Opinion: We need to empower a generation of Gretas before it's too late

Greta Thunberg, young climate activist. Photo by: European Parliament / CC BY

Our climate is already changing. Almost 60 million people are displaced by climate-related disasters each year, 80% of whom are women and girls. Girls are more likely to go hungry and are more vulnerable to violence, sexual assault, and trafficking when climate events crash into the heart of their communities. Not only are women and girls worst hit, they are also systematically excluded from decision-making on the very climate crises that disproportionately affect them. Climate change compounds the global injustice of gender inequality and the signs are that it will get rapidly worse.

The devastation of Cyclones Idai and Kenneth, which hit Mozambique in quick succession, was unprecedented — there is no record of two storms of such intensity striking Mozambique in the same season. Cyclone Idai caused $773 million in damage and destroyed more than 2,500 classrooms in Sofala province, where Plan International is working with local partners to rebuild communities.

While visiting our programs in Sofala last week, what struck me most was the resilience of the local people. Girls who have had their homes and schools destroyed by the cyclone were overwhelmed, not with a sense of hopelessness and loss, but with a fiery determination to get back to school and to return to life as normal. One girl told me of her desperation to continue her studies, despite having to sleep on the floor of a dormitory with 30 other girls whose mattresses have been washed away.

Sadly, this strength and resilience will be highly necessary for the people of Mozambique. Despite contributing a meagre 0.14% to global emissions, it is one of the world’s most climate vulnerable countries. Rising sea levels and a predicted 25% increase in flooding by 2045 pose huge threats to the majority of the population who live along the coastline; while severe droughts will create huge water and food insecurity in a country reliant on agriculture.

The strength and resolve of women and girls can be channeled to help build more resilient communities, and we aspire to work with communities and local authorities to increase preparedness for future extreme weather events. Seeing the determination of girls to return to education as quickly as possible is extremely encouraging given the link between education and climate change. Education is one of the most effective ways to adapt to climate change — in fact a country’s climate resilience is improved for every additional year of schooling for girls on average. But strengthening resilience in vulnerable communities is not nearly enough.

The international community is morally obliged to take the kind of “rapid and far reaching” action needed to reduce climate catastrophe before it is too late. Yet given the doubt, denial, and dithering by many world leaders, it would be naïve to expect change to happen of its own accord. We must keep the pressure on politicians, but the extreme urgency of climate change requires us to look elsewhere for more immediate action and inspiration.

Girls and young people are stepping up now to demand revolutionary action on climate change. The recent climate strikes united young people across 128 countries, while one extraordinary day of action saw 1.4 million young people take part. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish girl who inspired them, is now in line for a Nobel Prize and continues to take her message directly to those with power to fix the problem. “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act” is what she told leaders at Davos this year.

All of us need to feel that fear and act in full solidarity with young climate activists. It is their right and destiny to lead and be heard on this issue that threatens their future. We need to unleash untapped girl power around the world and do everything we can to empower girls to have their voices heard on the issues important to them. We have to invest in costed, tested, and scalable solutions for changing the future with and for girls. If enough partners come together we will begin to knock down barriers holding girls back.

Momentum is building around climate action. Due to increasing frequency and devastation of extreme weather events such as Cyclone Idai and thanks to the courage and conviction of the young people leading global climate strikes and demanding to be heard, a sense of urgency is building, and politicians are starting to take notice. Yet time is running very short. We need to work together to empower an entire generation of Gretas now before it’s too late.

About the author

  • Oped anne birgittealbrectsen ed

    Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen

    Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen has been CEO of child rights organization Plan International since September 2015. Before joining Plan International, Ms. Albrectsen served as the U.N. assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director for Management at the United Nations Population Fund. Previously she was ambassador and under secretary for management in the Danish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and from 2007-2009.