Excerpt from a conversation between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Greta Thunberg, June 2019, The Guardian
People think of leadership as this glamorous, powerful thing. To be a leader is to come first, to set the agenda. But what people don’t realise is that leadership is also enormously difficult. Leadership is a responsibility. Leadership is not fun. Leadership is about doing things before anybody else does them. Leadership is about taking risks. Leadership is about taking decisions when you don’t know 100% what the outcome is going to be.
It’s enormously easy to follow – it’s the easiest thing in the world. And there are detriments to following. You are too late. You do not control your destiny. You are not in control, period. You are often under the thumb of someone else. But it is enormously easy because you don’t have to determine the future. It seems as if, really, it’s a decision on whether we’re going to lead or not.
(At Standing Rock) I learned that hope is not something that you have. Hope is something that you create, with your actions. Hope is something you have to manifest into the world, and once one person has hope, it can be contagious. Other people start acting in a way that has more hope.
…The biggest weapon people have is to try to make you think that you don’t matter. It is to say, “This doesn’t change anything.” Because if you can convince people that it doesn’t matter, then they won’t do it and people can go on as though it’s business as usual. We are no longer at the point of preventing [climate disaster] from happening entirely – we are now at the point of minimising the damage. And as these floods and storms are here, I think more and more people are going to be willing to stand up for themselves.
In the 1970s, ExxonMobil had internal science that not only definitively proved that climate change was real, but they themselves, the oil company, invested in modelling to see how bad it was going to be. Some of their models were so sophisticated that, back in the 70s, they were predicting our weather patterns as far out as 2012 – and many of them were accurate. They knew exactly what was happening.
…So what they did, starting the year I was born, around 1989, was to start funding a lot of media and lobbying campaigns. They knew they couldn’t fund campaigns outright saying climate change is not real. But they could fund campaigns sowing confusion. So they would run campaigns saying we need to see more science, to sow doubt around the consensus. For a very long time it worked, and it got very bad. We came very close to acting on the climate in 1989, but the lobbying was so powerful that they effectively prevented action – we had almost 40% of Republican voters not believing that climate change was settled fact.
…We just received some very encouraging numbers yesterday – a year or two years ago, only 20% of Democratic voters, the more liberal voters in the country, saw climate change as a top issue. With our action, and the youth organising that’s going on now, it has surged. We’ve seen in very early voting states, something like 70% of Democratic voters think that a Green New Deal should be a top issue, and that they would support candidates who support it, and not supporting it is a red flag for many voters. I think we’re moving, but it takes this radical action to move it.
AOC Why do you think young people have been more powerful and persuasive on this issue, in particular?
GT Many reasons, but I think the main one is that it is our future that is at risk. Most of us know that this is going to affect us in our lifetimes – it’s not just something that might happen in the future. It’s already here and it’s going to get worse, and many of us understand that this is going to make our lives much worse. And also that as young people, we aren’t as used to the system. We don’t say, “It’s always been like this, we can’t change anything.”
AOC I’ve always said to people that youth is a mindset. And young people, we tend to come in and almost take that mindset for granted because as you said, we haven’t seen the world before, this is our first path, and so we have a tendency to question all of the nonsensical things that have just gone on for reasons of outdated logic. I have three- and four-year-old nieces and nephews, and they’re always asking, “Why, why, why, why?” For a lot of people it can be somewhat irritating. But I think sometimes it’s irritating because they don’t have the answers.
You can be much older and still part of a youth movement, if you refuse to do things just because that’s the way they’ve always been done. I believe that young people just have a natural distillation of the world that is so pure. I’ve always felt that social movements, and youth movements in particular, should continue to be the moral compass that guides our vision.
GT Yes, it always reminds me a lot of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Everyone believes in this lie, that only a child dares to question.
AOC Right. When I was first running [for office], people often mocked me as a child. I’m much older than you! But I was still very young for someone who was running for such a powerful seat. People would say, “But don’t you know this is how it’s always been done? He has so much money, and power. There’s no reason you should challenge someone in your own party – we should challenge people in other parties.” And so on and so forth. And they were all veiled ways of saying I was too inexperienced, too naive, too young, and too powerless.
I think the mere refusal to accept that can change our world. That’s exactly what you’ve done.
GT I think we’ve both done that.