Greta Thunberg – a climate activist

The Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (born 2003) is in many ways a unique phenomenon and an inspiration to many activists all over the world, both children and adults, but she has also faced criticism from various quarters, not least climate change skeptics.

2020.06.22 | Pernille Almlund

Greta Thunberg holding her original sign saying 'Skolstrejk för klimatet' [School strike for the climate].

Greta Thunberg holding her original sign saying 'Skolstrejk för klimatet' [School strike for the climate]. Photo: Anders Hellberg, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

In August 2018, when Greta Thunberg was 15 years old, she started her solitary school strike for the climate with a homemade sign showing the now world-famous phrase “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (School strike for climate). She endeavored to sit outside the Swedish Parliament (Riksdagen) every day until the general election was conducted on the 9th of September, 2018, and she did so for three weeks during school hours. Gradually, she was joined by other Swedish pupils who shared Greta’s concerns about the low level of action to reduce carbon emissions, and with the demand that the Swedish government take steps in accordance with the Paris Agreement. Thunberg’s and other Swedish pupils’ protest continued after the general election in 2018, and Thunberg has on many other occasions criticized Swedish politicians for continuing to fail to comply with the Paris Agreement. She, and others who agree with her, have not accepted that the Swedish climate law is comprehensive enough, even though Sweden was one of the first countries to implement a relatively clear and ambitious climate law in 2017.

Greta as a figurehead

Thunberg’s school strike has been an inspiration for many other young people and it has spawned the activist group Fridays for Future whose participants strike and demonstrate every Friday. This organization has gone worldwide and has given rise to huge demonstrations around the globe. Worth mentioning are the first two international school strikes on the 15th of March and 24th of May 2019, with 1.8 million participants in 2,300 towns and cities in 135 countries, and 2 million participants in 131 countries, respectively. Greta Thunberg has participated in these strikes both in front of the Riksdag and throughout Europe, and she has made several public speeches sparking international awareness.

Since she officially became a climate activist with the initiation of the school strike, Thunberg has been invited to speak at various meetings and in parliaments and fora where climate has been the issue, or at least part of the issue. She has given speeches at the United Nations Climate Change Conference both in 2018 and 2019 (COP24 and COP25), at the World Economic Forum in 2019 and 2020, as well as at a wide range of student and climate activist protests around the world, at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, and to the British Parliament in April 2019, among other events. In general, she addresses the fact that too little has been done to reduce global emissions and that we are in the middle of a crisis and need to handle it as such. For example, in the British Parliament she said: “The fact that we are speaking of ‘lowering’ instead of ‘stopping’ emissions is perhaps the greatest force behind the continuing business as usual.”

A large crowd gathered for a climate demonstration in Stockholm, September 2019

A Fridays for Future climate demonstration in Stockholm September 2019, where 50.000 people attended. Photo: Frankie Fouganthin, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

The two-edged sword of being a child

In her speeches, Greta Thunberg has repeatedly underlined her position as a child and stated how the climate crisis seems to have reversed the responsibility for action from the current generation of adults to the children, from the elite to the people. When the pupils strike on Fridays, their banners read: “If you don’t act like adults we will” and “When leaders act like kids, the kids become leaders.”

“If you don’t act like adults, we will”

Greta Thunberg has, as a child, claimed this responsibility despite the fact that the contemporary generation of adults and especially the elite among them, according to her, are the culprits and creators of the climate problem. This has created a paradoxical situation where Greta Thunberg is praised by the political elite as a climate activist par excellence – an important kid’s voice in this complex state of affairs – and therefore is invited to speak at renowned events the world over. But, at the same time, neither the political establishment nor the general elite has been moved to act. This is the inconsistency which Greta Thunberg also emphasizes again and again when she speaks.

Thunberg has definitely raised the question what it means that a kid seizes the initiative like that. However, it still remains to be seen whether an adolescent can motivate politicians and people to take regular action and not only show their eagerness to praise a brave juvenile. However, it appears certain that her efforts have had some effect and we can see her strikes, her speeches and Fridays for Future as having what we might call a discursive effect. This will probably be an important weapon in the fight to solve the climate crisis.

After a long period of depression, Greta Thunberg was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and selective mutism when she was 11 or 12 years old. Her selective mutism means, according to Thunberg herself, that she “only speaks when necessary,” and her Asperger she calls her “superpower.” In this way, she is able to turn her diagnosis into a necessary strength in her climate activism, giving her the ability to mobilize herself and others in the struggle. A student group from Roskilde University even concluded that Greta Thunberg, against this background, can be characterized as a charismatic leader in a Weberian sense.

A reformist activist

Thunberg strives to spread the message that we are in the middle of a climate crisis and that it should be handled as such and not as a traditional controversy between political parties – we must simply follow the scientific advice. In December 2019, Greta Thunberg posted the following on Twitter:

“I’m sometimes called ‘political’. But I’ve never supported any political party, politician or ideology. I communicate the science and the risks of failing to act on it.

And the fact that the politics needed don’t exist today, neither to the right, left nor center.

If anyone thinks that what I and the science are saying is advocating for a political view – then that says more about that person than about me.

That being said – some are certainly failing more than others.”

That something else but traditional politics is needed is emphasized by her strong rhetoric and in some cases revolutionary vocabulary. When she urges us to panic, when she talks about the elite versus the people, and when (in her speech at COP24 in Katowice, Poland) she says: “We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people,” it is not to voice her sympathy with a specific political party or line. On the contrary, it is to show that the contemporary political system has failed and a revolution therefore is necessary.

Grafiti supporting Greta Thunberg.

Even though she does not support a political party and tries to call for a strictly scientific angle on climate change, the debate and decision process rest with politics and politicians. This makes it hard to strive for apolitical debate and action, especially when Thunberg appears as a speaker at political meetings such as the COP summits, in parliaments, etc. Here, Thunberg attempts to navigate between being a reformist and an activist, and handles it by being primarily an activist and sometimes a reformistic activist.

PHOTO: Grafiti supporting Greta Thunberg. Photo: Colourbox.

“The Greta effect”

Thunberg has received both strong support and strong criticism, and has been discussed in the media, among politicians as well as of course in private settings and on social media, etc. Many have claimed that she should attend school, that she should not be a speaker or participant in all these international meetings and settings, that a kid should not have or take on this responsibility. Some have suggested that she is supported or even manipulated by others to serve their interests. Moreover, people around the world have criticized her officially, labeling her “a pain in the ass,” “a hysterical teenager,” mentally ill, “not right in the head” and even worse. The Italian newspaper Libero has called her an “eco-Taliban,” and a host of climate-skeptical fora on the internet describe her as a “cult leader” and “a representative of a radical, post-democratic green religion.” Many of these statements seem to be mocking the political intention in order to harm Greta Thunberg’s activism.

It had been suggested that the reason why she is regarded as provocative by so many is that she is female, she is a child and she has been diagnosed with Asperger’s. These characteristics coupled with well-communicated scientific talks about climate change disturb the primarily adult, male climate skeptics. The conclusion is that: what she herself has pointed out and used as her specific strengths is exactly what is attacked by climate-skeptical forces.

Still, she enjoys a great deal of support from children, young people and adults all around the world. Support also comes from high-profile politicians who have given her the honor of attempting to influence their governments into acting faster on climate change, from scientists, etc. This has been described as “The Greta effect.” She has also received a lot of honors and awards. In this way, she has been an ambassador for Sweden, for example, when she was named as the Swedish Woman of the Year in March 2019 by the Swedish Women’s Educational Association SWEA International with the words: “a Swedish woman who, through her accomplishments, has represented and brought attention to the Sweden of today in the greater world.”

Further reading:

  • Greta Thunberg et al., Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis (New York: Penguin Books, 2020).
  • Jørgen Steen Nielsen, Som gjaldt det livet [As if life were at stake] (Copenhagen: Informations Forlag, 2019).

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