The Atlantic Politics Daily: Greta Thunberg Makes Adults Squirm

Why has the 16-year-old been so influential, when so many other activists haven’t broken through? Plus: Has the press learned anything from 2016?

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Today in Politics

The Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg watches as U.S. President Donald Trump enters the United Nations to speak with reporters. (Andrew Hofstetter / Reuters)

Greta Thunberg Brings the Heat

This July was the hottest month ever measured for the planet. Greenland, of recent can the U.S. acquire it? fame, is literally falling apart. The latest climate report from a United Nations–led scientific panel has nothing but frightening things to say about land use. Hurricane Dorian devastated large parts of the Bahamas.

These particularly distressing past few months have made today’s UN climate summit in New York feel all the more urgent. (Speaking of New York: temperatures on the first day of fall hit an uncharacteristic 87 degrees Fahrenheit.)

So far, the star of that UN confab hasn’t been a politician (President Donald Trump dropped by in the morning; Angela Merkel pledged to ramp up Germany’s commitment to climate change). It’s been a 16-year-old Swedish teen who sailed emissions-free, rather than flew, to New York.

Greta Thunberg skyrocketed to fame for her climate activism and her signature fiery speeches. “How dare you?” Thunberg berated world leaders today. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood.”

Why has the 16-year-old been so influential, when so many other activists haven’t broken through? My colleague Robinson Meyer, who met with Thunberg in person last week, has a theory: It’s all about her teenager-ness.

“She can see the world through an ‘adult” moral lens,’ he writes, “and so she knows that the world is a heartbreakingly flawed place. But unlike an actual adult, she bears almost no conscious blame for this dismal state.” You can read their full interview here.

The impact of climate activism is playing out in the 2020 Demcratic primary, where in stark contrast to past election cycles, just about every candidate Has a Plan™ to try to stave off an impending environmental crisis.

But how much do voters actually care about addressing climate change? Let’s look at some recent data:

According to at least one poll, around 7 percent of voters chose climate change as the most important issue they’re weighing in a candidate (far behind “Ability to beat Donald Trump”).

The one candidate who made his campaign front and center of his campaign, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, flamed out in August with just a whisper of support in most polls.

Activists like Thunberg are on a crusade to get the world to take the climate seriously. At least in the U.S., getting politicians to spotlight climate-change policies can already be a difficult endeavor (though the 2020 Democratic primary has had a somewhat strong, if uneven, showing in this arena). Getting more voters to make climate change their number one is a whole lot harder.

What Else We’re Watching

(Leah Millis / Reuters)

On the unfolding Trump-Ukraine-Biden whistle-blower scandal: The setup of the American whistle-blower system has problems, Mike Giglio reports.

+ “It is an astonishing admission, with the president saying he used his power to enlist a foreign government to help him win reelection,” David A. Graham argues. “This is the stuff of impeachment.

+ The way the press has covered this news suggests many outlets learned nothing from the media failures of 2016, James Fallows argues.

On the recent major attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities: “The crux of Trump’s problem is that all of his real options are bad,” writes a former foreign-policy adviser to John McCain from 2004 to 2009. “Strike back, and risk war now. Don’t strike back, and risk war later.”

On Sunday’s “Howdy, Modi!” rally, starring Narendra Modi and guest-starring Donald Trump: Sonia Paul reports from Houston’s NRG Stadium. “[Trump’s] doing a lot of things for immigration and things like that,” 74-year-old Girdhar Agarwal told Paul, lowering his voice. “Trying to keep our … our … you know … people in and illegals out.”


🗓The Week AheaD

Monday, September 23: The UN’s special climate-change summit continues. One moment that broke through: Greta Thunberg’s speech.

Tuesday, September 24: Former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld and former Representative Joe Walsh of Illinois will participate in an unofficial Republican-primary debate hosted by Business Insider. (Trump and former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford declined the invite.)

Wednesday, September 25: Trump will reportedly meet with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky at the UN General Assembly.

Thursday, September 26: Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire is scheduled to speak with the House Intelligence Committee about his decision to withhold a whistle-blower complaint about Trump from Congress.

Friday, September 27: A quarter century ago, 300 candidates signed on to Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” ahead of a consequential 1994 congressional election—now known as the Republican Revolution.


(Michael McCoy / Reuters)

Protesters block a street in Washington, D.C., as part of the “Shutdown DC” climate-change protest in the nation’s capital today.

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