What Does Greta Thunberg Want?

ThunbergIf you have a pulse, you can’t have missed the demonstrations that Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg has been organizing around the world. Whether you call it Global Warming, Climate Change, or, lately, the Climate Emergency, our changing climate is what she is organizing schoolchildren globally to protest about on Fridays.

Most people have a favorable view of Greta. She is seen as a leader, especially for her age. Her actions are topics of conversation in homes, at workplaces, in schools, in coffee shops, in city council meetings, planning commission meetings, and anywhere people gather. She is also constantly in the news. With a few obvious exceptions, she is seen as a leader, doing good, energizing people, and getting people talking.

This is all good.

And yet, is this her goal? People talking? What does Greta Thunberg want?

You can get a feel for what she’s thinking by looking at her recent addresses to the United Nations and to the US Congress. With a stern face, she tells world leaders and American leaders that they are not doing enough. She doesn’t want kind words. She doesn’t want a pat on the back. She doesn’t want thoughts & prayers.

What does Greta Thunberg want?

She wants action. She wants action now. She wants dramatic action now. And I think she’s right.

Leaders, at every level of government, don’t seem to understand this. Or, they are unwilling to commit the political capital to make it happen. Greta Thunberg wants change, and politicians are resistant to change because change upsets people, especially people with a lot of time on their hands; people who complain and people who vote.

But what is the role of political leaders, if not to lead? Even in spite of resistance, leaders need to act and to convince enough voters that this is the action to take. Greta has convinced many students (most of whom didn’t really need convincing); it’s now up to our leaders to convince the rest of us.

So what have our local, regional, state, and federal political leaders been doing to lead us in the era of Climate Change and our Climate Emergency? Let’s take a look at each level of government in turn.

First, let’s look at the federal government. It goes without saying that the executive branch is utterly corrupt, with the those who are supposed to be regulated running the regulatory agencies. What about Congress? There is some light there, with one or more “Green New Deals” being proposed.

But these deals are generally woefully inadequate when it comes to transportation, which comprises 29% of all greenhouse gases (GHGs) that contribute to climate change in the US. What a typical Green New Deal proposal generally misses is that we need to reduce car usage (yes, even with electric cars) by reducing car lanes, reducing parking, and reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT). We need to dramatically boost federal grants to local & regional governments for transit, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure.

Much as we had the Eisenhower Interstate System to create a nationwide network of freeways in a decade or so, we need to do the same for intercity, high-speed rail.

What about at the state level? What is Minnesota doing?

Governor Tim Walz had proposed a 20¢ per gallon gas tax increase, which was rejected by Republicans. While a good start, 20¢ is far too timid. This is not the dramatic change that Great Thunberg is calling for.

Meanwhile, outstate political “leaders”, funded in part by the Koch brothers’ special interest groups, are denying funding for transit, whether it’s LRT, BRT, or regular bus service.

Last but not least at the state level, MNDOT talks a good story about climate change, and even has bike and pedestrian plans. And yet, expanding freeway lanes is still part of its playbook. Earlier this year MNDOT went around the state, ostensibly seeking feedback about their plans. When I asked why they are still expanding freeways (including adding a lane to I-494), I got literally no response:

Again, this is not what Greta Thunberg is calling for. This is not only not dramatic action, it’s really just continuing the status quo. For more on what MNDOT really needs to do, see Alex Schieferdecker’s excellent recent article here on Streets.mn:

https://streets.mn/2019/09/27/to-decarbonize-transportation-mndot-needs-to-challenge-itself-to-reduce-vmt/

Next, let’s look at regional government, the Met Council. For the last round of Comprehensive Plans that cities needed to submit last year, the Met Council had a strong emphasis on housing, transportation, sustainability, and equity. These are all great goals, and the Met Council has been addressing them for at least a decade, but the release of the UN Intergovernmental Program on Climate Change (IPCC) report last year has put a new emphasis on the need for immediate, drastic change. The Comp Plans were generally finished before the IPCC report came out, and thus don’t have the urgency and push for dramatic change that IPCC and Greta Thunberg are pushing for today. It is not enough.

What about county & local governments? Hennepin & Ramsey counties have bike & pedestrian plans, but these are almost universally overridden when push comes to shove, that is, when major county roads are re-engineered every 50 years. Bike & pedestrian infrastructure is generally an afterthought on these projects, with “not enough space for cars & bikes” or “slowing cars too much” or “creating congestion” or “removing parking” all being concerns that derail needed changes. Kudos to Richfield for pushing Hennepin County to make better changes on the recently redone 66th St.; we can only hope this is the future.

There are some great things happening at the city level, but overall it is decidedly mixed.

Minneapolis is doing great things with buses, with the new bright red bus lanes on Hennepin & Chicago, and bicycles (see: Washington Ave. downtown). And yet they made a huge blunder with the recent bike lanes on Hennepin in Uptown, where the bike lanes (between Lake and 31st, especially) needed to be protected and curb separated/elevated, but were not. What ends up happening is determined cyclists are chiding misbehaving motorists; cyclists should not be forced to do this. Street design should fix these problems.

Saint Paul just completed a small but well-designed bike lane downtown, and more impressive is their mayor’s recent announcement that half of Ayd Mill Road will be a dedicated bike & pedestrian trail. And yet, streets like Summit Avenue could be so much better than they are, and it’s a constant battle against neighborhood groups who demand no reduction in parking or lane capacity for cars.

Hopkins just won an award for The Artery, its “car light” street downtown that has a bike lane, bike traffic lights, rumble strips & bollards to keep cars at bay, and other great urbanism touches. This is the future we need. Will Hopkins have the political will to continue?

Saint Louis Park is planning some good changes on 36th St./Monterey Ave./Beltline Blvd., but the city council seems too timid to push back against single family homeowner residents who show up in droves to planning & city council meetings. This is despite the fact that the city has already done great things in having both density & SWLRT coming soon. What’s the point of density & transit, if the streets are unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists? Will everyone drive to LRT stations? This is not good enough.

Edina has been doing great things for years with density, primarily at its “neighborhood nodes” including 50th & France and the Southdale District. However, it recently expanded lanes at Vernon Ave. & Interlachen Blvd., approved a drive-thru at one of its nodes, and demanded too much parking on a small business lot in a walkable neighborhood that is on the 6 Bus line, which may someday be the E Line BRT line. That is not the planning we need when Climate Change is upon us.

As I type this, we just had a day at the end of September with feels-like temperatures in the upper 90’s, along with a record-setting year for precipitation. With a Climate Emergency, we don’t have time for infrastructure that is “better than it was”. We don’t even have time for “this is good enough”.

We have to get to “great” ASAP. That is what Greta Thunberg wants, and that is what we have to aspire to as a society.

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20 Responses to What Does Greta Thunberg Want?

  1. Jeffrey Klein October 7, 2019 at 9:24 am #

    This is a good summary.

    I think one place we fail is as Americans, when faced with a big problem, our reaction is “we need to do something big!”, which then translates into “we need to build something big!” In some instances, this is the case – we should go big on building a renewable power grid. But in other places, it’s the wrong instinct.

    You correctly point this out with MNDOT. They want to go big on building, I dunno, green freeways? The best thing MNDOT could do in the short term for climate change is just literally all go on sabbatical for a year. Everything they touch gets poisoned. They need to just stop.

    People all over the world have a fraction of our carbon footprint. In some cases, it’s bike paths, fancy infrastructure – and we can and should do this – but in the vast majority of cases they just live smaller and simpler. Places are human scale; streets are for people: they walk to a corner store; houses aren’t 2000 sq ft per person; they don’t subsidize sprawl; meat is an expensive special occasion; in many places people work less and consume less, and are richer in time than stuff.

    We need to think equally about what not to build as what to build. We can do a lot by just doing less.

    • Lou Miranda October 7, 2019 at 12:45 pm #

      Thanks, Jeffrey. Yeah, theoretically MNDOT should just freeze every single project until they get a new directive, but I know there’s so much involved with each project (grants, financing, jobs, materials, etc.) that that’s difficult to do. However, projects in the pipeline should absolutely be put on hold until everything gets re-evaluated and reprioritized due to climate change. “No new lanes” is a good place to start.

      There are a few big projects our country needs to implement, from converting to clean energy to federal financing of local bike & ped infrastructure to a nationwide high-speed intercity train network. After all, many people will be unemployed due to the lower complexity of electric cars compared to gas-powered cars and, hopefully, fewer cars overall. Likewise with the airline industry.

      But I agree that we absolutely need to reduce our energy footprint. Not just convert to clean energy, but use much less energy. If nothing else that will allow us to jettison carbon-intensive energy sources that much faster, since we’ll need so much less energy.

    • tmart October 7, 2019 at 1:27 pm #

      Another way of putting this is that the big thing we need to do is shift all the little things we do. We need all of our government processes that touch the built and natural environment–down to the smallest neighborhood street reconstructions and zoning, and up to every law passed by the legislature–to be restructured to work in service of decarbonization. Discussions about carbon need to be as fundamental to government work as discussions about budget are today.

      That’s how we end up with all our streets being for people, all our neighborhoods having corner stores, all our housing and land use being less wasteful, and all our commutes being shorter and less frequent. The current style of planning and lawmaking, to the extent that it even acknowledges the importance of these needs, is only capable of producing isolated “mixed-use destinations” and very expensive mixed-traffic buses through cornfields, because it only knows how to address these needs in the form of a one-off project or a fig leaf.

  2. Monte Castleman October 7, 2019 at 9:49 am #

    What does Greta want? She wants the evil iron claws of big government to get all over my personal life. She wants the government to force me to use those horrid LED bulbs instead of full spectrum incandescents. She wants the government to pry that nice juicy hamburger from my hands and force me to eat disgusting vegan food. She wants the government to take away my heated, air conditioned, exertion free SUV and force me to walk in the blazing heat, driving rain, and freezing cold. In short to roll back 100 years of progress we’ve made as a society. That’s what Greta wants.

    • Jeffrey Klein October 7, 2019 at 12:22 pm #

      Really truly curious whether you deny the negative externalities of some of these things or just don’t care.

      • Monte Castleman October 7, 2019 at 1:44 pm #

        Every time someone has cried “the sky is falling” science has come to our rescue without people having to suffer. When New York was buried under horse manure, instead of banning horses and making people suffer by walking everywhere internal combustion engines came to our rescue. When dirty coal polluted cities, natural gas and nuclear power came about instead of the government banning coal and making people suffer in the dark and cold. When refrigerants were causing an ozone hole, new refrigerants came out rather than the government banning air conditioning and making people suffer in the heat. There’s no reason our government should force people to suffer this time around when carbon capture, electric cars and atmospheric particle injection are just around the corner.

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller October 7, 2019 at 1:54 pm #

          Okay, but your story leaves out the regulations. New York did, indeed, have rules about how to deal with the manure (I can’t tell you in any detail what they were, but they existed).

          And we most definitely did ban the old refrigerants. It wasn’t innovation that got rid of Thomas Midgely’s second atrocity. Nor was it innovation that got rid of the first one, lead additives in fuel (that were never necessary anyway).

          You don’t get to the next technology by continuing to make it easy to use the old one with no consequences (also, two of those thing are fantasies, not technologies right around the corner).

          • Monte Castleman October 7, 2019 at 2:18 pm #

            I’d be happy with a ban on gasoline cars when electric cars are just as good. We didn’t ban old refrigerants until newer products were good and ready and I certainly don’t care what refrigerant my air conditioner uses as long as it keeps me cool. Similarly I don’t care what’s under the hood of my car as long as it is as spacious as my crossover is now and can drive to Chicago without stopping overnight to charge multiple times.

        • Jeffrey Klein October 7, 2019 at 2:04 pm #

          Let me tell you as a practicing physicist that science can do amazing things – we can make tiny microchips, antibiotics, whatever – but you can’t beat fundamental physics when it comes to energy. There’s no low energy way to move each individual in a 4000 lb box. It takes a massive amount of resources to do it, no matter what the details are. Batteries, motors, tires, steel, pavement – no green tech will make all of this go away in the next twenty years.

          I go into work every day and beat my head against hard R&D problems. The low hanging fruit is picked. If our solution is “screw it, we can do any insanely inefficient thing we want and science will fix it”, we have a hard reckoning coming.

        • Lou Miranda October 7, 2019 at 2:28 pm #

          Is science & engineering fixing the creeks we “fixed” by straightening them out, or is the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District just re-meandering the creek back to its natural state?

          Is science & engineering fixing our mega wildfires, or are we letting our forests burn and return to their natural state?

          Is science & engineering fixing our dams, or are we starting to let our rivers run free again to get the ecosystems into a sustainable state?

          Science & engineering can do great things, but they can’t fix every situation. It’s not the 1950s anymore, when the world looked uncritically at science with rose-colored glasses. Everything we try to over engineer ends up having major unforeseen downstream consequences. This likely includes the pie-in-the-sky technologies you mentioned.

    • Scott Merth October 7, 2019 at 2:09 pm #

      The government should get on board with climate change action. Imagine a world where the government takes it’s nasty evil claws out of your pocket book and stops subsidizing both coal and gas production. Stops unnecessarily subsidizing unhealthy corn monoculture. Stops unnecessary, violent, and polluting wars. There are major strides that can be done on the federal level. Now it’s true that Thunberg does probably want those personal changes you mention too, but what’s the other choice for us as a society? Because running out the clock until the last bee dies doesn’t seem like the best option to me.

    • tmart October 7, 2019 at 2:32 pm #

      What a bleak, unimaginative definition of progress.

      Not every change we’ve made in the past century was progress. It wasn’t progress when we invented traffic congestion and smog. It wasn’t progress when we decided we were OK with tens of thousands dying preventable deaths every year due to car crashes. It wasn’t progress when we took away all the safe and easy ways and places to go out for a drink without worrying about how to get home safely. It wasn’t progress when we decided that streets are no longer a safe gathering place for neighbors. It wasn’t progress when big government banned new duplexes and apartments and corner stores. It wasn’t progress when we told people they no longer had the option to take a streetcar downtown or a reliable train to Chicago.

      Likewise there’s plenty of progress to be made even as our lifestyles change. People will eat meat less, but vegetarian food will get better to meet the demand, and we’ll borrow interesting new flavors and recipes from other cultures that have more experience using fewer animal ingredients. Public spaces will improve to make standing on the street pleasant even when it’s hot or cold or windy. People will live longer, healthier lives thanks to walking around like the human body was meant to do. Local businesses will thrive again when they’re allowed to open in neighborhoods close to their customers where they’re more convenient than schlepping the SUV over to Walmart. New transit options will free us from ever worrying about congestion again. The omnipresent roar of auto-induced noise pollution will disappear from our cities.

      • Brian October 7, 2019 at 4:51 pm #

        Private passenger rail may have been on time, but private passenger service didn’t make money so it went away. Amtrak is the mercy of freight service which often delays Amtrak. Passenger service is supposed to priority, but that isn’t happening.

        Could private passenger rail service actually make money in today’s world?

    • Ally October 7, 2019 at 5:43 pm #

      It’s interesting that you think the government hasn’t played a role in the ready availability of cheap beef or the ubiquity of SUVs and automobile infrastructure. I encourage you to read up on agricultural subsidies and auto bailouts and then decide whether you want to keep claiming that the government is aiming for any bigger of a role in promoting walking or eating vegan food than it’s historically played in boosting the auto and meat industries. Also as an aside, walking is rather pleasant most days, and tolerable on even the grossest days provided you’re prepared for the weather. I suggest you give it another shot sometime–maybe a breath of fresh air would help you take a sunnier outlook on sustainable lifestyle changes.

  3. Amy October 7, 2019 at 11:09 am #

    Edina and great city planning should never be used in the same sentence considering their atrocious track record.

  4. Lou Miranda October 7, 2019 at 3:04 pm #

    Update to the article: it has since been announced that Metro Transit staff have recommended that the E Line aBRT in fact does go down France Ave., south of 44th St.

    So now it’s imperative that Edina ensure that cars & parking take a back seat to transit, walking, & biking on virtually all of France Ave.

  5. Eric Ecklund October 7, 2019 at 4:03 pm #

    Hey Lou, I’m curious what your opinions are on the Dan Patch Corridor since you’re on the Edina Planning Commission. Done right it would be a great way to get people out of their cars, but people who live along the route are quite hostile to that idea and the gag order has been in place since 2002 despite several attempts at repealing it.

    • Lou Miranda October 7, 2019 at 4:36 pm #

      I was on the Transportation Commission when the City Council asked us to find out what residents thought of studying it.

      An open house was held to show a consultants’ report that listed several options for how rail might be studied. The meeting was acrimonious and dominated by residents living near the line.

      Ultimately the commission approved the final report and sent it off to the City Council. The final report said that current land use (2008 Comp Plan) and existing density did not support further study.

      That was a few years ago. Today, the almost-final 2018 Comp Plan includes the Grandview study and the 70th & Cahill small area plan (SAP), the latter of which specifically mentions and welcomes a rail station along the line, and both plans call for more density & variety of uses than in the past.

  6. Betsey Buckheit
    Betsey Buckheit October 12, 2019 at 7:31 am #

    I’m curious why you believe leadership from the top down is what is needed. Certainly our elected leaders can help educate the grassroots and then shape policy into law and rules for many changes to take place, but unless elected leaders have political cover for taking action – cover from us, the grassroots – I think the needed government action will not happen.

    As well, Monte Castleman speaks for many when he talks about government interference or overreaching – Minnesota is a few highly populated blue islands in a sea of red – how do we help our rural fellow residents, conservative suburbanites, and even the massive SUV-driving liberals that climate action is imperative and it will involve significant behavior change?

    • Lou Miranda October 12, 2019 at 11:56 am #

      “Four score and seven years ago…”

      Fireside chats.

      The New Deal.

      Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.

      “Ask not what your country can do for you…”

      “The time is now arrived … to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

      “a goal of clean air, clean water, and open spaces for the future generations of America.”

      Those are all examples of leadership from the top down. Sure, grassroots action preceded most of these, but at some point government leadership needs to stand up and inspire the public.

      The problem is, we don’t have time.

      We don’t have time to use up our carbon budget.

      We don’t have time to build consensus over a decade.

      We need leaders—at all levels of government—to step up to the plate.

      Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

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