 19th century and one from the 21st century. Svante Arrhenius put forth a theory that scientists have been building and expanding ever since, “standing on the shoulders of giants” as the saying goes. Now in this century, Greta Thunberg’s clarion call to leaders in Sweden has grown louder as she continues to speak with leaders around the world. The power of her modern approach ties scientific understanding with the justified urgency of her generation. On Wednesday, Greta testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee and gave what my colleague, Alden Meyer, called the shortest and most powerful testimony he has heard anyone give in Congress during his decades in Washington.

“My name is Greta Thunberg. I have not come to offer any prepared remarks at this hearing. I’m instead attaching my testimony. It is the IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius, the SR 1.5, which was released on October 8th 2018. I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists, and I want you to unite behind the science. And then I want you to take real action. Thank you.”

Hours later, I saw her speech to members of Congress and participated in the panel discussion that followed. It was an honor to sit beside Greta and watch her listen carefully to each question then reply with refreshing honesty, great clarity and power. I have been working in climate science and advocating for climate action for most of my working life. Even so, Greta has inspired me to do more to reduce emissions and share the latest science, with Greta’s words always in mind.

Adults like me are moved to see the inspiring momentum of the thousands of youth like Greta who are challenging “business as usual” and fighting for their future. Let’s act now.

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