Greta Thunberg Will Save the World: A Response to Damien Grant
One of today’s most influential climate activists is Greta Thunberg. At sixteen, she’s the founder of the #FridaysForFuture protest movement, and has spoken at parliaments, conferences, UN summits and even been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Not everyone is a fan. Aside from the climate change deniers and the politicians who feel threatened by Ms Thunberg’s impact, there are some people whose issues with Greta are less to do with what she’s saying than with who she is. Damien Grant’s article ‘Climate starlets solve nothing’ (published May 5, 2019) is a typical example1. I take exception to Mr Grant’s brand of ‘criticism’: factually incorrect, patronising and sexist. More than that, it has nothing to do with the actual issues. Some adults are intimidated by Ms Thunberg and the societal change she represents, and that’s a problem – not just for her, but for our future.
Mr Grant’s consistently incorrect characterisation of Greta Thunberg and her work shows that he knows very little about her. He misrepresents her motivations, her impact, and the challenges she has worked to overcome. Hardly one of the “dilettantes who have made climate change their defining issue,” Greta’s interest in climate change – or as she calls it, climate breakdown or climate emergency – is not fleeting or vapid. Greta is terrified. “I don’t want your hope,” she told the World Economic Forum at Davos. “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”2
And people are acting. Greta has inspired an EU proposal for hundreds of billions of dollars to fight climate change.3 Her Fridays for Future school strikes have drawn more than 1.4 million people in over a hundred countries.4 President Obama and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, among others, endorse her efforts.5,6 These are incredible achievements, for someone of any age, and they are all ignored by Mr Grant.
Furthermore, Greta knows that her role in this fight is more subtle than Mr Grant seems to grasp. She does not “parrot science she cannot understand” – as if it were impossible for teenagers to educate themselves on a topic they were passionate about. Rather, she highlights the facts that many people in power refuse to see, and puts them front and centre. She understands that we have the science and we know the solutions, but we lack the will to change. The climate fight isn’t fought on science anymore, but on behaviour and incentive. That’s what Greta is good at.
Mr Grant also thinks that “no-one is going to debate or even criticise [Greta] for fear of being labelled insensitive.” But that claim is just not true.7 Ms Thunberg has long been under attack from climate change deniers and far-right groups, mocking her youth, her Asperger’s, calling for her to “have a meltdown on national telly”8. Far from contributing anything to the vital discourse on climate breakdown, Mr Grant simply joins their number.
More problematic, though, than the technical issues with Mr Grant’s article are his premise and tone, which are frankly offensive. He also writes with a casual disregard for the credibility of women, for example dismissing the achievements of Lucy Lawless by way of a crass reference to her appearance in the show Xena: Warrior Princess. But while most people can now see that his casual misogyny is a Bad Thing™, we tend to struggle more with the idea that children can also make worthwhile contributions – that’s a significant problem too. In his first sentence Mr Grant calls Greta Thunberg “lass”. He only gets more patronizing from there, describing her as mimicking the characteristics of adulthood as “an old vaudeville routine”.
“It is a brilliant PR move to shove this schoolgirl onto the stage,” says Mr Grant. Who does he think is controlling, Ms Thunberg? Greta’s activism started when, at fifteen, she began her own solitary ‘school strike for climate’ outside the Swedish parliament every Friday. She convinced her family to go vegan and stop flying, and her parents listened to the evidence and arguments she brought – not the other way around. Is it so incomprehensible that an educated and eloquent sixteen-year old might be able to act for herself? What age do you have to be to be taken seriously?
“I’m old enough to remember when serious men in suits confronted the fact that scientists told us that CFCs were destroying the ozone hole,” says Mr Grant. Greta is young enough to pay the price for how slow that realisation was in coming. It was the serious men in suits who covered up climate change, who profited from it, and who still do today. But that is not a sustainable future.
There is no substance behind Mr Grant’s article other than taking poorly-researched shots at Greta. He doesn’t offer any other solutions or any “experts” we should turn to. “It’s fun to make fun of vanity activism,” says Mr Grant. What about vanity editorials? If anyone is trying to “eke out a few more moments of fame,” it’s not Greta Thunberg.
Why is it important to listen to our young people? For one, they bring new perspectives. A study published in Nature found that children are ideal climate ambassadors, as “unlike adults, their views on the issue do not generally reflect any entrenched political ideology.”9,10 Further, though, a person who is under eighteen is still a person. Is it inconceivable that they should be treated like one? But politically, we don’t want to hear children’s voices. We consider them less capable, less important – without the right to representation that being citizens of this country should afford them. That mindset pervades much of our society. But taking children seriously will empower them. If they learn they can have opinions, that their actions can make a difference, that those who bring evidence and arguments to the table will be offered respectful debate – then we’ll have a generation more capable of solving the environmental catastrophe we find ourselves in.
We need to challenge our assumptions on who can and cannot contribute. Preventing our fast-approaching environmental doom is an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ situation, and it’s reasonable to encourage those with the most at stake to pitch in.
I suggest that Mr Grant is intimidated by Greta Thunberg, and that’s symptomatic of a big problem. “There isn’t any reason to take Ms Thunberg seriously. Her arguments make [sic] as much sense as a certain Swedish chef …” But Greta has given us many reasons to take her seriously. It’s true, she doesn’t have any of the reasons that some people of Mr Grant’s mindset unconsciously look for: she’s not male and she’s not middle-aged. But it’s time to stop judging people’s contributions by these metrics.
I’m not much older than Greta. What I hear Mr Grant say is that my opinions have no weight, that my actions will not be taken seriously, and that my future is secondary to maintaining a status quo that silences too many voices. I reject his premise and his opinionated, poorly-worded insults. Greta Thunberg and people like her will save the world – or she and I will face the consequences.
1 Grant, Damien. “For the Sake of the Planet, Let’s Not Put Teen Climate Activist Greta Thunberg on a Pedestal.” Stuff, 5 May 2019, www.stuff.co.nz/ environment/112369771/for-the-sake-of-the-planet-lets-not-put-teenclimate-activist-greta-thunberg-on-a-pedestal.
2 Thunberg, Greta. “‘Our House Is on Fire’: Greta Thunberg, 16, Urges Leaders to Act on Climate.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 25 Jan. 2019, www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/25/our-houseis-on-fire-greta-thunberg16-urges-leaders-to-act-on-climate.
3 Roth, Clare. “Swedish Student Leader Wins EU Pledge to Spend Billions on Climate.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 21 Feb. 2019, www.reuters. com/article/us-climatechange-teen-activist-idUSKCN1QA1RF?utm_ campaign=4d422b8969-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_02_21_01_46&utm_co ntent=5c6ec0934b73850001e27e12&utm_medium=email&utm_ source=Global Health NOW Main List&utm_term=0_8d0d062dbd4d422b8969-2890801.
4 Taylor, Matthew. “Latest Global School Climate Strikes Expected to Beat Turnout Record.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 24 May 2019, www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/24/latest-global-schoolclimate-strikes-expected-to-beat-turnout-record.
5 Obama, Barack. “They’re People like 16-Year-Old @GretaThunberg, Whose Protests at Swedish Parliament Sparked a Movement. Inspired by Greta’s Action, Fridays for Future Brought Together More than a Million Strikers on Every Continent Last Month to Demand Action on Climate. Https://T. co/un7nBhEF8i.” Twitter, Twitter, 22 Apr. 2019, twitter.com/barackobama/ status/1120411734316023809?lang=en.
6 Guterres, António. “The Climate Strikers Should Inspire Us All to Act at the next UN Summit | António Guterres.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15 Mar. 2019, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/ mar/15/climate-strikers-urgency-un-summit-world-leaders.
7 Chakrabortty, Aditya. “The Hounding of Greta Thunberg Is Proof That the Right Have Run out of Ideas | Aditya Chakrbortty.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 1 May 2019, www.theguardian.com/ commentisfree/2019/may/01/greta-thunberg-right-environmentalactivist-attacks.
8 Dale, Helen. “Greta Thunberg’s Supporters Can’t Have It Both Ways.” The Spectator, 29 Apr. 2019, blogs.spectator.co.uk/2019/04/greta-thunbergssupporters-cant-have-it-both-ways/.
9 Denworth, Lydia. “Children Change Their Parents’ Minds about Climate Change.” Scientific American, 6 May 2019, www.scientificamerican.com/ article/children-change-their-parents-minds-about-climate-change/.
10 Lawson, Danielle F., et al. “Children Can Foster Climate Change Concern among Their Parents.” Nature Climate Change, vol. 9, no. 6, 2019, pp. 458–462., doi:10.1038/s41558-019-0463-3.