Greta Thunberg’s September 23rd speech at the UN on climate change was a brilliant lesson both on the potential power of bringing attention to moral bankruptcy of arguments made by opponents of needed climate change policies, as well as a model for how to make moral and ethical arguments critical of reasons offered in opposition to climate policies. Thunberg’s speech successfully demonstrated the power of moral arguments critical of claims made by opponents of climate change policies for two reasons: first, because of her speech’s rhetorical excellence, and second for Thunberg’s selection of facts about climate change which supported the speech’s main thesis that governments’ failures to act to reduce the threat of climate change are morally repugnant.
A. The Speech’s Rhetorical Excellence
Aristotle claimed in his writing on rhetoric that speakers are effective in persuading their listeners if the speaker exhibits three qualities: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.
- Ethos. Speakers exhibit ethos if they convince listeners that the speaker is motivated by what is right or wrong, not by self-interest. Greta Thunberg effectively communicated by her choice of words, rhythm, and emotions that she was motivated by the moral indefensibility of governments that have refused to do what is necessary to avoid climate change harms given the facts she stated in support of this conclusion.
- Pathos. Effective speakers demonstrate some passion about the injustice that is motivating him or her. Greta Thunberg’s display of anger was palpable and supported by the facts she relied upon.
- Logos. In an effective speech, the speaker’s claims and conclusions are clear and logical. The facts which motivated and supported the premise of her speech, namely that governments’ responses to climate change are morally repugnant, were clearly stated.
B. The Speech’s Foundational Facts
The facts the speech relied upon to support the claim that governments’ responses to climate change are morally indefensible were very persuasive. The speech made the following claims about governments’ inadequate response to climate change:
1, You have stolen my dreams. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.
2. The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50 % chance of staying below 1.5 degrees [Celsius], and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.
3. 50 % may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.
4. “So a 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us — we who have to live with the consequences.
5. “To have a 67% chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees global temperature rise – the best odds given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. – the world had 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit back on Jan. 1st, 2018. Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatons.
6. How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just ‘business as usual’ and some technical solutions? With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than 8 1/2 years.
7. “There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.
She then invited listeners to reflect on the moral significance of these facts by repeating the words “How dare you” four times after stating the facts.
The facts that Greta Thunberg relied on to support her conclusion that governments’ inadequate responses to climate change are morally indefensible effectively supported this conclusion.
There are many other facts that proponents of climate change policies could also rely on to support the conclusion that governments’ inadequate responses to climate change are morally indefensible. For instance proponents of climate change policies could bring attention to the following facts which also support the conclusion that governments’ inadequate responses to climate change are morally indefensible:
- The staggering magnitude of percent reductions in GHG emissions needed to achieve any warming limit goal such as 1.5 C or 2.0 C become greater the longer governments wait to respond because current emissions are rapidly consuming any carbon budget that the world must live within to achieve any warming limit goal.
- The IPCC carbon budgets on which the quantity of reductions needed to achieve any warming limit goal have been calculated through the use of climate models which have ignored some of the positive feedbacks such as methane emissions from melting permafrost or rapid breakup of Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, both of which are already starting to happen.
- The percentage reductions needed to achieve any warming limit goal articulated by IPCC are for the entire world and ignore the legal, practical, and ethical obligations of developed countries to go faster than poor developed countries under the concept of “equity.”
- Although skepticism in science is necessary for science to develop, sociologists have documented that fossil fuel companies have funded disinformation about climate science to undermine public confidence in the conclusions of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world. See Why Climate Science Disinformation is So Ethically Abhorrent
This site has often commented negatively on the propensity of many proponents of climate change policies to justify climate action largely by making claims that simply counter the factual arguments of opponents of climate change such as that climate change policies are unjustified because they will impose unacceptable costs on the economy, to which most proponents of climate policies often respond by claiming that policies will create new jobs. Such responses allow opponents of climate change to frame the problem in a way that ignores the moral problems with their arguments. Philosophers call this type of reasoning, which is reasoning exclusively based on facts that ignores ethical and justice issues “instrumental reasoning’ and sociologists have warned for over a decade that economically powerful entities would accomplish their goals by tricking citizens to limit their arguments about public policy to instrumental reasons. The mainstream media, at least in the United States, almost never brings attention when the fossil fuel industry and other opponents of climate policy make factual economic or scientific uncertainty arguments against climate policies to the strong ethical arguments that can be made in response to these claims.
The facts relied upon by Greta Thunberg and those above could help citizens understand the moral indefensibility of governments’ inadequate responses to climate change. Armed with such facts and learning from Greta Thunberg’s excellent rhetorical techniques could make climate change activists more effective in getting governments to make the extraordinary urgent hard-to-imagine reductions in GHG emissions needed to prevent climate catastrophe.
Sociologists also claim that the most successful social movements are energized by a strong sense of unfairness or injustice of the status quo. For this reason, although appeals to the self-interest of citizens based upon identifying the harms from climate change that they will experience should continue, such an appeal to self-interest alone does not justify ignoring the strong moral problems with the arguments of those who oppose climate change policies. In fact, only responding to the factual scientific and economic arguments of climate change policy opponents by making counter “factual” economic and scientific claims has the ironic effect of justifying the notion that these instrumental reasons for opposing climate change policies are ethically legitimate. In addition, as we have explained in the recent website entry UNESCO Examines the Urgency of and Strategy for Getting Traction for Ethical Guidance in Climate Change Policy Formation at Bangkok Program.there is no hope of averting catastrophic climate impacts unless governments comply with their ethical obligations under the UNFCCC. Moreover. not raising ethical problems with the arguments of those opposing climate change policies is a practical mistake because most arguments made by opponents of climate policies fail to survive minimum ethical scrutiny. They usually violate non-controversial, widely agreed-upon ethical principles such as human rights obligations, the “no-harm” principle of customary international law, or the “precautionary principle” expressly agreed to by all nations in the 1992 UNFCCC among many other ethical principles.
For these reasons, Greta Thunberg’s UN speech should be honored and used as an inspiration by climate activists around the world while encouraging the media to cover the ethical issues raised by climate change formation controversies.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University Commonwealth Law School