Whatever one thinks of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, she is quite the orator. The 16-year-old schoolgirl has clearly mastered the art of expressing scorn and hatred, and fear for the future. But there is good reason for us to be frightened of her.

Certainly our children, we are told, are terrified. They seem to believe that their generation is doomed by what will soon be irreversible climate change. Their elders, they say, will die of old age. They will die of climate change.

Last week a woman said her child had come home from school with the news that by 2020 'we' will all be under water. Living, as she and her child did, in Auckland's Avondale, she doubted that, even under the worst case scenario, but her child's fear was real.

We too should be frightened, of Greta Thunberg and the tsunami of fear that she is fuelling, as expressed again last week by young, and not so young, protesters claiming that their government is not doing enough to protect future generations from drowning, frying or both. They are seemingly unaware of what is being done in this country to reduce our infinitesimal contribution to so-called global warming emissions, and what is planned, and quite prepared to see the economy upon which they, all of us, depend, ruined to the point where we will return to the Stone Age.

Advertisement

Young people are supposed to be passionate about the causes of their time. Passion is the foundation for social evolution, and youngsters who can't get excited about the perceived ills of the world they have been born into will never contribute meaningfully to change when they are older.

But this generation is far from unique, either in expressing outrage and demanding change or in fearing what the future might bring.

For their parents and grandparents the big issue was the potential for nuclear war, a very real danger that, far from the incremental changes created by weather patterns, threatened instant obliteration. That didn't happen, but experts have long been coming up with whacky predictions that have never come to pass.

It's not that long ago that children were being told to brace themselves for an ice age. The experts got that wrong. They were told to prepare for a paperless society — wrong, that cell phones would give them cancer — wrong, that microwave ovens were the deadliest kitchen appliance ever invented — wrong, and that the kids of the 1960s would need superb recreational skills because the working week was about to shrink beyond their parents' imaginings. Many of those who are gainfully employed today would no doubt welcome a 40-hour working week.

Anyone remember Y2K? Bird flu?

The parents and grandparents of today's children protested against the Vietnam War, and against sending an All Black team to South Africa without Māori, or with Māori under the promise that they would be treated in South Africa as 'honorary whites.' And they railed, somewhat selectively, against apartheid generally.

The difference now is that climate change is perceived as a threat to human existence, rather more attention-focusing than an unpopular war or a particular country's attitude towards human rights. But these protests are not like they used to be. Where protesting was once an adult occupation, we are now seeing the politicisation of children on a grand scale, based upon one side of a complex issue, and an even more complex political and social response. We are seeing children having their wits scared out of them, possibly because those who are frightening them genuinely believe that the end is nigh, but in some cases at least in the promotion of very clear political and social agendas.

One of the leading lights of the Strike 4 Climate protests candidly confessed last week that as far she was concerned her campaign had less to do with the impact of climate change than about global social and economic equity. Machiavelli lives.

Advertisement

We should also be concerned by the fact that there is increasingly little room to actually discuss what is happening and what we can do about it. On Friday we were invited to 'Stop denying the Earth is dying,' but the message behind that catchy if grossly exaggerated isn't original. In the 1920s the writer's mother and other Epsom Girls' Grammar students spent a night on Auckland's One Tree Hill, having no doubt that the world was going to end at some point before dawn and determined to get a good view of it.

As it turned out, to quote Peter Cook, it wasn't quite the conflagration they had been banking on, and they all trooped back to school for breakfast.

The greatest danger now is politicians' propensity for responding to public displays of passion. They can't help themselves. Already the Green Party wants the voting age to be reduced to 16, a move that would deliver a huge swathe of passionate young voters to the Green cause.

Such political opportunism does not inspire faith in the ability of those who we elect to govern us to ensure than decisions aimed at reducing emissions, and supposedly stalling the rate at which the planet is reportedly warming, not as part of a naturally occurring cycle that is as old as the planet itself but because of what we are doing to it, are made dispassionately and rationally, as opposed to being based on volume.

That the climate change debate, if there actually is one, is becoming increasingly one-sided inasmuch as anyone who doesn't buy the entire 'Earth is dying' view tends to be branded a denier, or worse, was nicely illustrated by radio host Amanda Gillies last week, when she chided her AM Show co-host Duncan Garner, who was apparently less than impressed with Greta Thunberg: "You know how I feel about this and I don't think we're winning at all by mocking her, especially in Mental Health Week." What on Earth is that supposed to mean? That Greta Thunberg must not be challenged?

Let it be said that we can and should take much better care of our environment. That includes young protesters who travel in combustion engine cars, wear clothes, drink milk, eat meat, use plastic, use lithium batteries, wear woollen socks, take linen bags to the supermarket. As New Zealanders we can and no doubt should reduce chemical emissions. But when it comes to limiting anthropogenic climate change, if that's what we're seeing, there is nothing we can do beyond making a token gesture. If mankind is killing the planet, it isn't us who are doing it.

Take your protests to the US, China, India, Eastern Europe. Take your plastic demands to Asia, which produces 90 per cent of the plastic in the oceans. And demand that the government ban tourism. At least acknowledge the double standard represented by the sustained attack we are seeing on pastoral farming and efforts to increase the numbers of people who fly to this country, at significant cost in terms of emissions, to look at what nature has given us and which they are helping to destroy.

And given the emissions produced by flying, one assumes these protesters will not be planning what their parents and grandparents referred to as the big OE.