Is Greta Thunberg Too Privileged To Lead The Charge For Climate Activism?

Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist and founder of the Friday school climate strikes, has become the face of the fight against climate change for youth. She uses her perspective as a teenager to bring the voice of young people into the larger political climate conversation. This angle helps remind policymakers and people in power that the consequences of the decisions and messes they make now, while perhaps limited within their own life spans, will severely impact future generations. In a recent speech at the UN Climate Action Summit, Greta shocked viewers with her passion and strong, accusatory language as she addressed current policymakers by emphasizing that “the eyes of future generations are upon you”. This speech was met with both praise and criticism.

Instagram and Facebook flooded with Greta’s photos and quotes following the speech, as she is becoming an inspiration for other young passionate people to fight for what they believe is right. On the other hand, she also received heavy criticism from both climate change activists and deniers. Some argue that she is too pessimistic and that her speech leaves no room for growth towards a more sustainable future. Others are opposed to her entire message and the idea that climate change is a real issue. President Trump famously insulted her by ironically tweeting “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”.

As Greta toured through Canada and the U.S., meeting various important politicians, representatives, and people directly affected by climate change, she became the subject of much discussion both online and in university and high school settings. The discussions also generate a debate on whether a young, privileged, white Swedish girl should have the authority to represent a movement that may affect her far less than large numbers of young indigenous climate activists who are not heard. Is this simply another reflection of how the world has selective ears for the privileged? She has never had to suffer through water contamination and its associated diseases, she has never had to evacuate her home to escape severe, destructive weather conditions. Ought we, as young people, accept her leadership, or use the momentum she has created to bring others, with real experiences around the matter, into the spotlight?

On her Canada tour, Greta spent Friday the 25th of November at the school climate strike in downtown Vancouver, BC, which many students of the University of British Columbia (UBC) participated in. Following the strike, these students began speaking about this controversy and raising these types of questions. Some attendees observed a sense of celebrification of Greta as an activist, which could ironically distract people from the cause of climate change and shift the reason for the large turn-out to the thrill of being in the presence of this celebrity figure.

Ethan Elliot, a member of Greta’s volunteer security squad and UBC first-year student, experienced the crowd’s attitudes towards her first-hand. He reported that the media and fans barged up to see or speak with her, making her the center of attention rather than focusing on the urgency of climate activism. The behavior of the press was quite disrespectful and counterproductive, as “they were being aggressive and slowing down the march”. The crowd also were chanting her name to hear her speak without showing the same level of enthusiasm for indigenous speakers.

These opinions and critical reactions towards Greta Thunberg are good for generating healthy debate and being aware of the effects of privilege. But would those making these arguments really want her to stop expressing her disgust towards those who put their own interests above the interests of people’s health and well-being of the environment? If Greta does not have the right to speak up for young people who are often not included in this conversation, why should older, often white, male policymakers have the right to make decisions that will ultimately affect the environment and people’s livelihoods? Perhaps Greta is aware of her own privilege, which is likely the reason she has decided to tour North America to speak to a diverse variety of small communities who are being affected. Perhaps she knows that her range of influence and access to powerful figures and institutions may be partially thanks to her privileges. Or perhaps she does not. Either way, however, we will want her to take full advantage of her celebrity if this can help her and us reach the broader goal of significant climate action.