Greta Thunberg – how can she be so sure?

Greta Thunberg pronounces her own name in Swedish in a way that sounds like “Greet-a Toom-bury.” She doesn’t seem to mind that English speakers pronounce it differently. She has more important things on her mind.

She’s not your average teenager. According to her mother Greta was bullied when she was younger. Once, in school, her class was shown a documentary about plastics in the ocean. The story is told as if it were her origin story. Greta found it difficult to reconcile the terrible scenes of the documentary with the fact that everyone around her was moving on with their daily lives. She was deeply affected. She couldn’t understand why others were not.

Whether it was that one incident, she was affected enough that she developed an eating disorder. It made her parents frantic and caused her to lose 10 kilograms in a couple of months – that’s 22 pounds. This from the frame of an already small young teenager. Her parents were frantic but of course so was Greta; frantic enough that she also began to refuse to speak. It’s a striking contrast to her eloquence since August 20, 2018 when she took her angst in both hands and began her Skolstrejk för Klimatet at age 15.

According to her mother Greta has something like a photographic memory and retains reams of facts and figures. Greta herself has admitted to being a nerd who reads lots about science and nature and climate change.

During the summer of 2018 Greta told her parents she was going to do her school strike for climate. They were worried. She’d had weeks when she could hardly leave the familiarity of home; times when she couldn’t eat and wouldn’t talk. How might she fare alone attracting the attention of strangers on the sidewalk? But it seems that having a goal, a project, galvanized her. She prepared handout materials. She knew what she would say. A few days in advance she scoped out the location where she’d sit. On the first day of school her father hung back, following her as they rode their bikes to the Swedish parliament where she started her strike.

Greta’s parents were public figures in Sweden – in Europe – both in the entertainment business. A week before Greta’s strike a filmmaker had phoned Greta’s father to discuss a film script. During the conversation Greta’s plan had been mentioned. When Greta sat down to strike she tweeted a picture of herself with her sign. It was retweeted by a few musicians and a meteorologist. That filmmaker arrived with cameras. And so it began.

Greta’s dad had been anxious. On that first day he’d stayed nearby, but out of the way. He got a link to her first interview and read it. He re-read it. He was floored. His almost non-verbal daughter had given the best interview on the climate that he’d ever read. In Greta’s case that’s not the hype of a proud dad, she’s simply an excellent communicator.

On that first morning Greta was told by two passing ladies that she should be in school. Since then she’s been the subject of appalling accusations and abusive messaging. Greta’s mother has said of Greta’s school days of bullying “Being bullied is terrible. But being bullied without understanding that you’re being bullied – that’s worse.” One of Greta’s superpowers seems to be her ability to let abuse roll off her back – though don’t kid yourself, it never all rolls off.

The phenomenon that is Greta Thunberg might not have happened if she hadn’t had Asperger’s, if she hadn’t had parents with a public profile, if she’d not been able to absorb and retain facts so well, and if she’d not been so eloquent. All of the boxes had to have been ticked, seemingly.

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She reads a lot and speaks truth. She often warns her listeners not to take her word for it but to listen to the scientists. She invokes the authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, even quoting chapter references when critics misunderstand truths as being merely her opinions. In April 2019 in a speech to the European Parliament she said the threats of climate change “are not opinions or wild guesses. These predictions are backed up by scientific facts, concluded by all nations through the IPCC.”

So it’s evident she knows what’s behind the IPCC, the preeminent forum where scientists establish consensus on the facts. The process the IPCC uses to achieve world consensus is extraordinary and the results achieved are irrefutable. The IPCC has been refining and expanding its consensus for more than 30 years.

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Greta Thunberg has confidence in the findings of the IPCC and you should too. Her confidence comes from her understanding that when the IPCC releases a report it represents a true consensus of the world’s scientists and has the official agreement also of virtually every nation on earth.

To come to this consensus the IPCC relies on volunteers from among the world’s scientists. These will be the authors of an IPCC report. The authors are chosen from candidates suggested by the IPCC’s 195 member nations – that’s about every government on earth.* And remember, these include countries whose entire economies depend on oil as well as countries likely to be snuffed out beneath rising seas. Not only that, but more than 150 official observer organizations can also make suggestions, and these too represent the full range of interests, including such groups as OPEC and the World Coal Institute, as well as Greenpeace and Environmental Defense.

Once chosen the authors review all that is known about climate change; it’s causes and effects as well as ways to manage it and the problems it causes. They assess and summarize by drawing on studies published in the peer reviewed scientific literature and by calling on other world experts to contribute other information sources that might have been missed. For any given report hundreds of experts are involved, over the history of the IPCC many thousands.

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Once the volunteer IPCC authors have worked out what they think it all means and written down their findings, they then invite all those experts to comment on the draft report. For a big report like the 2014 Fifth Assessment Report this generated more than 140,000 reviewer comments. All these comments have to be taken into account in writing the final report. As if that wasn’t enough, the IPCC brings experts together in plenary meetings where they hammer out line-by-line and word-by-word their agreed-on text. And it isn’t just the scientific experts involved either. As in the choosing of authors industry and environmental groups play a role and government representatives from all those 195 member nations participate throughout. It all ends with accepting the report as representing the world consensus.

So an IPCC report is not only a consensus among the world’s scientists but also an official consensus among the world’s governments. No wonder Greta Thunberg finds them credible.

A button imploring visitors to read the book "Because IPCC" with a background image of a boy reading a graphic novel (actually a Superman comic book).

The book Because IPCC is a short, 33 illustrated pages. It’s upbeat, entertaining story explains the history and science of the IPCC. The scene is 100 years in the future when the world has “solved” climate change and people are looking back, inspired by the dedication, rigor and achievements of the scientists of today.

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* 195 member nations of the IPCC – that’s two countries more than the 193 members of the United Nations – so virtually every nation in the world is represented.