Many of Sweden’s leading figures in the world of technology, fashion, finance and education gathered in Stockholm earlier this month for the annual Brilliant Minds conference.
To add a little lustre to the affair, organizers invited a 16-year-old pigtailed young woman from the neighbourhood to give the keynote address. Anyone who had been paying attention might have known that Greta Thunberg, climate activist, was not one to play nice with adult audiences.
Ms. Thunberg began by offering some sobering perspectives on the greatest plague facing mankind, such as the fact that roughly 100 companies are responsible for emitting just over 70 per cent of our total carbon-dioxide emissions. And the fact that the richest 10 per cent of the world’s population emit about half of the planet’s total emissions and the wealthiest 1 per cent emit more than the poorest 50 per cent. In other words, it wasn’t the inhabitants of places such as Mozambique, Bangladesh or Colombia most responsible for the crisis. It was the people sitting in the rows before Ms. Thunberg as she spoke.
“It is mostly down to people like you here in the audience: entrepreneurs, celebrities, politicians, business leaders,” she said. “People who have a lot of power. People who consume enormous amounts of stuff, who often fly around the world, sometimes in private jets.”
An uncomfortable silence engulfed the room.
“I think the worst part is that you are normalizing this extreme lifestyle because people look up to you.”
She has become the most famous, and unlikely, climate activist in the world. Just under a year ago, at the age of 15, she cut a lonely figure sitting outside Parliament in Stockholm with her handmade wooden sign that read: “School strike for climate.” Mere months later, hundreds of thousands of kids around the world would join her protest. It’s been a sight to behold. So, too, has been the reaction to her rise. More on that in a minute.
Ms. Thunberg has become known for her brutally frank speeches that excoriate her audience, often members of the global elite. This is what makes her so unique, and such a welcome addition to the climate debate: She has the guts to say things of which others are afraid. It’s a lovely thing to see the rich and powerful squirm in her presence.
She has credited her Asperger’s diagnosis with helping her see things in black and white: She told the BBC her condition on the autism spectrum is “a gift,” which helps her “see things from outside the box.” Before she was diagnosed, she suffered from paralyzing depression over the fate of the planet, as well as selective mutism – an inability to speak due to extreme anxiety. In other words, not the background you would associate with someone destined to lead a global movement.
It’s fair to ask what her speeches will ultimately accomplish. That is certainly what Ms. Thunberg’s many detractors are asking. She has been portrayed in some quarters as a naive crisis actor, an embarrassing symbol of the angst associated with generation woke. She’s been called the “Pippi Longstocking” of climate change. And it’s been pointed out that the emotionalism imbued in her speeches won’t do anything to save the planet.
First, let me say there is nothing more distasteful, and frankly cowardly, than adults mocking and smearing a young person motivated to do something about the increasingly woeful health of our planet. Those people are the ignorant fools here, not a young Swedish teenager who has, against overwhelming odds, elevated the discussion around climate change and engaged young people in the fight to save the planet like never before.
People can sneer all they want at Ms. Thunberg, just as their predecessors sneered at earlier protest movements and called them a waste of time. But many of those campaigns did have an effect. Some stopped wars. Some brought about laws that outlawed racist policies. Some stopped whales from being butchered indiscriminately.
No, Greta Thunberg is not going to save the planet on her own. But at least she is holding those in a position to do something about climate change to account, speaking hard truths many others are afraid to. She is not an attention seeker. She is a young person frightened to death about the state of the world she is inheriting.
Sure, mumble that she is a disillusioned naif if you wish. I prefer to think of Ms. Thunberg as something else: a powerful and vital new voice in the climate debate. And someone who deserves support, encouragement and thanks from her fellow global citizens.
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