Strange World: The Radical Rhetoric of Greta Thunberg

[A version of this piece was published by Green Left on 8 January, 2020.]

On Friday, 20 August, 2018, rather than go to school, Greta Thunberg sat outside Swedish parliament to protest inaction on climate change. The then-fifteen-year-old school student had with her some flyers, and a handpainted wooden sign that read: “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (school strike for the climate). On the first day of her strike, she sat alone, but news of her protest quickly spread via social media. On the second day, others joined her, and so began a youth-led protest movement comprised of millions around the world who have taken to the streets to demand a liveable future.1

If Thunberg’s act of civil disobedience attracted considerable interest, her gifts as a public communicator, evident in numerous speeches given in the intervening months, have merely served to magnify her spotlight. These speeches were gathered and published last May as No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference. In late 2019, the book was reissued in expanded editions 2019 to include speeches delivered by Thunberg between May and September.

Much of Thunberg’s activism involves pointing out what, in the midst of Australia’s nightmarish bushfire season, is now horrifyingly apparent: climate change is not merely happening but is a genuine global emergency requiring unprecedented action. Obstructing urgent progress, she points out, is widespread ignorance of the extent of the crisis. Beginning with our politicians and the media, this ignorance spreads, infecting the populace.

Although we are witnessing its effects all around us, however, Thunberg observes that “there are no headlines, no emergency meetings, no breaking news” regarding climate change itself. “No one is acting as if we were in a crisis.”2 We need to take immediate action to end greenhouse gas emissions by shifting to renewable energy sources. The emission curve, she explains, is the only thing that matters.

And the curve only continues to rise.3

António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, has deemed climate change “a direct existential threat” and “the defining issue of our time.”4 The Paris Agreement, an international treaty forming part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was established in 2016, under which countries pledged to keep the rise in global average temperatures “well below 2°C” while “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”5

Achieving the 1.5 degree target is critical, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says doing so “would reduce challenging impacts on ecosystems, human health and well-being.” However, this “would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” with “the next few years [being] probably the most important in our history.”6

We have already surpassed 1 degree of warming.7 Yet, much of the world is embarked upon a business-as-usual trajectory, with few if any countries having so far demonstrated a readiness to undertake the unprecedented, transformative changes required to secure a safe and liveable future.8

Confronting climate change therefore means recognising, as Thunberg does, that the world’s political and economic systems seem utterly incapable of solving the very crisis they have helped create. “You [politicians] … are only interested in solutions that will enable you to carry on like before,” she writes. “And those answers don’t exist any more. Because you did not act in time.”9

Thunberg prefers to define herself as a realist rather than a radical10 and resists the perception that she is political: “This is not a political text” the book’s opening speech proclaims.11 Her reluctance to be thought of in such terms is perhaps in part strategic. Her critics, eager to divert attention away from meaningful issues, characterise her as exploited, indoctrinated, and compromised by vested interests.

Eschewing labels and sticking to the science presumably allows Thunberg to safeguard her sense of independence, making it harder for others to dismiss her message as ideologically motivated. “Many people love to spread rumours saying that I have people ‘behind me’ or that I’m being ‘paid’ or ‘used’ to do what I’m doing,” she writes. “But there is no one ‘behind’ me except for myself.”12

And unlike politicians who are desperate to “talk about almost anything except for the climate crisis,” the science itself is at the heart of her message. “We [young activists] don’t have any other manifestos or demands—you unite behind the science, that is our demand.”13 (This point was emphasised when, after addressing the United States Congress in September, 2019, Thunberg submitted into the record a report from the IPCC in lieu of her own testimony.14)

Yet, when one considers the implications of what “unit[ing] behind the science” means for our political and economic systems, to be a realist in a time of crisis requires a willingness to consider radical alternatives. “[O]ur current economics,” she notes, “are still totally dependent on burning fossil fuels, and thereby destroying ecosystems in order to create everlasting economic growth.”15

Responsibility therefore largely rests not with the populace at large but with the corporations and the politicians who work in their interests. “[S]omeone is to blame,” she insists. “Some people—some companies and some decision-makers in particular—have known exactly what priceless values they are sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money.”16

The cause is of the crisis, in other words, is neither corruption nor aberration; rather, it is our political and economic systems running precisely as intended. “We live in a strange world,” she reflects, “where no one dares to look beyond the current political systems even though it’s clear that the answers we seek will not be found within the politics of today.” She concludes, therefore, that “maybe we should change the system itself.”17 To achieve this, Thunberg advocates “civil disobedience” tactics and “grassroots” social change.18 “It’s time to rebel,” she declares.19

In the chapter ‘I’m Too Young to Do This,’ Thunberg explains that idea of a student school strike came from phone meetings with other activists, facilitated by Bo Thorén from the group Fossil Free Dalsland. During these discussions, Thorén suggested a student strike, an idea inspired by US students who refused to return to school in the aftermath of a 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. Thunberg liked it, but the rest of the group favoured other ideas.20 “So I went on planning the school strike all by myself,” she writes, “and after that I didn’t participate in any more meetings.”21

In a tweet, meteorologist Martin Hedberg confirmed Thunberg’s account. “I participated in a phone-meeting with Greta, Bo and others in June 2018. After a while Greta concluded: ‘You are not radical enough. I have to do something myself.’ [A]nd then she hung up. She went on to do her thing, her way.”22

In speeches added to the book’s expanded editions, Thunberg emphasises the global carbon budget, which estimates the amount of fossil fuels the world can potentially consume before we breach the threshold of 1.5 degrees of warming. Citing “chapter 2, on page 108 of the SR15 IPCC report,” she notes that at current rates of consumption, we will have exhausted that budget in scarcely over eight years.23 “No other current challenge can match the importance of establishing a wide, public awareness and understanding of our our rapidly disappearing carbon budget, that should and must become our new global currency and the very heart of our future and present economics.”24

The activist, who has Asperger syndrome, believes the condition has motivated much of her work, explaining that “since I am not that good at socializing I did this instead.”25 Likewise, she believes the condition to be key in her ability to accurately assess the existential threat posed by climate change: because Thunberg sees things as “black and white,” she avoids the cognitive dissonance and doublethink necessary to be passive and complicit within a toxic system. “[T]he rest of the people … keep saying that climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all,” she writes. “And yet they just carry on like before.”26

Thunberg is one of the truthtellers of our age, whose use stark binary terms evokes the urgency of our times. “If the emissions have to stop, then we must stop the emissions. To me that is black or white. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival. Either we go on as a civilization or we don’t.”27

Her role role to wrest us from our collective slumber and to awaken us to the horrifying realworld consequences of endless consumption and exploitation. “I have a dream,” she declares, invoking Martin Luther King Jr. (whom she mentions by name).28

“In fact I have many dreams. But … [t]his is not the time and place for dreams. This is the moment in history when we need to be wide awake.… And yet, wherever I go I seem to be surrounded by fairytales. Business leaders, elected officials all across the political spectrum [are] spending their time telling bedtime stories that soothe us, that make us go back to sleep.… It’s time to face the reality, the facts, the science.”29

It is sadly predictable—and a testament to the topsy-turvy nature of our times—that someone so clearsighted should be regularly denounced as a tool of propaganda.30 In 2018, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, an organisation that assesses existential risk, set their metaphorical Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight.31 It was the nearest the clock had been set to midnight since a single previous occasion in 1953: the peak of the Cold War.32

Branding the times in which we live as the ‘new abnormal,’ the Bulletin cited, in addition to two major existential threats—the climate crisis and the proliferation of nuclear weapons—an emerging third threat: the “ongoing and intentional corruption of the information environment,” or the spread of propaganda by way of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts,’ which has undermined our capacity for rational discourse.33

Last month, citing a further deterioration in these areas, the Bulletin advanced the clock further still: to 100 seconds to midnight.34

In August, 2019, the Sun Herald columnist Andrew Bolt wrote a tawdry attack piece in which he referenced Thunberg’s mental health, calling her “deeply disturbed” and likening her to a cult leader.35

“Where are the adults?” she tweeted in response.36

A similar question was recently on the mind of the dissident intellectual Noam Chomsky as he pondered, in an interview, this “scandalous” state of affairs in which the fight for a survivable future has been left largely to teenagers. “It’s literally the case that this generation is going to have to determine whether organised human society persists,” he said. “Where’s the rest of us?”37

[The expanded edition of No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference is available in both illustrated and non-illustrated formats. Greta Thunberg’s next book, Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis is a memoir, cowritten with her family; it will be published in English in March.]

1 The “millions” figure comes from estimates of numbers at global protests in March and September of 2019. See Damian Carrington, ‘School Climate Strikes: 1.4 Million People Took Part, Say Campaigners,’ The Guardian, 19 March, 2019; Matthew Taylor, Jonathan Watts, and John Bartlett, ‘Climate Crisis: 6 Million People Join Latest Wave of Global Protests,’ The Guardian, 28 September, 2019.

2 Greta Thunberg, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, United Kingdom: Allen Lane, 2019, page 19.

3 Ibid., page 85.

4 ‘Secretary-General’s Remarks on Climate Change [As Delivered],’ United Nations, 10 September, 2018.

5 ‘Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C Approved by Governments,’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 8 October, 2018.

6 Ibid.

7 Myles Allen et al., ‘Frequently Asked Questions,’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2015.

8 ‘Climate Change Performance Index,’ Gemanwatch, NewClimate Institute, and Climate Action Network International, December, 2019; ‘Countries,’ Climate Action Tracker, accessed 9 February, 2020.

9 Thunberg, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, page 87.

10 ‘Interview mit Greta Thunberg: “Ich bin Realistin. Ich sehe Fakten.”’ ARD, 31 March, 2019; Sarah Kaplan and Brady Dennis, ‘Teen Activist Greta Thunberg Takes Her Youth Climate Campaign to Washington,’ The Washington Post, 14 September, 2019; Greta Thunberg, tweet, 12 December, 2019, 12:16 PM.

11 Thunberg, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, page 10.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., page 54.

14 Somini Sengupta, ‘Greta Thunberg, on Tour in America, Offers an Unvarnished View,’ The New York Times, 18 September, 2019.

15 Thunberg, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, page 86.

16 Ibid., page 35.

17 Ibid., pages 28, 64.

18 Ibid., pages 21, 136.

19 Ibid., page 21.

20 Ibid., pages 45–46; Wesley Lowery, ‘He Survived the Florida School Shooting. He Vows Not to Return to Classes until Gun Laws Change,’ The Washington Post, 19 February, 2018.

21 Thunberg, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, pages 45–46.

22 Martin Hedberg, tweet, 3 February, 2019, 4:13 AM.

23 Joeri Rogelj et al., ‘Mitigation Pathways Compatible with 1.5°C in the Context of Sustainable Development,’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2018, page 108; Thunberg, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, page 120.

24 Ibid., page 39.

25 Ibid., page 48.

26 Ibid., page 18.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid., pages 117, 122.

29 Ibid., pages 117–118.

30 See for instance Dinesh D’Souza, tweet, 22 September, 2019, 12:04 PM; Sebastian Gorka, tweet, 23 September, 6:04 PM; Daniel Lee, ‘Greta Thunberg and Samantha Smith: Propaganda Poster Girls,’ National Review, 2 October, 2019.

31 ‘It Is Now 2 Minutes to Midnight,’ The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 25 January, 2018.

32 ‘Timeline,’ The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, accessed 9 February, 2020.

33 ‘Press Release—Welcome to “The New Abnormal,”’ The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 24 January, 2019.

34 ‘Closer than Ever: It Is 100 Seconds to Midnight,’ The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 23 January, 2020.

35 Andrew Bolt, ‘The Disturbing Secret to the Cult of Greta Thunberg,’ The Sun-Herald, 1 August, 2019.

36 Greta Thunberg, tweet, 1 August, 2019.

37 Noam Chomsky, ‘8.0,’ YouTube, uploaded by Thomas Pogge, 4 November, 2019.

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