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Greta Thunberg addressing the United Nations. Photo/Getty Images

Bill Ralston: Give Greta Thunberg the Nobel Peace Prize

The teenage climate activist is right to hector her elders for wilful neglect of the planet.

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish student who is leading a worldwide teenage revolution and hectoring old fogeys like me about the state in which we have left the planet, is a force of nature. It helps that she has right on her side.

Thunberg thundered her criticism at the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit on September 23 as millions around the world watched and flinched at having the truth hurled at them. When I was her age, my generation inherited a planet that had recently been torn apart by the worst war ever in which many millions had died. Worse, leading nations around the globe were busy detonating dozens of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere in testing programmes as they got ready for Armageddon.

My generation eventually got that monster under control or, at least, muzzled for the moment. Thunberg’s generation is now coming into a world that faces an even worse threat as the planet literally consumes itself, and governments, organisations and individuals lethargically respond to the menace.


I’ve been reading Australian scientist and climate activist Tim Flannery’s Europe: A Natural History, which traces the natural evolution of that continent from prehistory to the present. He casually mentions, in a section about ice ages, that climate change is occurring at 30 times the rate of any previous variance in the world’s weather. As an astronaut might say, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Thunberg is perfectly right to accuse her elders of spectacularly failing and continuing to do so. She has been under concerted attack from the right, including US President Donald Trump, who came off second best after tweeting sarcastically about her as “a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future”.

Most of the criticism of Thunberg is paranoid and patronising, hinting darkly at evil forces that must be manipulating her. In fact, it seems she has no one but her parents and a legion of young fans behind her.

Her frustration is understandable. Trump’s America refuses to acknowledge the catastrophic effect climate change is having on the planet. There is too much profit for the US in ignoring the damage it is doing.


Russia and China are no better as they struggle to keep pace with America’s economic growth. It should be noted, however, that China has belatedly come to realise that it needs greater environmental controls, mainly because large numbers of its population are finding it increasingly difficult to breathe because of air pollution in their cities.

New Zealand isn’t exactly rushing into the breach on climate change. Climate Change Minister and Greens co-leader James Shaw has had a Zero Carbon Bill, setting a target of zero emissions by 2050, under consideration for the past couple of years. But it has become bogged down by the question of whether to include methane emissions. Limiting methane would mean a big blow to the dairy industry, whose herds of cows have a burping problem. Of course, not cutting back on methane emissions could also mean our children and grandchildren no longer have a planet they can live on.

Later this month, the Nobel Peace Prize will be announced. At the risk of sounding slightly disloyal, as one of our own is also a nominee for the award, I hope Thunberg gets the honour. She has massively amplified the message that our leaders need to take urgent action or we face a shattering cataclysm, not just in Thunberg’s lifetime but in our own.

This article was first published in the October 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.