Why Greta Thunberg is prevailing over her critics

The angry attacks against the teenage activist expose her opponents’ desperation. But serious solutions to the climate crisis are at risk of not being heard.

In the midst of four million people joining the Global Climate Strike, both admirers and critics of Greta Thunberg reflect upon the unprecedented growth and success of the movement that she has been spearheading. Why did the cause for saving the planet break through just now — and why is it so inextricably linked to the persona of the young Swedish activist?

Clearly, there is the cause itself — nothing less than the future of humanity could be at stake if the worst predictions about global warming came true. But one may still wonder: Why is this forceful and energized climate movement led by a teenage girl of all people — instead of a renowned scientist or an experienced political campaigner, for instance?

Source: flickr License: CC-by 2.0

The teenage activist is able to lead where adults can’t

The reason is that Greta Thunberg can do things that a scientist or a politician could not do, and which are at the same time incredibly effective for getting her message across. Greta Thunberg, because she is a teenager, is allowed to be scared and distrustful about the future and how the adults will (mis-)handle it. She is expected to be angry, upset and impatient about what is and is not being done regarding what she thinks could just as well save or jeopardize her generation’s future. She is at liberty to be emotionally invested and fighting back tears when speaking at the United Nations.

Whereas a scientist would seem unprofessional and a politician would seem phony, Greta Thunberg appears genuine and real because even when reaching up to the highest level of politics, she still remains a teenager with all the worries and anxieties that a teenager is confronted with. It is this genuineness that causes the strong emotional appeal of the whole movement.

Thunberg’s critics are marginalizing themselves

Ironically, it is the same reason that makes her critics lose their heads about her campaign and her personally. For them, it seems like a mystery why the public responds so attentively to a teenager without any academic credentials and without any particular democratic mandate. With Thunberg’s growing success and outreach, her critics have transitioned from mere skepticism about her ideas and opinions to pure desperation while simultaneously ramping up their attacks against her. What they do not realize, however, is that their negative reactions play right into Thunberg’s hands.

Take, for example, the often-heard (and potentially even accurate) complaint that Thunberg and her equally young followers would simply not have the necessary competence to fully grasp the complicated topic of climate change, which is why they would be well-advised to refrain from campaigning so vocally about it. This is in a nutshell the typical complaint that every adult has about every teenager most of the time. The problem arising for the critics is that a much smaller number of adults is willing to admit this publicly. The image of a (potentially male) adult rebuking a teenage girl for being too keen and outspoken about her ideas is simply so unpopular in this day and age that many adults do not by any means want to be associated with it.

Another doomed-to-fail attempt at smearing Thunberg’s public image is to bring up flimsy or flat-out false rumors about her campaign finances or alleged business relationships of her parents. This may well work in the case of professional politicians who are already surrounded by an air of corruption — it does not work in the case of a teenage girl with blond pigtails. It simply does not fit the preconception of the person in question, which is another reason why Greta Thunberg is the ideal figurehead of the climate movement.

To complete the list, the worst possible attack against Thunberg is to say that she should not be heard because she has been diagnosed with Asperger’s and has faced other mental challenges. There is no clearer signal that one does not want to be part of a constructive debate than questioning the mental health of one’s opponent and weaponizing their personal struggles against them. It oozes desperation and infamy.

Greta Thunberg therefore accomplishes two complementary goals by not much more than her own way of being: She gets her message across to those who are inclined to respond positively to it — and she triggers her opponents into launching completely misguided attacks against her that achieve little more than making their initiators appear utterly unlikeable in public.

Not every sceptic is an opponent

However, by far not everyone who does not go along with Thunberg’s message or activism is automatically an opponent of her cause much less a denier of climate change or climate science. They may simply have very different approaches to finding solutions to the challenges than Thunberg’s movement currently represents. Many of these approaches involve technology — such as carbon capture and storage or safer and cleaner nuclear energy — which diminishes their visibility in the current emotionalized and polarized debate.

If these innovative voices were overheard or ignored, the consequences could be as dire as inaction on climate change, in particular for emerging economies that will have to satisfy a growing demand for energy by their populations. If climate change is to be honestly understood as a global challenge to the survival and well-being of humankind, then every productive voice should have its space in the public debate.

The need for reasoned adults in the climate debate

As a consequence, those who have something constructive to say will have to set themselves apart from those who cannot see past their own distaste for Thunberg. The easiest way for the former to accomplish this is to alter how they perceive Greta Thunberg.

At the moment, they see in her an extremely hyped public figure surrounded by political turmoil. If they instead abstracted from her name and prominence, what would be left is a teenager who is scared to death that her young life and the rest of humanity will soon come to an end. How should an exemplary adult, potentially a parent, react when facing an adolescent so possessed by anger and fear? When Thunberg declares in public that she wants to make adults feel the same fear that she is feeling, how is it even possible to not feel compassion for her given that she has dedicated herself to such a depressing cause?

A responsible and truly mature adult would take these fears seriously without being possessed by them, too, and show genuine compassion without being condescending and blinded regarding what could be done to put an end to these fears. This type of adult is currently missing both on the activist and on the political side of the climate issue. Who will step forward first?

Economist. Reader. Writer. Hiker.

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