15-year-old climate activist to world leaders: ‘No time to continue down this road of madness’

As U.N. climate conference kicks off in Poland, youth around the world demand urgent action.

Swedish 15-years-old Greta Thunberg decided to go on school strike every Friday at the parliament to get politicians to act on climate chance following Swedens hottest summer ever. (Credit: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Swedish 15-years-old Greta Thunberg decided to go on school strike every Friday at the parliament to get politicians to act on climate chance following Swedens hottest summer ever. (Credit: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Around the world, more and more young people are standing up to call for immediate action on climate change. And as this year’s U.N. climate conference, COP24, kicks off in Poland, one 15-year-old climate activist urged her generation to act on climate change in the absence of meaningful leadership from governments.

On Monday, Swedish student Greta Thunberg met with U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres to discuss climate action. Since September, Thunberg has been refusing to go to school on Fridays, choosing instead to strike school on her own in order to protest outside the Swedish parliament, all in an effort draw attention to climate change.

The outspoken student, who developed a passion for climate action at the age of nine and gave up flying on airplanes three years ago, has received widespread national attention in Sweden. Known for occupying her post outside parliament, people bring her food and politicians have come out to the steps to speak with her as she protests. She has since inspired individuals — including thousands of students in Australia — to “Strike 4 Climate Action” ahead of the COP24.

At a press conference following her conversation with Guterres, she said, “I told him that for 25 years countless people have stood in front of U.N. climate conferences begging world leaders to stop emissions. But clearly that has not worked, emissions are continuing to rise.”


“So, I will not ask them anything,” she continued. “Instead I will ask the media to start treating the crisis as a crisis. Instead, I will ask the people around the world to realize that our political leaders have failed us. Because we are facing an existential threat and there is no time to continue down this road of madness.”

This existential threat is a reality that has become starkly clear recently with the October release of U.N special report on the impacts of 1.5ºC (2.7°F) warming — the ambitious threshold that world leaders agreed to strive for under the Paris Agreement. The report warned that under our current emissions path, the world will surpass this level of global warming by 2040.

This finding was swiftly followed by the U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment published at the end of November. This report warned that under a business-as-usual scenario without significant action to curb emissions, the global average temperature could rise by a staggering 5°C, or 9°F, by the end of this century.


And as scientists detail within the assessment, the impacts of climate change are already here — and going forward they will be wide-ranging, simultaneous, and cascading, affecting everything from seasonal allergies to traffic jams.

The Trump administration, however, has dismissed the reports’ findings, saying scientists are exaggerating. And despite new data showing that the past four years have been the hottest on record — a direct result of humans burning ever more fossil fuels — this year’s COP24 is being sponsored by coal. The U.S. is also reportedly planning a side event at the conference to promote fossil fuels.

As world leaders so blatantly ignore the urgency of the issue, Thunberg in her press conference encouraged other members of her generation to act. “We have to realize what the older generations have done to us,” she said, “what a mess they have created … [and] we have to make our voices heard.”

This type of youth activism is already beginning. In Australia last week, thousands of students inspired by Thunberg skipped school to demand action on climate change. And after the U.N. special report was released, thousands of protesters shut down five of the main bridges in London in a call to world leaders to step up their efforts to fight climate change.

And in the United States, the millennial-led Sunrise Movement — suddenly the most talked-about environmental group in Washington, D.C. — has helped to catalyze fresh calls for urgent climate action following the midterm elections. This includes supporting a “Green New Deal,” which, among other things, proposes swift action to transition to clean energy within 10 years.


Some of the attendees of this year’s climate conference have echoed this urgency. Upon announcing increased funding for climate initiatives on Monday, Kristalina Georgieva, chief executive of the World Bank, said of her fellow Baby Boomers, “We are clearly the last generation that can change the course of climate change, but we are also the first generation with its consequences.”

The goal of the COP24 climate talks, which will last for two weeks, is to decide how the goals of the Paris Agreement will be translated into a series of rules for how countries will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

As Thunberg argued on Monday, the world needs new rules if we’re going to have any hope of meeting the urgent challenge of climate change.

“Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every single day,” she said. “There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground. So we can’t save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed.”

“So, we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future,” she concluded. “They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not.”