Opinion: We need to end the cult of Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg at the 2019 meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 25, 2019 Copyright by World Economic Forum / Manuel Lopez via flickr

Last Monday, the 16-year-old Swedish student-turned-climate-activist Greta Thunberg delivered a passionate and pointed speech to the attendees of U.N.’s Climate Action Summit in New York City. She called for action on climate change and expressed her anger with the assembled world leaders, “You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal.” Thunberg’s speech can be seen as her coronation as the preeminent environmental activist of her generation. But is Thunberg the right leader in the fight against climate change?

The story of Greta Thunberg is admirable in every sense of the word. From standing outside the Swedish Parliament alone with a cardboard sign to leading a global march against climate change in over 170 countries, her prowess as an activist is undeniable. The crux of her argument can be found in her igniting speech on Monday; she said, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

Additionally, she called for an immediate change in global emissions as well as a rejection of the notion that “business as usual” will lead to anything but destruction and fear. She finished her speech by alluding to the global campaign she has run, saying, “The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

The change Thunberg is talking about is a fundamental shift in the way we live our lives in the developed world. It would entail nothing short of a revolution in how we meet our energy needs, how we organise our economies, as well as require reconfiguration of our current political systems that serve the status quo.

That is a tremendously powerful idea. But make no mistake, Thunberg’s calls for immediate action would also entail immediate consequences in the form of mass unemployment in the energy and transportation sector, and above all, it would cause a great deal of social and political unrest. Taken to the logical extent of her argument, if the only way to curb these changes is through a governmental change of society rather than through the process of deliberative democratic government, the government must also change. There is neither time nor space for nuance or deliberation.

Her “all or nothing” approach to the climate crisis may very well convince and activate a base that already sees climate change as a pressing issue, but her militaristic rhetoric may cause further division and ultimately strengthen the belief that the political left’s overemphasis on climate change serves as a detriment to the political system.

The fundamental question about Greta Thunberg is whether she is a symbol of climate activism or an agent in developing solutions to climate change. As a symbol of the climate movement, Thunberg’s rhetoric and aim is unproblematic, but if her goal is to influence and change the status quo, then she has become an agent of change. Her speech at the UN represents her ascension into the role of an agent, and her arguments and aims should therefore meet the same scrutiny as any other head of state, CEO, or NGO. But, critiques of Thunberg have been either lacking or fundamentally cruel, misguided, and infantilising. U.S. President Donald Trump mocked Thunberg after her speech saying that “she seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”

So is Thunberg good for the debate on climate change? She has motivated students across the world to partake in her school strikes for climate, even here at the University of St Andrews. Her speeches serve as valuable arenas for educating the public on the reality that is climate change. But however filled with facts her speeches are, they lack policy suggestions on how to implement the reforms needed to actually meet her goals. Of course, it is not expected of a student to reinvent an economic structure that underpins modern life, but her followers in the media pigeonholing any critique of her argument as misogyny or the action of climate deniers is a dangerous notion.

Ultimately, the shunning of debate on the role of Thunberg is a sign that her movement has reached a point where there is an acceptance for authoritarian language on the issue of climate change. To be clear, it is not Thunberg herself that is at fault for causing this situation, but rather the obsession with collectivism on the issue of climate change. When criticism goes unheard, there can be a slippery slope from leading boldly to blindly.

Climate change is undoubtedly a tremendous challenge to mankind in the 21st century and beyond, but cultishly embracing an “all or nothing” attitude on how to solve it will only further entrench viewpoints that so desperately need to be merged in order to reach a sustainable solution. Therefore, there needs to be a more inclusive debate on who should lead and how the necessary changes should be implemented. Only then can a figure like Thunberg rightfully reign on the throne of climate activism.

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