Joyce Fegan: Trump’s Greta jibe calculated to distract all of us

UN secretary general António Guterres’s stark warning about climate change was ignored by the media in favour of the US president’s mocking of the Swedish activist. Our priorities are all wrong.

Joyce Fegan: Trump’s Greta jibe calculated to distract all of us

UN secretary general António Guterres’s stark warning about climate change was ignored by the media in favour of the US president’s mocking of the Swedish activist. Our priorities are all wrong.

Guess which of the following two headlines got more attention: “Every generation that follows will pay an unbearable price”, or “Trump tells Greta Thunberg to chill”?

The first was said on Wednesday by the secretary general of the United Nations, António Guterres.

He was calling on the world’s major economies, America, India and China, to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, in order to halt drastic damage to our climate.

“We must deliver what the scientific community has defined as a must, or we, and every generation that follows, will pay an unbearable price,” he said.

On the same day, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg was announced as Time magazine’s youngest-ever Person of the Year. (She won’t turn 17 until the new year.)

By Thursday, US President Donald Trump was back publicly picking on someone 57 years his junior, such is the threat that an unelected teenager poses to the status quo.

His latest missive was a reply to someone’s else tweet. Seconds later, it had gone viral and was making international headlines.

But to read what Mr Guterres had to say about governments, like Trump’s, failing to cut greenhouse gas emissions, you’d have to scroll several times along a news site or visit something like Euro News.

Trump knows how to capture our attention. He relishes it. Trump is both puppet master of the media and the public.

It’s much easier to bring up Trump’s tweet, to quote it verbatim at the office water cooler or at the dinner table, than it is to recall what Mr Guterres had to say in Madrid.

Trump, for all his failings, is never boring.

But still, the phrase, “unbearable price,” was a hard one to ignore, too, especially for the young children and teenagers who will be the ones still walking the earth at the end of the century, not us adults, and who currently have no right to vote.

COP 25, a title that doesn’t trickle off the tongue like one of Trump’s tweets, refers to the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was held in Madrid from December 2 until yesterday.

As talks at COP 25 got serious, Mr Guterres pulled out the big guns in the hope of pressurising the world’s biggest polluters into action.

“We need to have the big emitters understanding their role is essential, because if the big emitters fail, everything will fail,” he told global leaders.

You’d think such a warning, by someone as informed and respected as Mr Guterres, would command our attention, especially on something as fundamental as the future of our planet.

“We are a very long way behind, but there is still reason to believe we can win this race. On our side, we have the force of science, new models of cooperation, and a rising tide of momentum for change,” he said.

Mr Guterres was talking, on behalf of countries and industries, about collective global action that would stop carbon pollution rising.

And then he said “unbearable price”.

“We must deliver what the scientific community has defined as a must,or we, and every generation that follows, will pay an unbearable price,” Mr Guterres said.

Trump can post all the lowest-common denominator tweets he likes to capture our flighty attention daily, but no rational adult, parent or not, can hand over a planet on its current course with much peace of mind.

Young people did attend COP 25 over the course of the 11 days and had their voices heard.

The message was: ‘Put children at heart of tackling the crisis.’ That’s another difficult one to ignore, as easy as Trump’s viral tweets are to digest and remember and repeat.

(Time Magazine/PA)
(Time Magazine/PA)

If only we had someone as captivating as Trump to draw our attention towards climate action.

But we do: a 16-year-old who isn’t living off public monies and who’s name is Greta Thunberg.

She speaks in monotone fact, not blustering hyperbole. She uses science, not stereotype, to make a point.

And she isn’t a publicly elected leader, either. We have no reason to hold her to account; Trump, we do. Only we expect nothing of him.

He gets into viral ‘fistfights’ in cyberspace while his country, one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, gets away with leaving the Paris Climate Agreement, taking its nation and every other one on a course of irreversible damage.

But Greta is the one who needs to chill? No, the big boys, like Trump, and countries like America, India and China, need to act, on climate change.

But it is we who read the headlines, and maybe the stories below them; perhaps listen to the radio bulletins, and the conversations that follow.

But who are we giving our attention to?

What are we listening to?

Who are we holding to account?

Who can take action on our behalf?

So, which of the two headlines — Trump’s tweet or the UN’s secretary general’s statement — got more attention? Easy. Trump’s did.

But it is our attention to give and take away.

Let’s start using Netflix for entertainment and frivolous water-cooler conversation and let’s get wise to how the powers that be manipulate our attention, to their advantage, not ours.

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