The weaponisation of Greta Thunberg



This week, Greta Thunberg set sail for the USA. Her much-hyped crossing across the Atlantic has produced a gush of media coverage, almost all of which has been entirely uncritical. Not one single TV news editor seems to have wondered, ‘why is this news?’. A failure, surely. So why is a child in a multi-million dollar carbon-intensive yacht, owned by fabulously wealthy people, crossing the Atlantic, to lobby global leaders for aggressive climate policy of such interest to TV news journalists? And why is it that the audiences, who will have to suffer those policies, and who enjoy no such privileges, have been denied a critical perspective on what is, after all, just a poorly-informed, end-times zealot in a boat?

Perhaps the most telling answers are revealed by the commentators who were upset that Greta had been criticised, and shock, horror, mocked. They leapt into action. “If you’re doing that”, said half-price James O’Brien, Iain Lee, “I would suggest you’re thick, you voted Brexit, and you need to have a good hard look at yourself”. “She’s making an impact, which is exactly why [she] gets vilified by the climate change deniers”, said footballer-turned-climate-scientist and crisp-pusher, Gary Lineker. “Why do you keep trolling a teenager on Twitter?”, Green Party deputy leader, Amelia Womack asked Julia Hartley Brewer, whose comments seemed to have provoked much of the anger.

What this outrage reveals is how, in the minds of those so easily offended on Greta’s behalf, criticism turns to mocking turns to abuse. It is easy to see why. Notwithstanding one or two hasty – and, yes, offensive – remarks about the girl, the phenomenon of Greta Thunberg raises many questions which none of those who celebrate her are able or willing to answer. Not least, if she really represents her generation, why are children being inculcated with such a bleak view of their future? Second, why are politicians so eager to receive the child, yet so reluctant to be seen carrying out the instructions of the voting public? Third, what really are the circumstances of her rise to prominence? Fourth, what can such a child really understand about what she says?

The indubitable facts of Greta’s ascendency are simple. Despite her cognitive, emotional and developmental disorders, she is an unexceptional child. She has produced no new insight or understanding and has absorbed only an extremely partial and alarmist and uncritical account of climate change, which she reproduces on cue. She is the child of celebrity parents, who have encouraged the view that her mental health problems are owed to the world’s environmental crises. Their celebrity status boosted the profile of what in any other family would have been seen as a tantrum – her ‘school strike’ – not indulged and given global significance. The image of a young girl apparently taking her future into her own hands was expedient to the green blob, which duly made her a global celebrity, and arranged for her to tour the globe as the guest of billionaires, European royalty, governments and the United Nations. If she didn’t exist, they would have invented her. They have tried before.

Sad-eyed one-time comedians, £half-billion loss-making newspaper editors, and woke retired football players have no answer to those facts. Yet the story speaks to an emerging democratic deficit growing around the issue of climate change, deeper, wider, darker and far more dangerous than any rift in society exposed by Brexit. The questions about Greta are categorically about those who have nominated her to speak and why they have chosen to hide from criticism behind such a fragile figure. The story of Greta’s rise is the story of very many declines – the degenerate political classes and the debased news broadcasting most notably. Lee, Lineker, Womack and Rusbridger are ciphers, who can no more account for their position than they can account for Greta’s. “She’s just a girl trying to save the planet”, they whinge.

But the story is never so simple as just a plucky young girl taking on the global political establishment. Scratch the surface of any well-attended school strike that Greta has seemingly inspired, and you will find behind the offspring, a well-bred, well-off, and well-connected family, whose business is climate change. The positioning of Greta, and of children in the climate debate is symbolic. To the extent that it has ever been a movement, street-level environmentalism has always been a performance staged by a blob of special interests – a commissioned pastiche of political action.

XR for instance, is a movement which is far more obsessed with its strategic symbolism than the foundations of its arguments. Like Greta, it exists only to offer a performative opposition to the government whose goals it is already aligned with. Similarly, XR’s predecessors at the 2007 Climate Camp protest marched under banners proclaiming “We are armed… only with peer-reviewed science”. On their hands, they wore pages of a journal article that they had glued together, to hold above their heads. The sight that was made all the more absurd by the fact that the paper was neither science nor peer-reviewed, but a Tyndall Centre policy paper commissioned by the Coop Bank and Friends of the Earth.

For the ignorant then, Science is a symbol. Like Greta, it was held aloft as though an irreproachable injunction from Gaia Herself. But science is too fickle. Too dry. A blunter weapon was required, to finally smash home the message. You might take issue with science, but only an utter bastard could argue against a girl in pigtails, imploring you not to destroy the planet.

Complex debates have been reduced to ritualistic performances and symbols, pushing the facts of the matter into the distance. But only in the absurd symbolic order occupied by a decadent and disconnected political class are “science” and 16 years old autistic kids unimpeachable authorities, and that pointing it out is equivalent to “bullying”. The invention of Greta as a symbol and a moral weapon is the rearguard action of a dying movement escaping its own demise. After all, what kind of person would send a young girl out on to the front lines of a war as heated as the climate debate? What kind of desperate campaign would send a child across the Atlantic Ocean to do its dirty work? What kind of monster hides behind an emotionally fragile teenager? What they will discover is that symbolism is a two-way street.

Ben Pile is a writer and researcher. Follow him @clim8resistance