In a very short time, Greta Thunberg—with her searing stare, Pippi Longstocking braids, and hand-painted sign reading SKOLSTREJK FÖR KLIMATET—has become a global icon. A year ago, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist began striking from school each Friday to protest climate inaction; last Friday, she gave a speech to hundreds of thousands of people in New York, at the Global Climate Strike, which was inspired by her protest.
It is always at least a little unfortunate to see a young person become an icon—it robs them of the privacy of growing up. But Thunberg is an especially flummoxing figure. She looks younger than her years, yet her speeches take a shaming, authoritative tone that is, at the very least, unusual for a child. “How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood,” she told world leaders at the United Nations today. She has also said that money and eternal economic growth are “fairy tales.” So she has inspired both public adoration and malign theorizing (mostly centered around the power of her parents).
Last week I had the chance to meet the girl behind the image. She is, thankfully, still a person. And she is even more than that: She’s a teenager.
In fact, I think her extreme teenager-ness may be key to her influence.
Thunberg and a handful of other young climate activists were receiving the Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International in Washington, D.C., last Monday. In the past 17 years, Amnesty has given the award to other icons: Nelson Mandela, Colin Kaepernick, and Ai Weiwei. Backstage, grizzled men in their 40s exchanged boisterous handclasps. Interns and assistants buzzed around: anxious, helpful, and attuned to hierarchy. Somewhere Maggie Gyllenhaal was in a dressing room.
Yet when I saw Thunberg—in jeans, sneakers, and a pink tank top—she seemed small, quiet, and somewhat overwhelmed. Thunberg has Asperger’s, which she calls her “superpower,” and which she says allows her to be more direct and straightforward about climate change.
When we got to a room apart from the hubbub, I asked her how she was managing the onslaught of attention. “When I am around too many people, I just shut off my brain, in a way to not get too tired, because I cannot take everything in,” she told me. “It’s hard to be the center of attention; I don’t like that. I have to tell myself it’s for a good cause. I am trying to say something with all this attention, to use my platform to do something good.”
Her answers were direct but earnest. She sometimes searched for an English word. Unlike politicians and book-touring authors who have been brain-poisoned by media training, she answered the questions posed. When I asked whether there was a climate fact that caused her particular worry, she frowned and first said she could not think of any one fact in particular. Then she added that she was worried about what she’d heard would be in the upcoming UN Intergovernmental Panel report on sea-level rise. Same, Greta.
She is strikingly nonradical, at least in tactics. Unlike other young climate activists—such as members of the Sunrise Movement in the United States, which is led by college students and early 20-somethings—she rejects specific policy proposals such as the Green New Deal, instructing politicians instead to “listen to the science.” She has even declined to endorse a specific platform in the European Union, where her “Fridays for Future” movement has taken hold. When I asked how other teenagers should fight climate change, she said, “They can do everything. There are so many ways to make a difference.” Then she gave, as examples, joining an activist movement and “also to, if you can, vote.”
When I wondered aloud whether young people’s rights are underrepresented in the political system, she demurred. “Sometimes it feels that way, yeah,” she said. “The problems we care about the most are usually not the ones that are being prioritized the highest. Young people are very concerned about the climate crisis and ecological crisis, and that is very underrepresented.”
Though perhaps she is moderate in speech, she can be radical in action. Thunberg’s chosen form of protest—a school strike—is uncommon in the United States, though more popular in Europe. Americans think of school as something that chiefly benefits students, not society; comparing it to a job, where a labor stoppage is a recognized form of protest, is outside our ken. But if you come to see school as part of an intergenerational exchange of welfare—students go to school now, so that in 30 years they can get jobs and pay Social Security taxes—then it aligns well with Thunberg’s overall point, which is that older generations have betrayed young people today by failing to address climate change. This almost economic argument has the virtue of being accurate.
And when Thunberg talks about this, especially in private, she sounds a lot like … a teenager. “We are not the ones who are responsible for this, but we are the ones who have to live with these consequences, and that is so incredibly unfair,” she said at one point.
And this is the way to understand Thunberg that paints her as neither a saint nor a demon but that still captures her appeal. Thunberg epitomizes, in a person, the unique moral position of being a teenager. She can see the world through an “adult” moral lens, 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. Thunberg seems to gesture at this when referring to herself as a “child,” which she does often in speeches.
When I spoke with her, I asked whether she felt this dual position: the burden of awareness mixed with the lack of blame. “Yes, definitely,” she said. “Because we are so young, our perspective on the world, our perception of the world is so—is so, like, blank. We don’t have that much experience. We don’t say, Oh, we cannot change this because it’s always been this way, which a lot of old people say. We definitely need that new perspective to see the world.”
Perhaps that is why adults find her so unnerving. “This child—and she is a child—has been scared and her parents are letting her be controlled by that fear,” writes the right-wing commentator Erick Erickson, who blames her parents for “depriving her of a sound education so she can lecture grownups.” Jonathan Tobin, at The Federalist, worries that the shoe is on the other foot: Thunberg has “forced her parents to adopt a vegan diet” and “bullied her mother to give up her career because it involved air travel.”
These may seem like exaggerated concerns, but Erickson and Tobin are really just engaging in a great American tradition: In this country, even before we greet you, we ask whether you’re being parented wrong.
Other arguments against Thunberg’s rhetoric can and should be made; if she wants to participate as an adult citizen, she should be criticized like one. But in The New York Times, the journalist Christopher Caldwell takes maybe the oddest line of all, claiming that Thunberg’s message is antidemocratic. “Democracy often calls for waiting and seeing. Patience may be democracy’s cardinal virtue,” he wrote. “Climate change is a serious issue. But to say, ‘We can’t wait,’ is to invite a problem just as grave.”
I want to thank Caldwell, because he reminded me of my own childhood. About 20 years ago, I was at a restaurant with my parents, reading a kid’s science magazine below the table. In a small box at the bottom of the page, it mentioned something called the greenhouse effect, caused by cars and factories. The effect could eventually screw up the entire planet’s environment.
My head jolted up. I interrupted my parents’ conversation, which was about something boring, like real-estate prices or which highway to take home.
“Is this real?” I asked, pointing at the magazine.
Oh yeah, definitely, one of them said.
“Is it getting fixed?” I said.
No, no, people don’t really know how to fix it.
And then I remember feeling something constrict in my chest. It was like the adult feeling of learning that a loved one is in danger, of seeing the comfortable world teeter on its axis. There was a problem with the entire planet, and everyone was just allowing it to go on?
In 1999, Caldwell was older than I am now, and the United States had virtually no national climate policy. Since then, I have gone to middle school and high school, graduated from college, moved across the country twice, spent years as a technology reporter, and covered climate change for four years. Since then, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has soared from 364 to 415 parts per million. But since then, the United States still has passed virtually no new national climate policy.
Caldwell is right that patience is a democratic virtue. But sloth is a cardinal sin. Perhaps only the young can tell the difference.