Greta Thunberg indicted heads of state at the UN Climate Action Summit on Monday. | Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Thunberg told the UN exactly what it needs to hear.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Youth climate activist Greta Thunberg raged at world leaders at the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Monday, an audience that briefly included President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

“You have stolen my dreams, my childhood, with your empty words,” Thunberg, the 16-year-old powerhouse activist from Sweden, said. “We are the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about are your fairy tales of money and eternal economic growth.” (Read the full text of her speech here.)

The summit was convened by UN Secretary-General António Guterres to push countries to go beyond their tepid climate change goals and do more to limit global warming. And it follows on the heels of a massive international youth-led climate strike on Friday — one of the largest environmental protests ever — that Thunberg organized with young people around the world.

Before the packed room of presidents, prime ministers, governors, and mayors, Thunberg was livid. “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be in school on the other side of the ocean,” she said. “How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just business as usual and some technical solutions?

“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. How dare you!”

She was also critical of the limited ambitions being presented at the summit, arguing that none of the plans being presented by countries are in line with the level of reduction necessary to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the more ambitious target from the Paris climate agreement. Countries like Germany have proposed reducing its reliance on coal, deploying more renewable energy, and financing adaptation to warming. But Thunberg said they don’t move the needle far enough fast enough.

Guterres, in his remarks, was also blunt. “My generation has failed in its responsibility to protect the planet,” he said. “The climate crisis is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win.”

French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged in his speech after Thunberg’s at the summit the frustration she and other activists are expressing. “I was very struck by the emotion in the room,” Macron said. “I think they’ve identified an absolute urgency that we have to respond to here.”

Greta’s rhetoric of “intergenerational shame” is effective because it taps the growing concern that the window to limit climate change is closing, and adults in charge are looking away. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported last year that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius this century would require the world to halve emissions by as soon as 2030.

But global emissions are still rising. At the climate summit, countries are being asked for more ambitious commitments to limit warming even though many are not meeting their previous obligations, and some are pulling back.

In the coming days and months, we’ll find out just how much influence Thunberg can yield. But Monday was a reminder of just how formidable, and emotionally on-point, she can be at speaking truth to power.

Author: Umair Irfan

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