Greta Thunberg has made a lot of enemies. They are easy to recognise because their rage is so great, they cannot help making themselves look ridiculous. Greta’s arrival in the US last month set off rightwing pundits and then the president, Donald Trump, himself. Conservative political commentator Dinesh D’Souza compared her look to a Nazi propaganda poster; a Fox News guest called her a “mentally ill Swedish child” being exploited by her parents; and Trump mocked her on Twitter as a “happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future”, after a speech in which she laid out the dismal prospects for her generation’s future.
These are the latest attacks, but they aren’t the darkest, or most unhinged. British businessman Arron Banks suggesting that she might drown crossing the Atlantic Ocean in August might be the single worst example – or you can stare directly into the abyss by witnessing the abuse Greta receives online.
Her many supporters seem baffled about why Greta triggers these attacks. “What is it about Greta?” they ask, puzzling over her apparent innocuousness; this girl with her oversized coats and hand-painted sign who insists we should simply “listen to the scientists”. Greta’s age and gender undoubtedly annoy her critics, but they’re melting down because she makes the connections that scientists are generally unwilling to make. Namely that their scientific predictions for the climate, and the current economic and political order, may not be compatible.
Last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned there were just 12 years left to avoid irreversible damage to the climate. Greta refers to this often, updating the count as if it were a time bomb strapped to the chest of her entire generation: the closer it gets to zero, the more radical action seems justified.
It’s a moral argument that assumes the climate crisis will be worse than any disruption caused by addressing it. Carbon moves the deadly clock forward, and anything that helps that must be bad. She judges long-touted models of “green growth” and market-based solutions as failures by this simple measure. “If solutions within this system are so impossible to find then maybe we should change the system itself,” she said at the United Nations climate conference in Katowice, Poland, last year.
Climate change activist Greta Thunberg’s asks world leaders ‘How dare you?’ in UN speech
The right doesn’t just mindlessly explode at every climate activist. Greta has none of the unthreatening geniality of American politician Al Gore, or the various celebrities who have taken on climate as a cause. She styles herself as a climate populist: she invokes a clear moral vision, a corrupt, unresponsive system – and has a knack for neatly separating an “us” and a “them”. When she spoke of her supporters “being mocked and lied about by elected officials, members of parliament, business leaders, journalists”, she was drawing now-familiar political lines against the elite.
This framing releases ordinary people from complicity in the climate crisis, just as other populisms release them from blame for their economic or social fate, and directs that feeling towards a political enemy. “Some people say that the climate crisis is something that we all have created. But that is just another convenient lie,” Greta said earlier this year. “Someone is to blame.” A 2017 report showing that just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 has become a popular reference among protesters. The alchemy of populism is that powerlessness fuels anger rather than despair.
Greta’s critics previously understood exactly what to expect from the climate issue. Even if they didn’t follow it closely, they could infer, as most people could, that the mainstream channels of communication were gunked up with denial and obstruction, and international negotiations were governed by a politics that was accommodating to the status quo. Despite the lofty promises, no one believed anything would change. It isn’t just that Greta has made climate politics popular, she has – for the first time since the early days of the climate justice movement – made them populist on a large scale, something these people rightly see as a threat to the more liberal order that suited them fine. A good reactionary recognises the potential vehicle for real change, and they hate it.
In seeing this, Greta’s hecklers are actually more perceptive than many of the liberal and centrist politicians who have taken to gushing over her without hearing her message. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for example, praised her last week while unveiling new climate policies that fell short of Greta’s goals. After meeting with him, she claimed Trudeau was “not doing enough” on climate – and she has previously called his government’s doublespeak on climate policy “shameful”.
It’s not clear where Greta’s politics lie, or where they will go in the future, but her rhetoric mirrors the left of the environmental movement, a wing of which has long cautioned that reductions in consumption and growth will be required to deal with the climate crisis. “You only speak of a green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular,” she told delegates at the UN climate conference in Katowice last year, criticising the “same bad ideas that got us into this mess”, and telling them to pull “the emergency brake”.
Last month in New York, she continued the critique in front of world leaders. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can think of is money and fairy tales of eternal growth: how dare you,” she said, visibly angry.
This is worth pointing out – not to claim Greta for any particular political faction, but to note that her main rhetorical targets are not denialist nuts, but the same mainstream politicians who invite her to speak and praise her activism. They beam at her as if she were their own child, and, perhaps in a similar way, they don’t appear to hear her when she says it’s their fault her life is ruined. It’s the reaction of a group who have long considered themselves on the correct side of the climate divide, and thus, of history. As if a grand “we tried” would satisfy the generations after them.
Greta’s great contribution is to convince the wider public of the bankruptcy of that outlook, and to indict years of missed targets as the failures that they are. Politicians don’t appear to take this shift, or her, very seriously. They’re happy to bask in her light, perhaps convinced this new insistence on immediacy will pass, as all the others did.
In her latest speech, Greta promised change was coming, “whether you like it or not”, although it’s not clear she has a plan for how. For the moment she and the movement she has invigorated are in a strange place, commanding immense popular support for a radical cause, and simultaneously praised by the very people they identify as the problem.