Cathedral Thinking

European Parliament. Strasbourg, April 16, 2019


On the day after fire gutted Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, Thunberg urges the European Parliament to act as if its house on fire. A “certain level of panic” is appropriate. Mass extinction is occurring, with 200 species being lost every day. Deforestation, air pollution, and the acidification of oceans are all disastrous, accelerating trends, symptoms of climate ecological breakdown. The internationally respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts irreversible catastrophe if global CO2 emissions are not cut in half by 2030. 

Furthermore, this prediction does not account for the future warming already locked into existing conditions but masked by the sun-blocking effects of pollution. The IPCC prediction also does not account for feedback loops, such as the release of methane gas from thawing Arctic permafrosts. A drastic response is required, not limited actions like gradually scaling back the use of oil and coal. Massive removal of atmospheric CO2 will someday be necessary, using technology not yet developed. Policymakers must apply “cathedral thinking” to the problem of climate change: lay the foundation when details of the ceiling are still unclear. “Everyone and everything has to change,” Thunberg says, but the first step is to “unite behind the science” and to educate the voting public: “Make the best available science the heart of politics and the heart of democracy.”


In the speech she gives the day after the historic fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, Thunberg demonstrates her effective technique of using metaphors to support factual arguments. The process of building a cathedral is a powerful and complex analogy for the actions needed to solve climate change. Both processes require the cooperation of a huge number of individuals spanning multiple generations, and both create something long-lasting that can benefit everyone. In addition, neither project can be fully planned out in advance, and there will inevitably be problems along the way that must be solved on the fly. Thunberg revives her often-used metaphor of the earth as a burning house, an especially poignant image because of the flames that just consumed the cathedral. By combining scientific details and compelling figurative language, Thunberg gives immediacy and urgency to the facts while eliciting an emotional reaction from her audience.