What followed has been a predictable right-wing backlash. A Fox News guest called her a “mentally ill Swedish child” (she was diagnosed with Asperger’s, which she describes a “superpower” and is not a mental illness). Donald Trump played the role of internet troll. And unnumbered Twitter slugs rolled out the classic sexist riff that she should smile more. In response, people have jumped in to defend Thunberg. And all of sudden we’re talking about peripheral issues instead of what really matters: stopping the climate’s disastrous trajectory.
Thunberg’s message has never been about her. It’s about human rights—your rights, whoever you are. Thunberg is just forcing people to choose a side, and that’s scaring people into trying to change the conversation so they don’t have to accept—and accept responsibility for—the reality she’s amplified on a global scale.
For years, concerns about climate change have been lumped under the broad catch-all of environmentalism. The idea of it has been over in the Arctic or up in the atmosphere, something to be pondered in the abstract, something in some future beyond. What Thunberg has done has concretely tied it to something we can look at. Namely, us.
When Thunberg gave her speech at the United Nations on Monday, she talked about her personal experience having to skip school to strike, but her speech also leaned heavily on using “we” and “you” to delineate that this is a moment of reckoning. To wit, here’s the fiery ending of her speech (emphasis ours):
“You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”
There are plenty of reasons old white guys and the dupes carrying their water get pissed about Thunberg’s points. Thunberg’s delivery as a strong young woman is anathema to balding conservative men. Moreover, her assessment of decades of false promises and stalled action in part driven by a deluge of fossil fuel money is dead on. Conservatives have wedded themselves to the fossil fuel industry, to our detriment. In the U.S., Republicans have engaged in a process of delay and denial while receiving seven times as much money from the fossil fuel industry as Democrats in recent elections. Conservatives around the world have also shown little appetite for changing the current paradigm despite the fact that we are careening toward disaster because of it, something Thunberg clearly and forcefully points out.
Many of her assertions also cite the climate science from major reports released in the past few years. Yet while those reports have led to conservative freak-outs (just scroll through Breitbart’s coverage or watch Republicans bloviate about them), none have quite reached the level of vitriol leveled at Thunberg who has at once been derided as naive and Nazi.
The right wing meltdown Thunberg has inspired has centered on her as a person rather than the issues she brings to the forefront because confronting the substance of her words would require doing a very adult thing: Owning up the fact that climate change is a huge, course-of-the-world-altering problem that we all have to address. Focusing on Thunberg—her age, her hair, her decision to ride on a boat—is the perfect pretense for people unwilling to do that. It gives Fox and Friends something to prattle on about in the morning and pretend that everything going just great rather than focus on, as my managing editor counterpart at Gizmodo, Andrew Couts, put it, the reality that “our shithouse RV of stupidity is barreling toward the cliff of a climate apocalypse that will fuck over everyone, no matter what they think about Greta.”
So at the end of the day, that leaves “us”—the people who are listening to her words, not screaming about her tone. I would certainly welcome Fox and Friends to the us side, but in their absence, we still have the hard work to do of acknowledging past failures, looking squarely at the line Thunberg has drawn, and holding it for hers and future generations.