Smolková: Climate change is a global challenge to humankind and a matter of ethics

9. 1. 2020 -

Lucie Smolková, a future student of the MENDELU Faculty of Regional Development and International Studies, has a rather unusual schedule for a 19-year-old. During the final year of her secondary school studies, she was the leader of the Brno branch of the Fridays for Future movement, coordinated the national project "A Week for the Climate" (Týden pro klima) over the summer holidays and also worked for the Partnerství environmental foundation on a project called "Planting the Future" (Sázíme budoucnost). And at the end of September, she attended the UN Climate Summit in New York as one of one hundred young activists who received a "green air ticket".

Some people find the civic engagement of young people shocking and disturbing, while others think it is praiseworthy. How does a young person actually decide to become an activist?

I think this is influenced by a number of factors and some of the most crucial ones are your family support and background. I am aware that I have been very fortunate in more than one respect. This allowed me to develop and explore many different options and it did not take long before opportunities seemed to pop up by themselves. And my motivation for being active in civil society? I simply like this world despite all the horrors it contains. I am fascinated by the functioning and interdependence of ecosystems, the human body and the mind, human society and its interactions, the culture that it creates and its history. I wonder what is the place and meaning of human existence in the infinite universe. When you are interested in the world around you, it makes you curious – and curiosity usually leads you to learn things. And what I learned about the state of this world, the behaviour of humankind and our sick and destructive relationship with this planet makes me angry and upset.

You were selected to be one of one hundred young people to receive a "green air ticket" to visit the climate summit in the US. Were you surprised? And what is a green ticket?

Yes, I was very surprised. I have to admit that when I was filling in the form, about an hour before the deadline, I did not really know what I was signing up for. I do not even remember who sent me the email with the link, saying that it looked interesting and I should check it out. I only did more thorough research after I sent the application and was quite amazed. And I was even more amazed when I received a congratulatory email about a month later, saying that I was selected from over 7,000 applicants to be one of the one hundred people to receive a green air ticket. A green air ticket is a carbon-neutral air ticket, which essentially means that in addition to the regular airfare, you provide funding to compensate the carbon footprint of the flight. The money is usually used to sponsor planting trees but can also be used to support landscape management projects, specific research or awareness-raising activities. Unfortunately, I do not know how much money it was and what exactly it was used for.

How do you feel about the UN Climate Summit? Can it make a difference?

I have mixed feelings about the summit. If you look at it from the outside and in the context of the UN activities in the past, you could say that this summit was something of a milestone. For the first time in history, there were representatives of my generation in the main conference room, and this is the generation that will be most affected by the consequences of any decisions made. When you judge it from the inside, nothing ground-breaking happened – nothing that would produce plans and steps for the future. However, the summit was not really about negotiating a specific deal; the goal was to share best practices between countries and announce commitments related to climate change, which is what happened. Even just the meeting of so many representatives from all over the world and from different generations in one place was indisputably important.

I was somewhat disappointed by the youth summit and my main takeaway from that is how broad and varied the movement is. It is a highly misleading simplification to personify it into Greta Thunberg. I met young people whose opinions I most definitely do not share but also very interesting and inspiring people with valuable experience from other countries and socio-cultural conditions.

One of the things that does not resonate with me, and actually makes me understand our critics better, is making proclamations that are not really meaningful, and the way they are stated. For the most part, all you could hear in the conference room was shouting and demands such as "Give voice to the youth, listen to us, you destroyed the world, now it's time to take matters into our hands". To a certain extent, I can understand the frustration of some of the young people who are excited that someone is finally listening to them. However, it is utterly nonsensical to ask for representation in actual politics or to claim that we would manage things better completely on our own, without the older generation.

The emotionally charged speech of Greta Thunberg became the symbol of the summit and it was criticised by many Czech politicians including Prime Minister Babiš and ex-president Klaus, who says that Greta is a victim of climate alarmists. Furthermore, the current Czech President Miloš Zeman expects the arrival of another ice age instead of further warming. Can we expect any changes in the way our politicians think if this is how things stand?

Changes are inevitable regardless of expectations since our current way of doing things is not sustainable in the long term. However, actions are preceded by thoughts, so the question is where this change in thinking should come from – whether voters should change their opinions and demands and make the politicians change their attitude, or whether the opinions and attitude of politicians could change public opinion. A combination of these two will probably be the answer. At any rate, the new generation will be eligible to vote in a few years' time, and this could provide strong motivation for politicians to become more interested in the topic.

I saw and heard Greta's speech first-hand, just like I heard several hundred other speeches that were perhaps much more valuable in many respects. Before making any judgements about her speech, though, it is wise to think about the context. She spoke to the whole world, to people from Europe, Asia, Africa, the island countries and so on. As a European, her speech felt rather exaggerated to me and I personally would never say anything like that, also in view of the Czech context. However, when you look at it from the point of view of citizens of island countries who are already losing large expanses of land due to the rising sea level and who are experiencing the effects of climate change every day, Greta's words completely hit the mark. The speech itself is not a huge problem; the problem is what the media and politicians made of it. In a completely silly way, it has been used to belittle the whole movement, polarise the debate and divert attention from the things that matter. In the Czech Republic, these are, for instance, the emission exemption granted to the Chvaletice power plant, allowing it to emit twice as much mercury into the air, or the sale of the Počerady power plant, which will postpone its closure, again meaning more emissions.

Has the situation really reached a point where everyone should be thinking about the climate? What about the average Czech person, how should we change our behaviour?

For most people, the word "climate" is too abstract, complicated and has no clear-cut solutions. When compounded by the vague and often erroneous or inconsistent way the topic is communicated by the media, the climate is an unpopular topic for the majority of people, who project a lot of unrelated inessentials into it. To improve the situation, we need to do many things that are right but bring no immediate profit and will only bear fruit in the distant future, perhaps for future generations. We need to change the economy so that it does not rely on incessant growth but where people are free to be active and creative. We need to find different measures of success than GDP and profit. We have to change international trade and the unnecessary transport of goods all across the planet. We need changes in agriculture, landscape management and in the way we use natural resources. We need much closer cooperation on all levels – personal, local, regional, international and global. We must learn to think as citizens of the world. These are all enormous challenges to the current public attitude and to people as individuals. We can either feel burdened and depressed by this, or we can see it as an opportunity for further development and progress.

Would you like to continue in your activities as a university student, perhaps taking advantage of the fact that there are eminent bioclimatologists working at the university?

If at all possible, I would like to continue working when I enrol at the university and I would, of course, like to remain active in civic life. What I primarily hope to gain from the university is education and filling the gaps in my knowledge in an area that I personally find extremely interesting. However, it will bring an end to my involvement in the secondary-school Fridays for Future movement, so perhaps I will find an active group of MENDELU students and we will tackle another related project together.