WASHINGTON — The first time climate activist Greta Thunberg testified on Capitol Hill, in 2019, it was after she’d traversed the Atlantic Ocean in a solar-powered boat. Her appearance before Congress on Thursday was somewhat less dramatic, with the teenage Swedish climate activist materializing in Washington via videoconference from a sunny room in Stockholm.
“We have to end fossil fuel subsidies, stop new exploration and extraction, completely divest from fossil fuels and keep the carbon in the ground,” Thunberg said. She was speaking at a House Oversight Committee subcommittee hearing on subsidies to fossil fuel industries, which come in the form of tax breaks that amount to $15 billion per year from the federal government, as well as billions of dollars in other incentives. “I don’t believe for a second that you will actually do this,” she said.
President Biden’s tax plan proposes to eliminate such subsidies, but Democrats from states where energy extraction remains a key industry could prove an obstacle to doing so. A member of Congress closely tied to the progressive movement said that environmentalists consider the subsidies a key test of Biden’s commitment.
“He’ll lose them if [he] doesn’t push,” the lawmaker said, speaking to Yahoo News on the condition of anonymity.
Thunberg’s appearance amounted to a nudge, and not an especially gentle one at that. Casting the issue of climate change as a generational battle, she flatly told the American lawmakers gathered digitally before her that today’s youth would not forgive denialism and inaction. “You get away with it now,” the 18-year-old activist said, “but sooner or later, people are going to realize what you have been doing all this time. That’s inevitable.”
Her message has remained consistent, but in the past year it has arguably become more urgent, with the coronavirus pandemic offering a stark reminder that human civilization is both more tenuous and more interconnected than pre-pandemic life may have suggested. Climate activists like Thunberg also hope that the same politicians who have celebrated epidemiologists and virologists in recent months will finally heed the warnings of climate experts too.
Climate scientists believe that about a decade remains before the effects of climate change — droughts, wildfires, floods — become irreversible. “You still have time to do the right thing and to save your legacies,” Thunberg said, “but that window of time is not going to last for long.”
Republicans have generally tried to shift the blame for carbon emissions to large polluters like China and India, a tactic the oversight subcommittee’s ranking GOP member, Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., tried with Thunberg on Thursday, expressing concern that Biden’s climate proposals did not include “retribution” for those nations.
Thunberg did not take the bait, arguing that it was incumbent on the world’s premier superpower to lead the way. “If the U.S., for example — which is the biggest emitter in history — won’t take action, then how can we expect other countries to do that?” she wondered. The Biden administration appears to be making the same calculation, having rejoined the Paris climate accord, which President Donald Trump left in 2017.
The hearing was convened by Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., an emerging progressive leader in the House, and was intended to examine government subsidies to corporations that extract fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas. The date of the hearing was symbolic, coming on Earth Day and coinciding with a White House global summit on the climate crisis that had the Biden administration trying to retake leadership of the issue after four years during which Trump insistently downplayed the dangers of a rapidly warming planet.
In his opening remarks, Norman praised the environmental record of the Trump administration, which environmentalists themselves have widely derided for its diminished oversight of polluting industries and the silencing of scientists. “My colleagues on the left have regrettably resorted to fear tactics to scare people into action,” Norman charged.
The warnings, however, no longer come from Democrats alone. Scientists, policymakers and military analysts increasingly believe that climate change could lead to destabilizing events like mass migrations, civil wars and other forms of unrest.
“As long as we are not really treating this crisis like a crisis, of course,” Thunberg said, “people won’t understand that we are facing an emergency.”
She also warned: “We, the young people, are the ones who are going to write about you in the history books. … So my advice for you is to choose wisely.”
Elaborating on her earlier words, she said that politicians’ lack of will to act decisively was rooted in a broader public inattention to the threat of climate change.
“If people in general are not demanding real climate action, then, of course, no real changes will be achieved,” Thunberg concluded.