Greta Thunberg

It must first be stated that Greta officially rejects political partisan discourses when promoting her goals. She has stated “The climate and ecological crisis is beyond party politics. And our main enemy right now is not our political opponents. Our main enemy now is physics. And we cannot make ‘deals’ with physics.” Greta does actively criticize certain policies, and her speeches and the global movements she inspires do have an impact on political leaders across the world. She consistently holds accountable politicians from all political spectrums alike: “From a sustainability perspective, the right, the left, as well as the center—have all failed. No political ideology or economic structure has been able to tackle the climate and environmental emergency and create a ‘cohesive and sustainable’ world.”

From Protests to Policies

Greta’s activities revolve around the overarching goal of making a difference and leaving an impact in the global environmentalist movement. The main method through which Greta advocates for policy changes as an environmental activist has been her Fridays for Future campaign, encouraging world-wide school strikes every Friday to raise climate change awareness and demand political action. What she demands (at COP24 in Poland, or at Davos) is for global leaders to respect their commitments to climate action. Particularly, Greta is an avid defender of the Paris Agreement and she protests against those countries that are failing to enact policies and legislation to meet their international commitments to the environment. 

Greta has assumed the role of being her generation’s spokesperson about climate change, but she is also a very powerful figure that many politicians from around the world allude to in their national politics. She reunites many qualities that are attractive and important to voters of the left (her young age, being a powerful female figure, her openness about mental health, and her adamant fight against climate change and those who have failed to address it, i.e. classic institution and politicians), and thus her critics often try to discredit her for being a ‘tool of the left’. For example, she has been described as “the face of an outlandish ultra-left dream”.

Despite the controversy she sparks, or perhaps due to it, Greta is one of the most iconic symbols of youth activism at the moment, and she has a very powerful voice at the international level. According to an article in The New York Times:“[Greta’s] politics rests on two things. First is simplification. “The climate crisis already has been solved,” she said at a TED Talk in Stockholm this year. “We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.” Second is sowing panic, as she explained at the World Economic Forum in Davos last winter.” The same article addresses some of the issues that may arise if politicians do, in fact, listen to Greta. While the article has an underlying sensationalist tone to it (the subtitle reads “Her radical approach is at odds with democracy”), the author does bring out a few interesting points in terms of some issues that the ‘Greta effect’ (which we are beginning to see already, as politicians increasingly mention Greta) may lead to if countries embrace her low-carbon politics ideas:

“Contrary to the assumptions of many of Ms. Thunberg’s admirers, it might resemble contemporary populist agendas more than the world imagined by the United Nations’ modelers and the governance experts of Davos. Protectionism could be in: If you establish a system of carbon pricing, countries that don’t practice it are “dumping,” and their imports must be excluded. Immigration could be out: It is difficult to see how any kind of long-term mass immigration is consistent with a desire to lower Europe’s carbon output.”

One of Greta’s most notorious characteristics is her relentless willingness to criticize (without lowering her expectations) global political leaders. In light of this, Greta has become a watchdog and a harsh critic of environmental policies – particularly when she considers that the policies are insufficient. The latest example is her opposition to the EU Green Deal package, which she toughly classified as a “surrender” in March 2020. Headlines were quick to react (“Greta Thunberg slams EU climate law”, from Euronews) and Greta accused European governments of admitting that they “are giving up, on the Paris agreement, on your promises and on doing what you can to ensure a safe future for your children.” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen continued to defend the legislation despite Greta’s taunts. While Greta pushes the EU by saying “you have a real political and economical opportunity to become a real climate leader…you said this was an existential threat, now you must prove that you mean it,” von der Leyen remained stoic in the EU position and responded that the climate law “gives direction to our green growth strategy and guarantees that the transition will be gradual and fair.”

A basic policy that Greta is pushing for is the establishment of severe CO2 budgets that countries must abide by. In Greta’s opinion, the EU Green Deal is too lenient with member states in terms of the carbon caps; this is ultimately the reason why Greta is so critical of the legislation. 

The Greta Effect Exemplified

Examples of Greta’s influence on local politics include Elizabeth Warren, one of the former Democrat presidential candidates for the 2020 US election. According to CNBC, Warren regurgitated an “adult version of [Greta Thunberg’s] argument” that individuals are not in a position to save the world from climate change as long as energy companies and governments retain an economic-growth-only mindset and refuse to make changes. The article argues that Warren “basically mocked personal conservation efforts.” Warren told a climate town hall audience and later tweeted that the fossil fuel industry wants the public to discuss issues like plastic straws, lightbulbs, and cheeseburgers so they can continue to get away with producing most of the emissions blamed for climate change.”

With regards to the previously mentioned EU Green Deal legislation, Greta has not successfully altered the EU Commission nor the Green Deal package itself. However, the loudness and harshness of her criticism have sept through to other actors. Imke Lübbecke (head of climate and energy at the European office of WWF) joined Greta’s position by saying that the law “lacked urgency.” Do note Lübbeke’s adoption of terminology that is commonly used by Greta, like the word ‘urgency’ – this was the underlying message of Greta’s famous speech ‘Our House is on Fire.’