Greta Thunberg is earning quite a reputation on a global scale. In one of her early addresses in Sweden, she described herself – in admirably perfect English – as having Asperger’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder and selective mutism. She went on to say that selective mutism meant that she only spoke when she thought she had something important to say – and that was why she needed to speak out now.
It would certainly seem that the Lord has combined what might otherwise appear to be three significant disabilities in one person so as to form a unique and gifted person who is speaking loudly and convincingly on behalf of a generation of young people.
There are those who criticised her choice of words and her tone as she spoke at the United Nations in September, but the impact was undeniable, as was the truth of what she is claiming, though some still doggedly deny that any problem even exists.
We are gradually understanding more and more about the science of climate change and its accelerating damage to our planet. While we may not have had reason to think of the consequences for a century or two, the negative effects of industrialisation and consumerism have been clear for at least 30 years. They have been overlooked or conveniently ignored by governments, industry and people in general.
We can now measure, with frightening accuracy, the likely consequences of each degree of global warning. Yet we are doing almost nothing even to begin to repair the damage. The past five years have been the hottest on record for our planet. Far from beginning to repair the damage, we are still actually increasing it. Australian, Californian and Amazonian fires in the last 12 months have been matched by severe droughts and floods, with disturbing estimates about the increasing melting of the ice caps and the loss of alpine glaciers.
We even seem to be turning a blind eye to the climate extremes which are occurring here in Britain, with record temperatures mixed with record rainfalls and the disruption of our seasonal cycle with its impact on essential farming practices.
No, Greta speaks for her generation and her aspergic, obsessive-compulsive selective mutism is her effective weapon, which she employs with increasing and admirable skill. I know nothing of anything Greta might have said about her own religious beliefs, but she seems to speak most eloquently of all that our recent popes have been saying – a teaching that is most accessibly expressed in Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’. She reflects the environmental and agricultural imagery that is so evident throughout the Scriptures and speaks from the foundation that we would share in our Catholic faith: that God created a world of infinite variety and fragile balance and left us to maintain its health and vitality, as our common home.
Greta is not a Catholic, but she certainly demonstrates a sensitivity for the glory of creation that is essential fabric for our own Catholic belief – a belief of which we all need to be reminding ourselves with increasing urgency.
I wonder what Greta and Pope Francis talked about when they met in Rome last April. I can only conclude in my own mind that they were completely at one about caring for our common home and all that needs to be done to achieve that end.
Amid all the challenges and fears concerning our environment, I believe that we have a great opportunity for evangelisation and renewal. The Catholic Church is certainly making progress in its understanding of, and reaction to, climate change. We believe that every person is called to take practical action and be personally involved in combating the damage being done. If we speak out loudly and clearly about our priorities, we are sure to appeal to young people throughout the world who are so aware of what needs to be done. We will demonstrate our seriousness about the care for our common home and the wellbeing of all our brothers and sisters. Will Greta and the millions of young people for whom she speaks join with us?
Learning to take proper care of our planet and recognising our responsibilities to our global family is going to take a revolution in the way we live. But the important thing is that we all have a part to play. We cannot leave it to governments and industry. It is important that each and every one of us without exception changes our own everyday routines in order to safeguard the environment. Thank you, Greta, for helping us to become more aware of this aspect of the “missionary discipleship” of our Church.
The Rt Rev John Arnold is the Bishop of Salford
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