Greta Thunberg's speech explained

Greta Thunberg’s speech explained

Federico Germani

Federico Germani

Federico is a bioethicist and molecular biologist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. His research focuses on the influence of misinformation on public health. He explores strategies to enhance public resilience against misinformation, with a strong emphasis on risk and crisis communication, trust-building, information and media literacy. Federico is the founder and director of Culturico.

This article is more than 3 years old

The young Swedish climate activist gave a sensationalistic speech at the COP24 UN Conference in Katowice that became widely popular. Here we analyze and explain what she said, sentence-by-sentence. Finally, we criticize and challenge her view that people will be the driving force of an environmentalist revolution.
Please watch Greta Thunberg’s speech at the COP24 UN Conference here:


My name is Greta Thunberg. I am 15 years old. I am from Sweden. I speak on behalf of Climate Justice Now.”

Climate Justice Now is a group of organizations that aim at fighting for social, climate justice and gender equality. Greta Thunberg, who has gained popularity as a young climate activist, has represented the group of organizations at the COP24 climate conference in Katowice, Poland. After the heat waves and wildfires of the last summer in Sweden, she protested against the Swedish government to force it to tackle environmental issues. Before speaking at the COP24 UN conference, she addressed the TEDxStockholm (video below).


Many people say that Sweden is just a small country and it doesn’t matter what we do. But I’ve learned you are never too small to make a difference. And if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to.”

Greta here refers to the aforementioned demonstration against the Swedish government. Indeed, as a form of protest, she did not go to school, sitting instead outside the Swedish parliament with a sign saying “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (“School strike for the climate”). She inspired similar protests in other countries, involving a huge number of students.

“But to do that, we have to speak clearly, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular.”

Greta explains that politicians often use a “green”, progressive and environmental friendly language, only to gain popularity. However, it must be said, Trump has never spoken in those terms, always rejecting environmental action and raising doubts about the fact that increasing temperatures are due to anthropic factors.
In addition, a shift in the language of political debate generally determines a shift in policies, because of the consequent altered population’s perception of a certain issue.

You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake.”

Using simple and effective language, Thunberg is actually explaining – and positioning herself within – a heavily debated issue for global environmental politics. There are indeed two major positions in the debate: a “dark-green” environmentalism, that theorizes that overpopulation and man-made technology are to be blamed for our changing environment, and a “light-green” environmentalism, in which technology is seen as a potential tool to revert the anthropic effects on climate change. According to this second – and prevalent view – overpopulation is not an issue per se: the root of the problem is the conditions of poverty and inequality that are widespread worldwide. In other words, for light-green environmentalists, the problem is the absence of technology rather than technology itself.
Greta clearly places herself in the first group, as a “dark-green” activist. She believes we need to “pull the emergency brake”, meaning we should immediately stop polluting, rather than looking for ways to contain the effects of pollution.
As a practical example: climate change is causing a rise in sea levels, bringing a higher concentration of salts to costal fields that are used for agriculture – for instance, this is a particularly big issue in Bangladesh. Thunberg’s view is to immediately halt the release of COinto the environment, whereas the view of light-green environmentalists is that we should develop technologies that help to maintain soil salinity to levels that permit the use of costal lands for agricultural purposes. Or, think of Venice or the Netherlands: rising sea levels could be restrained by building sea walls.
Although her vision is valuable, Greta’s position is considered obsolete and utopic because of the incredibly high economic cost that it would carry. Instead, a reduction – yet strong and immediate – of carbon emissions together with a short and long-term strategy to fight against the effects of climate change seems to be the best way to go.

Photo @ Alena Koval


You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet. Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.”

Greta refers to the existence of powerful multinational companies that oppose any environmental action. As an example, a popular lobbying group comprising multinational companies in the car, petrol and energy sectors was the “Global climate coalition” (archive). They built, between 1989 and 2001, common strategies and advertising campaigns to fight against the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in the USA, and more generally to oppose environmentally friendly policies that would minimize their economic interests.
However, probably because of a changing language in the international debate over climate change, these coalitions ceased to exist, at least officially.
Greta believes that safeguarding the interests of these international actors is helping to maintain global inequality, and this is possibly true: global inequality is rising. However, this non-environmental digression is arguable, as the existence of an open market, free trade and freedom of action for transnational companies has also been proved to help tackling poverty. In other words, although a “few” elite members are getting much richer than others, everybody is getting slightly richer.

The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”

There is little time to act, as a recent IPCC report has described. For many aspects we have actually already failed and time is over. We will have to pay for our environmental carelessness, but we could pay a smaller price if we act efficiently and immediately.

Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We can’t solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, and we need to focus on equity.”

This point goes in line with the previously explained concept: according to Greta’s dark-green environmentalism, the only way to stop and avoid the effects of climate change is to stop using fossil fuels, thereby eradicating those elites that make money with it.
Thunberg however, uses her sentences to introduce a new concept, which she will use in the next few lines: the concept of anarchy. She basically says that nations should stop looking at the world in a realist manner (politically speaking), embracing instead a strategy of absolute gains, rather than relative gains. In simpler words, states are scared of each other, and wish to stand out economically (and militarily). They often play a win-lose game instead of pursuing a win-win situation. Nations have this behavior because our international political system is an anarchic one, in which there is no central government (rather worldwide governance), leaving the last word on everything to the individual states. Greta thinks states should stop using anarchy as a tool to pursue their domestic interests.

And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself.”

Thunberg seems to suggest here that the current anarchic system is unfit for the purpose, and she is probably right. However, it is an inherent feature of anarchic systems to be difficult to change, unless individual states give up their sovereignty. Ideologically, this is happening in Europe, with the progressive shift of the European Union (EU) from a weak to a more powerful, and more governmental, institution. However, this shift requires time, as difficulties within the EU are proving, as well as other complicated processes of regionalization, such as the one attempted in South-East Asia.

We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again. We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time. We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people. Thank you”.

Up until this point, Thunberg’s speech has been linear, simple and with clear intentions.
She asked politicians to take immediate action, following the guidelines of dark-green environmentalists. However, in these final lines she turned her point completely, claiming that it does not really matter what politicians do, as people have a different opinion and are in control of the “real” power.
These revolutionary and sensationalistic words (even more in recent speeches) find no real match to what is happening in the world these days.
For example, Macron’s France has tried to raise taxes on fuels: this is one of the measures that France is pushing forward in order to contain pollution and meet the carbon emission threshold set within the frame of the Paris Climate Accord in 2016. This triggered strong and violent protests all over France, known as the “yellow vest” protest. In line with this, Macron’s support fell drastically in the following months. Another example comes from the USA. Trump, during the 2016 presidential campaign, strongly and clearly rejected scientists’ claims over climate change, challenging the very fact that rising temperatures are due to human activities. Trump has also pushed the US to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, as it damages the American economy. Nonetheless, Trump became president and his support has not substantially decreased since. These two large examples provide the evidence that: 1) yes, the power, at least in democratic states, belongs to the people and 2) people are generally uneducated about environmental – and more generally scientific – issues.
In stark contrast with Greta Thunberg’s speech, politicians are therefore the only (and last) chance we have to pay an affordable price for the environmental disaster we are facing.
Greta Thunberg, now 17, has great intentions and wants to save the world. Though, her strategy is probably not the best one. Her simple and emotional speech reached a vast number of people over the Internet, but has it really left a clear, understandable track? Did it really help to change the views of people and politicians on the issues that affect our environment?

I believe the answer is, unfortunately, no.


This article has been updated on the 12.03.20; Received: 08.01.19, Ready: 20.01.19, Editors: Celeste Varisco, Robert Ganley.

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