How Greta Thunberg got the world talking
- 23 August 2019
Twelve months ago, Greta Thunberg skipped class to protest her government’s inaction on climate change. Today, having delivered an authentic message clearly and consistently, she has become the figurehead of a global movement comprising millions of young people.
In early August, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin hosted their annual Google Camp on Sicily. Wealthy financiers, political heavyweights and celebrity guests including Barack Obama, Leonardo DiCaprio and Prince Harry were invited to consider this year’s theme: the environment. To get to the high-level pow-wow, the guests collectively called on 114 private jets (and quite a few super yachts).
“When it comes to climate change, it’s very easy to shout, ‘Hypocrites!’, but that’s not always helpful,” says CIM’s Adam Pyle. “Someone can do 100 things right, one thing wrong and they’ll be shot down.” And their message, which might be valid or even helpful, comes crashing back down to Earth with them. This doesn’t just happen to individuals; it can happen to the best-intentioned businesses as well.
In contrast to the A-listers in Italy, Greta Thunberg is taking a solar-powered yacht across the Atlantic to appear at the Climate Action Summit in New York next month. It might take her a while to get there, but the 16-year-old’s choice of transport demonstrates an awareness not given to some of her older comrades in the fight against climate inaction.
Careful journey planning doesn’t offer complete protection against accusations of hypocrisy. It has been suggested her age absolves her from criticism that would be showered upon anyone else making an environmental misstep, but already there are newspapers reporting a little too gleefully that the crew on her boat will be flying back from New York and thus undermining her message. Nevertheless, Thunberg does have some other significant advantages that are helping her to deliver a message that has not previously got through.
“This is her future,” says CIM marketing director Gemma Butler. “She says we’re 12 years away from passing the point of no return. In 12 years’ time, she will still only be 28.”
These are emergency circumstances that justify a bit of civil disobedience. For the last year, Thunberg has skipped school most Fridays to protest outside Sweden’s parliament building. “She’s built her platform from the ground up and her consistency is impressive,” says CIM’s Ally Lee-Boone. “So is her willingness to challenge powerful people. She doesn’t moderate her views or soften her attitude in front of them.”
She often chooses to make these challenges on social media, where she is 3.7m followers strong across Instagram and Twitter. Those platforms have helped her build a socially conscious community – primarily Gen Z-ers – around her #FridaysForFuture hashtag, which she has then used to directly approach the people that matter.
In between weekly demonstrations in her home country, Thunberg has addressed the World Economic Forum and the UK parliament. She told the grandee businessmen in Davos, “I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” At Westminster, she zeroed in on the disappointing specifics of the British response to climate change: “The UK is… very special. Not only for its mind-blowing historical carbon debt, but also for its current, very creative, carbon accounting.”
Underlying her implacable challenges to authority is an impressive amount of research, challenging opposition with scientific reasoning rather than retaliation. This is perhaps what makes her message stick. “She calls people out with facts,” says Butler. “It’s a powerful thing to be called a liar by a child because children are associated with innocence. More than that, though, in an era of misinformation she has defined a clear narrative – and she’s sticking to it.”
As well as helping her to successfully deliver her message, the clear narrative helps her tackle the problem itself. “She sees the problem for the general public as a lack of information,” says Lee-Boone, “so she tries to fill us in with those facts. She also applauds anyone for any action on any scale, which is a different kind of approach.” Instead of shouting ‘Hypocrite!’ at any lapse, she’s applauding the one thing in 100 that anyone does right. “This seems like the right way to encourage change,” says Butler, “to break the cycle of not doing anything.”
Although the policy-level change Thunberg has targeted is not yet forthcoming, perhaps the UK’s declaration of a climate emergency is a sign of more to come. “It’s staggering that the message has not yet reached governments, but she has forced a change in the public attitude to the inaction of policy-makers, which is an enabler of the change she really wants,” says Butler. “She took on the role of raising awareness and that’s exactly what she’s done. How long can they continue to ignore her – and now all of her followers?”
She’s got a tough crowd – and a difficult message for them – but if she continues to deliver it with clarity and just the right amount of disruption, the answer will surely be: not long. In the meantime, Greta Thunberg’s task is to avoid the fate of the Google Campers and ensure it’s the message that’s making the headlines, not the messenger.
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