Our House Is on Fire

World Economic Forum. Davos, January 25, 2019


Humanity must make drastic changes, including a 50 percent reduction in CO2 emissions, in less than twelve years. After that time, according to Thunberg, a rise of global temperatures of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius will set off an irreversible chain reaction that ends human civilization. Thus far, we have failed to bring the needed changes about, but there is still time. The climate crisis is the hardest challenge humanity has ever faced, but the solution is simple: stop greenhouse gas emissions. Humanity will either do that, or it will not. The matter is black or white, and it is a lie to say otherwise. Too many people, at Davos and elsewhere, are content to look to politicians for solutions, or to focus on economics. The public must be made aware, today, that the planet is in crisis. This is no time to worry about giving young people hope. “We must change almost everything in our current societies,” Thunberg says. She wants Davos participants to panic. “I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”


In this speech, Thunberg introduces a new element to her normally simple, straightforward argumentative technique: she includes a vivid, relatable metaphor. Opening with the startling statement that the “house is on fire”— an obvious metaphor for the current dire circumstances of our world—seizes the listener’s attention in a deeply personal way. Everyone knows what to do when a house is on fire: leave as quickly as possible. If you are unable to leave, as is the case with humans on Earth, you either rapidly extinguish the fire, or you die. Her repetition of the statement gives it even stronger emphasis. Thunberg then provides context for the statement, using her typical mixture of scientific facts and appeals to emotion. Having been criticized before for her bluntness, she refutes her critics by asserting that politeness is a waste of time when humanity itself is in imminent danger. She explicitly spells out the significance of the burning house in literal terms: humanity is facing a catastrophic threat to its existence. Her call to action returns to the opening metaphor, using it to stress the urgency of immediate action.