Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist, made waves this week with a speech at the United Nations where she blamed world leaders for failing children all over the globe.
“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!” she said. “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
For better or worse, there are many people who agree with Thunberg. Not on the question of actually dealing with climate change – as always, that is a tricky matter of those who refuse to admit the conclusions of scientists and the complex question of whether some countries bear more responsibility for the crisis than others.
No, what a significant number of people seem to agree with Thunberg is on her statement that she “shouldn’t be up here.”
Some of this comes from right-wing leaders and activists around the world who appear to dislike Thunberg for the space she has managed to get while arguing for a more environmentally friendly approach to policy. Thunberg’s approach, as evidenced by her speech above, also leans heavily on using shame as a way of convincing people that they need to take action.
This doesn’t always play well with some audiences (starting with the US president), prompting accusations of everything from secret political agendas to unnecessary alarmism to accusations of meaningless virtue signaling. As Jennifer O’Connell wrote in a piece entitled ‘Why is Greta Thunberg so triggering for certain men?’, “even for someone who spends a lot of time on Twitter, some of the criticism levelled at Thunberg is astonishing. It is, simultaneously, the most vicious and the most fatuous kind of playground bullying.”
But there are other kinds of critics too.
There is a section of people who, while broadly agreeing with Thunberg’s concern for the environment, are also uneasy with turning a teenager into a global icon. The response to this is complex – Thunberg herself insists she should not be famous for this – and at the same time, it is certainly true that she has inspired youngsters around the world to talk about climate change. Of course, it is primarily because she is so young that Thunberg has managed to break through the fray and bring a climate change message to a larger audience.
Should the 16-year-old activist really be blamed for adults not having a nuanced conversation about climate change?
Still, questions have been raised on putting so much of the pressure and spotlight on someone so young.
Some have been defensive of this, saying that her popularity itself is part of the problem, but not one that she can be held at fault for.
The fallout of this question – whether Thunberg should be getting so much prominence from the media in place of, say, climate scientists – also brings up a subset of criticism, about simplifying the issue. From this point of view, Thunberg, with her direct calls to action and shaming of adults doesn’t allow for nuance when it comes to environmental debates, such as whether developing countries should be allowed to pollute regardless as they grow and try to take people out of poverty.
Again, there lies the complexity of demanding nuance from a 16-year-old activist who the media and fellow thought leaders have turned into an icon. Should Thunberg really be blamed for adults not having a nuanced conversation about climate change?