We had the fantastic opportunity to sit down with children’s book author Valentina Giannella, who recently penned We Are All Greta. First published in Italian last April, it has since been translated into 13 languages, with the translated English edition now available all over the world. Filled with digestible, data-backed facts, the book answers all the questions that young readers might have about the most urgent issue facing our planet today: climate change. In this interview, we talk to Valentina about the hope that young people bring to the world, what each of us can do to make a difference, and the inspiration behind her work.
GQ: It’s wonderful to be able to speak to you, Valentina. We’re huge fans of your new book We Are All Greta. Just to introduce this book to our readers, could you give us a quick snapshot of what it’s all about?
VG: If I had to describe it in a nutshell, it is a small climate change manual for beginners. It is for children, but I suppose that it has also become popular because it gives adults the basics on the issue. We’ve taken for granted that we’re all informed but we aren’t.
It’s a small thing, but the book has all the right facts and it has all the small bricks lined up together to explain the foundation of the scientific knowledge about global warming, climate change, what is happening to our planet and why, and what we are to do to tackle this situation. It’s also a beautiful small mosaic thanks to Manuela Marazzi’s illustrations, because the publisher wanted to make it as enjoyable as possible with a topic that can often be quite scary. We wanted to spread the knowledge with the necessary urgence, but without the pessimistic vision.
GQ: What was the inspiration behind writing this book?
VG: Before the global climate strike in February last year, I was involved with other parents at my childrens’ school in preparing materials for them to understand why they were going to be on strike, which they decided to do. We wanted to make sure they were aware of the topic. As a journalist myself, I volunteered to do the research and realized how hard it was to get informed, especially if you did have prior knowledge on this topic already. There is so much on the internet, and most of the time, it gets mixed up. I went through all the IPCC reports, which are scientifically accurate and cross-checked, and it was mind-blowing. I realised there was so much useful information contained in these reports, and the warning Greta was talking about has been there for many years.
What Greta did, being in the right time and place and social media environment that wasn’t there before, was she managed to put these facts into the spotlight for the first time. She had done a great job in communicating the necessary urgency, but everything is here and beside the alarm that she is rigning, we must spread the knowledge. These kids need to understand the facts and start from scratch. If they start browsing, they could get tangled up in opinions, so why don’t we focus on scientific facts and communicate them as simply as we can.
A couple of days later, and this is probably how destiny works, I received a call from my publisher saying we should write about climate change! So I told them I was already preparing something, researching and understanding the science and trying to translate it for the children.
GQ: We’re huge fans of Greta Thunberg. In your opinion, what specifically about her work makes her such a great role model for the younger generation?
VG: She’s a very special person. I think it resides in the fact that she is a bit of a rebel. But she’s done her own work as well. She’s not a rebel for being a rebel – she knows what she’s talking about. Everyone is trying to see if she will fail in spreading the right news, but no one has managed. For a teenager, Greta is a great role model. She has the urgency that most teenagers feel about changing the world, starting from themselves to their families to their neighbourhood, and wider and wider. And she has done it with this amazing power of knowledge. She’s not scared of confronting people who are in charge, including the most powerful people in the world who have been trying to diminish her. Young people can look up to her and see how they could also change the grown-up world.
GQ: The book’s title is a great motivator and reminder about what each of us can do to lessen our impact on the planet. If you could get every person in the world to do one thing, what would it be?
VG: Well, there are so many things to do! The most important thing is to stop burning fossil fuels, but of course, that goes beyond every single person’s possibility, as that needs to be decided at a much higher scale. There are thousands of little actions we can each do, which I’ve outlined in a section of the book, but one of the most disruptive things we can do is to stop buying unnecessary plastics. First of all, because of the pollution in landfills and seas, and secondly, because it comes from fossil fuel derivatives. Thirdly, it comes from habit. So what I’m saying is that we need a sort of revolution, a habit revolution. The easiest one we can do to affect the environment positively is to stop buying plastic, especially bottled water because here in Hong Kong we have drinkable tap water.
There is a game we play with my own children and when I go to do presentations called Plastic Hunt, where they go home and search in the household for disposable plastic items that they weren’t aware of before – the bottle of soap, water, toothbrushes, cling wrap. If you think about it, there are clear alternatives for all of [these things], and children are happy to create a household revolution and convince the grown ups that stopping the use of disposable plastics is the right way.
GQ: What about changing the way we eat? Scientists all agree that ditching meat and dairy is the biggest way to reduce our personal carbon footprint. Should people transition to a plant-based diet?
VG: Of course, yes. The good news is that we don’t need to be 100% vegan to be compliant with what the planet needs. The Lancet researchers, for instance, designed a planetary health diet that allows for animal protein, in very small amounts. We do need to change our habits, so trying to move towards plant-based and reassessing our everyday consumption is a part of it. Ultimately, eating plant-based as much as possible, coming from nearby so there are emissions involved is another action to be encouraged.
GQ: What is your opinion on the level of climate awareness and activism in our city, here in Hong Kong?
VG: Hong Kong is a very resilient city, so we have an intelligent organisation system that can help the system deal and prepare with the worst effects of climate change, which we already bear. But in terms of fossil fuel emissions, plastic pollution, recycling and circular economy, like many other places in the world, there is a bit of a way to go. It’s a matter of awareness, and probably a new generation coming in to bring the necessary knowledge. It’s about understanding that business-as-usual is no longer bearable, so it will eventually because the consequences are so high, both socially and economically. The pace will depend upon the people.
GQ: Last year, we saw climate change finally reach the priority list on the global agenda. Do you believe that tides are really turning – is talk translating into action?
VG: Not quite yet. The reaction is not yet as much as is needed. But something has started, though there are difficulties and barriers represented by all the interests built up on the business as usual economy. So it’s really hard to know or to foresee how long it will take, but as long as there is a new “nation” of young people that are aware and want to change things and won’t be talked down, it’s coming.
This idea forms the basis of my upcoming book, and we’ve labelled this as “Green Nation,” a nation without passports, boundaries, no official language except the scientific language. We already have the basis for this metaphoric entity to grow and take power where it is needed to make a difference. Young people are already pushing for change, even on a grassroots and local level. For example, small villages on the shore in Italy have asked local authorities to ban disposable plastic in bars and restaurants along the beach, and it has happened. Of course, this is a small part of the picture, but little by little we’ll get there. I’m optimistic – I trust the young people.
GQ: It’s clear that young people are taking action. In your opinion, why is it that adults – whether it is world governments, business leaders, celebrity figures and everyday individuals – in general are so reluctant to do more to fight climate change?
VG: There are many factors, but one is the fact they are guilty of not listening to these warnings that were spoken before, for years. It’s like they got caught and do not want to understand how serious the situation and consequences are. Adults are grown ups as a demographic fact, but sometimes, they’re more childish. Out of defence of what they have been doing in the past, it’s easy to shrug off responsibility.
Of course, there are also huge economic costs, because climate action means moving and disrupting some big interests. But they need to understand that it has to happen, out of their own convenience. They must change their mindset and find new ways to regenerate and empower the possibilities that earth has given us. We are really making the worst use of it right now. But it’s incredibly hard for adults to change their mindset.
GQ: If you could give young people all around the world one piece of advice, what would it be?
VG: Get informed, keep being inquisitive and curious, and go for reliable sources. Do not believe everything you read around but make a good selection of which credible sources are. In my book, we’ve chosen really dependent cross-checked sources like the IPCC and NASA, science based information. Make a choice and get yourself informed. Change your personal habits, but also find a way to make your voice heard. Everyone should do this, not just young people, but I trust young people with this much more.
GQ: We must ask: team rice or team noodles?
VG: I’m Italian! Noodles!
Lead image courtesy of Valentina Giannella.