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Image courtesy of @gretathunberg on Instagram

The Power of Greta Thunberg

Why has Greta Thunberg become the primary target of conservative ire? It’s because her rhetoric directly targets the power elite that benefit the global right.

Nov 9, 2019

Sixteen. Climate activist. Asperger’s. In her rise to global fame in less than a year, media coverage around the world has attempted to capture Greta Thunberg in these three words. From a lone protestor out on the street on a working Friday in Stockholm, to the enabler of a global movement that successfully mobilized more than four million people in 128 different nations, Greta’s rise to global fame is truly unprecedented. The nature of her climate activism is predicated on galvanising action and demanding accountability and a restructuration of policy and governance. Her career has been marked by speeches at the U.S. Congress and the UN General Assembly, rousing support to believe the science behind the climate crisis — and that the solution to the climate crisis is already present and awaiting action. It is a huge achievement for Greta and the legions of youth activists she now speaks for, and alongside of, to gain so much momentum in such a small amount of time. This rise, however, has been marked by all kinds of criticism and slander. From President Trump’s sarcastic tweet following her impassioned UN speech: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” to being infantilized and labelled a “mentally ill Swedish child” the conservative global right has shown how it is particularly troubled by her rise.
There is reasoning to this, perhaps, that extends beyond climate change denialism itself. Greta’s attack is directed towards large multinational corporations and national governments, calling them out for inaction and violation of environmental policies. The interests of the powerful invariably collide with this type of activism. In a world where the powerful in politics are inextricably linked to and supported by the global economic elite, climate activism must recognise that and act on it – which is exactly what Greta has managed to do. Urgent, large-scale, structural change is necessary.
The gain in her popularity and the disruptiveness of her movement to the status quo is likely linked to an increase in verbal assault and opposition from climate denialists, politicians and multinational networks. What this highlights is the anxiety caused to all of these outlets given that their interests and their future is now on the line. By agitating for tangible change, Greta threatens their very ethos. From denying climate change to calling Greta a puppet, the powerful will do all that they can to preserve the status quo. From this notion of accountability, Greta’s movement also brings with it the ability to change voter patterns: the voters of the present and the future are actively mobilizing against those asking for their votes. This is evident in the recent success of Green political parties: in Germany, the Greens obtained 20.5% of the votes in the 2019 elections with 33% of the votes of those under 30.
In this offensive against industrialist and capitalist institutions globally — whose structures are directly enmeshed and embedded within larger patriarchal frameworks — Greta’s cry as a woman, and that too a teenager, is a direct threat to their worldview. Indeed, the misogyny implicit in many of the criticisms directed towards her is hard to ignore or deny. From her hard stares to her impassioned speeches, she undercuts these trivializations in every appearance she makes.
In all of these demands for change, Greta hits a nerve: she has made climate politics popular and radical and this in itself disrupts the status quo for the powerful and the elite.
This opposition, however, shows no understanding of the rationale behind Greta’s argument. A 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change argues that in 11 years, the Earth will face a number of “tipping points” that threaten to destabilise not only ecosystems, but also the safety and ways of living of millions of people around the world. Greta does not provide any framework or solutions to the climate crisis herself, but instead uses her space to put the spotlight on the scientists, and to urge politicians and policymakers to listen to them.
With due acknowledgment towards what this narrative gets right, it is however true that when drawing attention to the comparative contribution and responsibility of individuals versus the large-scale, institutional negligence that has led to the climate crisis, Greta’s movement simplifies things a bit too hastily. While she is right to demand and fight for immediate and urgent change from the very top, it is still valid that what supports the very institutions she criticises is the complacency of the larger masses. On a personal scale, contributing to the betterment of the environment should not be merely a political act, but one accompanied by an active change in consumption habits and patterns.
When all is said and done, however, we need to imagine this: she is a 16-year-old who played a huge role in mobilising the largest climate protest the world has ever seen. The social impact and vitality of her movement is undeniable. It is responsible for the change in vernacular regarding the environment such as using the term ‘climate crisis’ instead of ‘climate change’, the rise of the global Generation Greta and the surge in popularity of green political parties in multiple nations. The power of her movement lies in its call for urgency: her voice echoes everywhere as the world listens on. She is a 16-year-old climate activist with Asperger’s, in the UN General Assembly, calling out diplomats and leaders of all nations on their empty words, manipulation and exploitation, asking them to defend the world and its future generations from the damages they themselves are entirely responsible for. After all, she is right: how dare they.
Huma Umar is a staff writer. Email her at
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