Can You Hear Me?

Houses of Parliament. London, April 23, 2019


Growing up, Thunberg and her younger sister were told they had a bright future to look forward to. “You lied to us,” she tells her audience. “Can you hear me?” She reviews the facts of the climate crisis and the need for coordinated global action. It is too easy to get distracted by modest, country-specific solutions. Since 1990, the UK has supposedly reduced CO2 emissions by 37 percent, but most of the reduction came from replacing old, coal-fired power plans with gas-burning ones. Radical new solutions need to be developed, to completely eliminate the use of fossil fuels and then to begin taking carbon out of the atmosphere. Thunberg admits that she and the other children on school-strike do not know how this is to be done, but “we have to stop burning fossil fuels and restore nature and many other things that we may not have quite figured out yet.” Policymakers want to limit their understanding of the crisis. “You don’t listen to the science because you are only interested in solutions that will enable you to carry on like before.” The children want their hopes and dreams back.


In this speech, Thunberg includes a harsh rhetorical question in order to emphasize the urgency of her message. Her use of this device is noteworthy because she has already acknowledged that, as an autistic person, she understands the world in a literal manner. Figurative language and sarcasm do not come naturally to her, nor does pretending that she is uncertain of something she really knows. Yet she uses this device to underscore her accusation that the audience is behaving as if they cannot hear. The second time she uses the device she extends it, asking repeated rhetorical questions with the same intent: to point out that her listeners are failing to listen. The effect is one of intense reproach. After a direct explanation of climate change facts, she closes by repeating her hope that she was heard.