She’s the icon of a young generation rising up against climate change. But Greta Thunberg also stirs up derision and scorn among those who see her as a mere puppet of eco-evangelism. At 16, the Swede has become the voice for millions of worried youths who sort their garbage, clean beaches, turn their noses up at meat and airplanes, and vote for green parties.
Just over a year ago, at the start of the school year, the then-ninth grade student left her books at home and began sitting outside the Swedish parliament to raise awareness about the climate emergency. Her “school strike” made the rounds of social media before gaining momentum in the international press – and the “Fridays for Future” movement was born.
The Greta phenomenon went viral. Her Twitter and Instagram accounts now have more than six million followers. As the unofficial spokesperson for her generation, Greta Thunberg wants to sound the alarm about global warming among the world’s politicians, as witnessed in her rousing “How Dare You?” speech at the UN climate summit on Monday.
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she thundered, visibly angry and close to tears. The teen has spurred millions of youths to protest, drawn by her fragile intrepidness, her steely determination in sharp contrast to her young voice. All of which drive her detractors crazy.
For the most scornful, such as Australian columnist Andrew Bolt, Greta’s a doomsayer, “the deeply disturbed messiah of the global warming movement”, with the neuroses of an autistic teenager (she has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome). It’s all because “she’s powerful,” says Canadian biologist Severn Cullis-Suzuki who once found herself in Greta’s position.
At the age of 12, she addressed the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. “She’s calling for a revolution so of course she’s getting pushback. They try to silence her” by discrediting her, Cullis-Suzuki told AFP.
“Miracle” or “cyborg”?
Extraordinary, almost mystical references abound when it comes to Greta, born in 2003 in the least “religious or spiritual” country on the planet. Famed French environmentalist and wildlife photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand has called her “a miracle”. Barack Obama said she was “changing the world.”
French philosopher Michel Onfray described her as a “cyborg” while US conservative commentator Michael Knowles said she was a “mentally ill” teen responsible for “climate hysteria”. In April, Greta met Pope Francis in Rome as part of the second anniversary of “Laudato Si”, the Catholic Church’s encyclical on ecology and climate change, whose subtitle “On Care for Our Common Home” echoes Greta’s own words of “Our house is on fire”.
Critics say that kind of language muddles the climate fight’s scientific message, hurts technological innovation and masks other environmental challenges. “The climate issue has eclipsed all other environmental issues like cruelty to animals, the meat industry and pesticides. And those who question (Greta’s) positioning are quickly accused of being climate sceptics,” political scientist Katarina Barrling said.
Greta has also been accused of sowing anxiety rather than delivering a rational argument. “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day,” she told the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. Lately, she seems to have changed her tune. “I want you to listen to the scientists,” she urged the US Congress last week.
Land of Pippi Longstocking.
While the teen’s upbraiding of adults has irritated some abroad, her comments raise few eyebrows in Sweden. Her impudence, pigtail braids and baby face are reminiscent of the famous storybook character Pippi Longstocking, an emancipated child experiencing the world on her own – a model drawn from Sweden’s education system and its child-rearing traditions.
“It’s no coincidence that Greta is Swedish. I don’t think she would have existed without Pippi or Lisbeth Salander,” the tattoed hacker from the Millennium crime series, according to Swedish essayist Elisabeth Asbrink. Barrling, the analyst, said that “for decades the Swedish school curriculum has prioritised students’ critical thinking rather than accumulation of knowledge”.
But what good has Greta really done? She’s defending human rights, says Amnesty International which earlier this month honoured her and Fridays for Future with its top prize, the Ambassador of Conscience Award. Greta has also been nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
The Nobel committee has honoured environmentalists in the past – Al Gore, the IPCC, Wangari Maathai of Kenya – linking their work to democracy efforts. But Greta’s contribution remains to be seen, said Henrik Urdal, the head of the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO).
“The link between peace and climate change is very tenuous. It’s built on assumptions that are quite academically disputed,” he said. “She’s been creating a very impressive momentum on climate change, (but) the question is: Is this relevant for the peace prize?”