On Friday, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali. He won for helping de-escalating long-simmering tensions with neighboring Eritrea.
He was one of a few expected finalists, including climate activist Greta Thunberg who was nominated by Norwegian lawmakers earlier this year. That Thunberg didn’t win for her tireless activism might feel like a slight. But the reality is, she didn’t deserve to win. More importantly, winning at this point could have been detrimental to her cause.
I don’t say that to belittle her activism. In fact, quite the opposite. Thunberg has absolutely changed the climate conversation globally. But that’s not what Thunberg is after. She’s after action based on sound science. And world governments have yet to deliver in that regard, which means she and other activists still have most of the work ahead of them. Winning the prize might only have slowed down that work by diluting her message that the toughest efforts lay ahead.
When the Norwegian lawmakers said they had nominated Thunberg in March earlier this year, the climate strike movement was still building. In the months since, it has metastasized into a potent political force.
Shortly after the announcement that Thunberg had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, 1.4 million students took to the streets in the first global climate strike. That number swelled to an estimated 7.6 million people participating in strikes over the last two Fridays in September. Thunberg has also roasted policymakers at the United Nations and Davos and joined a group of kids who filed a landmark case against five of the world’s biggest polluters. And her efforts have continued as she tours North America, drawing huge crowds and connecting with frontline communities.
All this has happened in just a little over a year since her first solitary climate strike. The swift rise of the movement and the global, inclusive nature almost certainly gave Nobel Peace Prize committee members pause for thought as they weighed her nomination. While the deliberations and how they arrive at the prize winner are highly secretive, we do know the criteria for the prize Alfred Nobel left in his will. The document stated that the prize should go “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses.”
If you asked Thunberg, I bet she would agree she hasn’t done that (yet). She’s also never been one for awards or being feted by luminaries. You can read her speeches to know whether she thinks the world has changed enough yet. A sampling below, with emphasis added.
Davos: “Yes, we are failing, but there is still time to turn everything around. We can still fix this. We still have everything in our own hands. But unless we recognize the overall failures of our current systems, we most probably don’t stand a chance.”
Last year’s international climate conference: “Some people say that we are not doing enough to fight climate change. But that is not true. Because to ‘not do enough’ you have to do something. And the truth is we are basically not doing anything.”
The United Nations Climate Action Summit: “We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”
Heck, you can read the science that Thunberg repeatedly invokes in her speeches. Sure, it’s not the flashy part that gets headlines, but it points to what drives her and what should in theory be driving world leaders. It shows the world needs to rein in carbon pollution 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030 to have a shot at a climate somewhat close to the one that’s allowed humans to thrive. The world is heading the opposite direction now despite the alarm bells being set off by Thunberg carrying the scientists’ message.
The point she’s made over and again is that we are at an inflection point. The world can choose to continue to fail at curbing carbon pollution, or it can get its act together and, to paraphrase another of line from Thunberg’s Davos speech, respond like our house is on fire. Winning the Nobel Peace Prize could actually dampen the number of people waking up to this reality by making them think the job is done when it’s anything but.
In other words, this isn’t the moment for awards. It’s the moment when we need to get to work. Thunberg has a long life ahead of her and a chance to continue building a movement to enact change. And in the coming decades, she may well win a Nobel Prize for her efforts if they’re successful. And just as when the thousands of scientists who worked on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the prize in 2007, my guess is she’ll be happy to share it with the billions of people who joined her in making that change a reality.