Painting over Greta

It is incredible that Greta Thunberg’s fight for our climate began with a solitary school strike outside the Swedish Parliament in August 2018. And now, that singular act of protest by a fifteen-year-old has spread – involving millions of students world-wide. Currently in British Columbia, she recently led a climate strike outside the Alberta Legislature in the province’s capital city of Edmonton. Not far from the Legislature on a section of a downtown “free graffiti wall” Greta’s portrait was admiringly painted by a local artist. Predictably, the mural was quickly defaced with a pro-oil message. The vandal, captured on camera, says, “This is Alberta. This is oil country. My father has worked in the oil industry. We don’t need foreigners coming in and telling us how to run our business, support our families, put food on our tables. [Thunberg] is a child who is, “doing what she’s told.”

Child or no child, with handlers or without handlers – Greta is globally recognized as an instigator of change. Unfortunately, young activists like her are fighting a two-prong battle. The first battle is with a “populist conservatism” that mindlessly cherishes tradition and is usually about calculating profits. Leading this battle in Alberta is Premier Jason Kinney who has committed $30-million to a “war room”. This war room will be tasked to flush-out and counter what his United Conservative government is calling “foreign interests” that support activists who spread lies about the province’s oil and gas industry.

The second battle Greta is facing is far more insidious. This battle is with a “liberalism” that pays lip-service to progressive values but, in reality, does nothing but pander to anyone eligible to vote. Enter Justin Trudeau. On one hand the Prime minister vigorously marched with Greta in Montreal but, on the other hand, his Liberal Party Cabinet endorsed the use government resources to buy the Trans Mountain oil pipeline for $4.5 billion. Elizabeth May, the leader for the Green Party, responded to this by saying, “If you’re serious about fighting climate change, you invest public funds in renewable energy. You don’t invest them in a bitumen pipeline.”

Children-activiststap into our collective desires to enact transformational change. However, activism is meaningless unless there is the political will to leverage civic engagement into policy change. Greta has been adamant we need to listen to the science and adhere to regulatory practices. Sadly, the only thing Greta has provided is a platform for politicians to conceptualize the seriousness of it all. Politicians can now publicly agree with Greta – showing their constituents they are in sync with this popular movement. Privately, these same politicians ignore climate change experts who, for years, having been showing them dire empirical data. For instance, many studies have found people to be unaware of how their flying habits contributes to climate change. Aviation is a fossil fuel industry, one which guzzles an unbelievable 5-million barrels of oil daily. That fuel currently contributes around 2.5% to our total carbon emissions. And yet, our political leaders hide their complicity – unwilling to tell voters that flying is kept artificially cheap and was given “special status” and excluded from the Kyoto and Paris climate change agreements.

Unlikely compatriots, but the stories of Greta and Malala Yousafzai share something in common. Malala, at the age of 14, was shot by the Taliban for promoting literacy in Pakistan. Following recovery, her remarkable story was told and she won a Nobel Prize. Pakistani politicians promised to make education a national priority. Seven years later, Pakistan still has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world.Advocates for change who challenge Pakistan’s conservative society often face vicious opposition. Like in Canada, conservatives represent voters and are pandered to during election time. So, unless there is a convergence in our collective thinking – such as agreeing to educate women in Pakistan or reducing our carbon footprint we will be always be faced with opposing views and politicians who cater to these ideologies.

The Edmonton mural painter told the media he was inspired by Greta and was not bothered by the sprayed over pro-oil statement. “Nothing lasts forever — one of my favourite things about that wall is that anyone is allowed to express themselves there, so I’m not upset at all… if anyone is upset about what was painted over the portrait, they can just paint back over it, it’s not a big deal at all.”Magnanimous words, democratically spoken – but hopefully there comes a time when there is no “painting over” Greta because we know there should be no debate on certainties like educating young girls or climate change.

Shahid Mahmood is an urban planner and editorial cartoonist. He worked on the historic revitalization of Bucharest and the comprehensive master plans for Makkah and Madinah. Shahid’s cartoons have appeared in numerous International publications including the Guardian and Courrier International.  Shahid is internationally syndicated with the New York Times Press Syndicate; has work archived at the Museum of Contemporary History in Paris; and was placed on the US Government’s No-fly List for his critical insight.