Thunberg’s climate leadership getting cold as a winter of other crises looms

  • Greta Thunberg is considered the most known climate activist at the international level.
  • Her journey started back in 2018 when she started a sit down in front of the Swedish parliament to protest inaction to tackle global warming.
  • Albeit her blazing impact on the population, the current conjunction of crisis has led to the cooling down of her influence.
Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg

Why is Thunberg’s temperature cold?

Answer: The conjunction of political, social and economic crises at an international level, has pushed climate issues down on many agendas.

In August of 2018, Greta Thunberg started her journey as a climate activist. Her decision to not return to the classroom after the summer holidays to protest against the inaction to tackle global warming sparked a swift change in the international landscape. Her stand for the climate became viral on social media platforms, and it inspired others to follow in her footsteps.

Thunberg’s first protest sparked the international and youth-led movement Fridays For Future (FFF). She became the public face of the movement and the mediatization of her persona resulted in an equal mediatization of her claims and demands. The increasing awareness of the general public regarding climate issues exerted pressure on political figures. Her popularity among the European public made her a luring figure for politicians. 

She was invited as a speaker at several international summits, such as the World Economic Forum and the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Her bluntness and passion garnered attention, and this culminated in the international strikes for the climate that took place in 2019. The European elections that took place that same year showed a shift in the priorities of the voters regarding climate regulations and environmental policy. The soaring victories experienced by the Green parties all across Europe were linked to the effect of FFF and Thunberg in particular.

The current political landscape has undergone a drastic change since then. After a number of elections where Green parties acquired a greater number of seats than ever before, the movement for the climate was confronted with unforeseen obstacles. The conjunction of the health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath in the form of a socio-economic crisis, alongside the energy crisis that has emerged as a consequence of the Ukraine war, has shifted the priorities of the political landscape away from the climate debate. 

What is changing Thunberg’s temperature?

Answer: The overshadowing aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, alongside the current European energy crisis.

When Thunberg started her first campaign for the climate in 2018 the international scene was nothing like the state in which the world finds itself today. In the context of growing economies and increasing climate disasters, Thunberg’s calls for more ambitious policies to tackle the effects of global warming did not go unnoticed. Moreover, the fact that a 15-year-old girl in one of the wealthiest countries of the EU would purposefully skip school to protest did nothing but increase the world’s interest in her persona. The mediatization of Thunberg´s activism was translated into a rising awareness regarding the climate issue among the general public.

Nonetheless, the trend surrounding climate protection and environmental policies suffered a step back in 2020. During that year, no strikes for the climate took place because of the Covid-19 health emergency, which forced a series of social restrictions and lockdowns all across the world. This had a great impact on public events such as the FFF´s sit-downs and protests. 

Due to the impossibility of conducting her activism in the same way as before, Thunberg encouraged activists to attend online strikes and share their climate initiatives on social media, in order to not let the movement die out. Several online protests were organised throughout the duration of lockdowns, but their ability to influence and raise climate awareness was far from the one obtained from those that had taken place in the streets. Furthermore, the detrimental economic consequences of the Covid-19 restrictions changed the priorities of policymakers away from the climate emergency. Inflation overtook global warming as the main worry of the political leaders

Additionally, the invasion of Ukraine on the 20th of February, 2022 also shifted the priorities of legislators, particularly in Europe. Putin’s weaponization of oil and gas supplies became another obstacle for Thunberg and her demands. As the war in Ukraine began and support for the country flowed from European leaders, a potential energy crisis became the one priority for European leaders. The energy shortage has not only sent the prices of oil and gas soaring, but it has also forced some countries to increase the use of fossil fuels in the prelude to a freezing winter. The latest example of this trend is Germany, which has reactivated a coal-fired power plant in order to save gas. 

Thunberg has been an arduous critic of the retaking of fossil fuels as sources of energy and the disregard for the impacts of climate change on the international scale. However, the lack of media coverage of her actions has partially muted the young activist.

What is driving Thunberg?

Answer: Thunberg is driven by her will to increase global warming awareness to increase pressure on politicians.

Since her first sit down in the streets of Stockholm, Thunberg has always expressed her will to “wake up” the population in every single corner of the world, so that they would take a stand to fight against global warming. All the steps she has taken during her journey were meant to spread awareness towards the three main demands she made in front of the Swedish Parliament in 2018: limit the rising temperatures to 1.5ºC in comparison to pre-industrial levels, ensure climate justice and equity, and lastly, to listen to the best science available to carry out the two previously mentioned points. 

Thunberg has risen as an icon of leadership against global warming, making her activism the main focus of her life and guiding those who shared the same concerns as her. In spite of this fact – and probably because of it – she has refused to present herself as an advocate for any particular issue within the climate debate. From the beginning, her focus has been to raise her voice in defence of the planet as a whole. Despite remarks from senior politicians that seek to invalidate her demands, Thunberg’s fight for the climate and the future of the planet remains unwavering. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Greta Thunberg showed that climate activism can have an impact.

Greta Thunberg has also encouraged other people, from all walks of life, to join her stand against global warming. During the years preceding the current crisis conjunction, she grew to influence electoral outcomes in several countries with her activism, a situation that came to be known as the Greta Thunberg effect

However, it has become rather silent around her lately due to the current global landscape. The Covid-19 pandemic, the Ukraine-Russia war, alongside their socio-economic consequences at the international level, have decreased the media attention given to the climate debate. Therefore, coverage of Thunberg’s activism has been almost nonexistent. Thunberg continues striking every single week – now adding up to 214 weeks – for the climate. She also still produces new initiatives to raise awareness about global warming and its effects on the planet. 

This article is based on a report on Thunbergs’s climate leadership that students from IE University’s School of Global and Public Affairs have researched under RAIA supervision and with RAIA’s methodology ahead of the COP27 and is part of the pan-European 1Planet4All project that empowers young visionaries to make an impact in the ongoing climate crisis.

1Planet4All is a project that seeks to promote the active participation and commitment of European youth in the fight against the climate emergency. It is part of the DEAR program of Education for Development and Awareness, an initiative of the European Commission Commission and with the support of 14 development and humanitarian aid NGOs—including Ayuda en Acción (Aid in Action)—the 1Planet4All project seeks to bring together young individuals to help achieve the 2023 objectives.