Greta Thunberg Is a Climate Hero, but She Can’t Do It Alone


By Sarah Waters, News & Academics Editor

The climate movement owes a lot to Greta Thunberg, a Swedish 16-year-old known for sponsoring the high-profile school strikes “Fridays for Future” and other climate activism. For those on the left and within environmental circles, she’s practically a deity; the quintessential youth hero fighting the good fight against an existential crisis. At the same time, she’s vilified by the right as a political prop, just a high school student who should stay in her place and leave international politics to the “more qualified.”

Currently, she’s sailing across the Atlantic in a zero-emissions yacht, on her way to a September U.N. climate conference in New York. From there, she’ll be on her way to COP25 in Argentina, and finally back to Sweden — all without producing any transportation emissions. But even this benign mission has brought her under fire by commentators.

Australian science denier Andrew Bolt called her “deeply disturbed” and “strange.” UKIP promoter Arron Banks chillingly wrote, “Freak yachting accidents do happen in August …” Brexit backer and radio host Julia Hartley-Brewer responded to Thunberg on Twitter with her lack of remorse over buying plane tickets. Remember, she is 16 years old and trying to save the planet from destruction. Evidently, some media members think that’s justification to be publicly bullied by adults on Twitter.

Unfortunately, the current political climate has made this kind of behind-the-screen harassment commonplace. The fact that it’s acceptable for grown adults to bully a high school student is a pitiful reflection on our society and where the state of decency is. But it also reflects something just as disturbing: the tendency for climate deniers to shoot the messenger in an unsuccessful attempt to refute science.

Thunberg has become Enemy No. 1 to the anti-environmentalism movement, which demonstrates its own weakness. In insulting a 16-year-old, they attempt to do away with the whole movement; to dismiss it as idealistic and socialist, something that no sane policymaker would take seriously. Making a 16-year-old the global figurehead of a movement would make it seem more frivolous — or at least they hope.

While this presents some concern to environmentalists, it should also represent the last gasp of climate change deniers. The science has become so irrefutable, so sound, and so undeniable that fossil fuel–backers have resorted to tweeting ad hominem attacks at 16-year-olds to keep themselves afloat.

While Thunberg is certainly not the only one talking out there — other organizations like the Sunrise Movement come to mind — she is undoubtedly the most recognizable face in youth climate activism. However, her idolization can actually be counterproductive to fighting against planetary destruction. Many of us cheer Thunberg on from the sidelines, while we drive gas-guzzling minivans, fly to Mexico over spring break, and eat animal products at every meal. Lionizing activists too often falsely absolve us from personal responsibility — it makes us forget that we, too, have a role to play in fighting climate change.

While Thunberg is playing a crucial role in activism today, we can’t settle, thinking that everything is under control. The reality is, it’s not — she alone can’t save us from what fossil fuels have done to our atmosphere and what plastics have done to our oceans. We can’t settle thinking that because we support Thunberg, we are truly doing everything we can to fight extinction. We can’t all sail across the ocean in a yacht, but we can all stop using plastic bags, eat less meat and cheese, and ride our bikes more often. Thunberg’s greatest success isn’t measured by her own fame — it will rely on how many people she inspires to change.