Taking a courageous stand on a fundamental principle that has global implications is challenging for most people, let alone a 15-year-old girl. These past two weeks during the United Nations’ Annual Climate Change Conference, many international media outlets became aware of the story of one-such teen.
Among the thousands attending the conference was Greta Thunberg, of Sweden, who with quiet boldness challenged the adult delegates to pivot, to change the “game”, to act with the necessary urgency required to address global warming.
Greta’s story resonates with that of another 15-year-old, Claudette Colvin, who took a courageously game-changing stand more than 60 years ago in Montgomery, Alabama.
Greta had become curious about the implications of climate change over the past few years and made a serious personal study of it.
Her growing understanding of its grave impact on the planet led to her experiencing a personal health challenge. When she recovered, with the support of her parents, she decided to stage a school strike on her own in late August.
She began her one-person sit-in outside of her country’s Parliament, demanding that the leaders address the crisis of climate change with appropriate urgency.
After two weeks of a daily strike, she returned to school and began striking every Friday. Her “Strike Friday” campaign gained student support in various parts of the globe.
Greta’s family have joined her by limiting their diet to vegan, in order to reduce their ‘carbon footprint’.
Her mother — a renowned Swedish Opera singer — has decided to abandon her lucrative career; because of the air-miles required for the concert circuit.
Her father drove her to the Conference in Poland and the UN Secretary General requested a private consultation with them. Greta was also invited to address a plenary session and the youngster offered a brief presentation, calling for urgent action.
Greta’s motivation is complex. In part, she is accepting the baton of another person, who at the same age took a courageous stand generations ago.
As a high school student, Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus on March 2, 1955, in Montgomery.
This was nine months before the renowned and parallel stand taken by Rosa Parks.
However, when community activists in Montgomery were totally surprised by Colvin’s action, the circumstances did not lead to a major campaign on segregation.
However, this teen’s ground-breaking stand, in a city impacted by the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, proved foundational for Parks’s action, sparking the famous Bus Boycott in December 1955.
While Colvin is not so renowned, she was one of the few volunteers whom civil rights lawyer Fred Grey could get to serve as witnesses in a series of court cases during the boycott. These legal battles led to that historic Supreme Court ruling in 1956 banning segregation on public buses.
This 15-year-old’s courage was key in launching the long campaign for a fundamental change in one country, but the Civil Rights Movement has become an icon for transformation across the globe.
Both teens gained key support, reinforcing their bold actions. Colvin received family support, credited her social studies teacher, and benefited as a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People’s youth council, led by Parks.
Greta’s family have been supportive as she continues to learn about her great-grandfather’s pioneering work on the science of climate change.
The UN Conference on Climate Change was able to reach an agreement of the nearly 200 countries involved late on Saturday.
While there was satisfaction that this massive effort reached consensus on process, there remains concern regarding the need for urgency.
Greta Thunberg has taken up the baton from Claudette Colvin.
In her address at the UN conference, Greta summed up the concerns of many: “We are facing an existential threat ... the biggest crisis that humanity has ever faced. First we have to realise this and then [act] as fast as possible.”
Greta is committed to continue her “Friday Strike” until her country takes urgent action, and the teen invites young and old worldwide to join in taking the urgent action that circumstances require.
• Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda