The documentary “I Am Greta,” about Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, opens in Japan later this month, about a year after it was released in theaters and on streaming services throughout much of the rest of the world.
Given that the time period covered by the movie starts with Thunberg’s solo school strike in Stockholm in August 2018 to draw attention to the climate crisis and concludes with her withering denunciation of world leaders at the U.N. Climate Action Summit in September 2019 for their continued inaction, the movie feels dated. The effects of climate change in the past year alone have been acute and devastating, not to mention that Thunberg was 15 when director Nathan Grossman started following her and she’s now 18. That’s a huge, vital chunk of time in any young person’s life.
However, nothing much has changed in those three years in terms of the world’s response to the climate crisis, as pointed out by Thunberg herself during her most recent appearance in the news cycle, when she again blasted world leaders, this time at the Youth4Climate summit in Milan on Sept. 28, for their lack of concrete action in addressing the problem, saying that all they offer is “blah blah blah” — meaningless phrases to placate those who are justifiably scared for their futures in a world that’s becoming less amenable to human life.
Thunberg understands the power she holds as a teenager over the imaginations of other young people. Those who’ve brought the world to a state of catastrophe will all be dead soon, so they only care about maintaining the economic status quo. By the time Thunberg’s generation is old enough to wield power, the world will be too far gone to save.
“Our hopes and dreams drown in their empty words and promises,” she said about promises to “Build Back Better” and buzzwords like “green economy.”
Another platitude she doesn’t trust is “net zero emissions by 2050,” the cornerstone of Yoshihide Suga’s environmental plan after he became Japan’s prime minister a year ago. At the time, the media was impressed, since Japan had until then offered only vague assurances that it would do its part in cutting carbon dioxide emissions, a major source of global warming. To Thunberg, though, such pronouncements mean nothing until they are translated into real action, so the question now is whether Suga’s successor, Fumio Kishida, will start to realize these goals.
According to a Sept. 29 article in the Mainichi Shimbun, Kishida won’t veer from the path set out by Suga, and the piece points out that when Kishida was foreign minister he supported the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals and helped ratify the Paris Agreement on CO2 emissions. He met “more than 40 times” with his U.S. counterpart at the time, John Kerry, who is now U.S. President Joe Biden’s climate change envoy. According to an environment ministry bureaucrat interviewed by the Mainichi, these events mean that Kishida understands the importance of climate change “on an international level.” The issue now is implementing such measures over the next “five to 10 years,” says another bureaucrat, who is encouraged because Kishida properly listens to the opinions of bureaucrats.
Such perceived intentions don’t always translate into meaningful action, but one Mika Obayashi, director of the Renewable Energy Institute, professes faith in the government, telling the Mainichi that carbon neutrality is now Suga’s “legacy,” so there’s no turning back. It’s as if a former prime minister’s concern about his place in history is enough to guarantee that CO2 emissions will be eliminated by 2050.
Can Thunberg count on Japan’s young people to keep the pressure on? A program on Tokyo MXTV hosted by former NHK reporter Jun Hori that aired Aug. 6 featured representatives of “Generation Z” confronting then-Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi about what the government is doing to reduce greenhouse gases. In July, the government proposed a bill to reduce household CO2 emissions by 66% by 2030, and during the debate Koizumi explained a program to get schools to install solar panels. When Hori asked Koizumi when such programs will actually be implemented Koizumi’s answer lacked specifics.
On Sept. 24, during the campaign for ruling Liberal Democratic Party president, the candidates were questioned by high school students, one of whom said she was worried that if nothing is done her generation might actually die from the effects of climate change. Kishida responded by saying that individual actions play a significant role in reducing emissions, such as switching to energy-saving LED light bulbs and showering instead of taking baths. In reviewing the exchange, journalist Rei Shiba pointed out that Kishida’s response was blasted by other young people on Twitter who said that he didn’t act as if climate change were a serious problem. Shiba added that Kishida’s comment conveyed ideas that are at least 10 years old.
More significantly, the solutions offered by Koizumi and Kishida place the burden of emission reduction on the public. One of the sub-themes of “I Am Greta” is Thunberg’s own sustainable lifestyle. She is a vegan with ascetic consumption habits who eschews air travel. Even when she went from Europe to New York to speak at the U.N., she crossed the Atlantic in a sailboat. It was a very uncomfortable journey, but she did it because she knows that all she has to press her point is her image of total dedication to the cause.
At the same time she understands that such individual actions are insufficient. Only concerted global action will make a difference at this point, and that can only be accomplished by governments. In Japan, that means moving away from fossil fuels for generating electricity, which accounts for more than 80% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
During a discussion on the web talk show Videonews.com in August, award-winning environmental activist Kimiko Hirata said that while Suga’s targets were ambitious, nothing realistic had been done so far to achieve them. In fact, some in the government were still talking about new construction of thermal power plants using coal. The media might be impressed by the government’s promises, but Thunberg would demand receipts.
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