Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg is turning revolutionary – and why this isn’t any good

Federico Germani

Federico Germani

Federico is a bioethicist and molecular biologist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. His work focuses on scientific misinformation and vaccine hesitancy. He is the founder and director of Culturico. Twitter @fedgermani

This article is more than 1 year old

After her first sensationalist speech at the COP24 in Katowice in 2018, Greta Thunberg has given another impressive speech at the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York. Although her speech is almost identical to her previous one, on this occasion she raised a stark voice of dissent and berated politicians. This move intends to place her as the paladin of a “green” revolution with the purpose of completely replacing the existing political class to drive policy change. Here we discuss the limitations – and the dangers – of this approach.
In a previous article, I discussed and analysed Greta Thunberg’s speech at the COP24 in Katowice, sentence by sentence. I defined her as belonging to a group of environmental activists known as “dark-green environmentalists”, as she made clear multiple times that the safety of the planet comes before the need for economic growth. She implied that states no longer have to look at their history of emissions, status of development, objectives on poverty reduction, or at increasing trade. They should simply focus on the environment, as climate change impinges on our future.

Thanks to the speech in Poland she became widely popular and attracted large masses of young students to demonstrate in many countries, and yet her message was lacking a political solution, possibly due to a misunderstanding or oversimplification of the complexity of interactions between states. Although she repeatedly attacked politicians for their carelessness, she also equated the political class to one that cares nothing about the environment. On this point, I already discussed the importance of having enlightened politicians to guide the way for a sustainable future, given that the general population, which often lack the necessary critical thinking skills, does not fully understand the economic consequences of the climate crisis we are living through. The same people supporting her views may very well be the same ones fighting against the increase of taxes on fuel.

Because of the aforementioned reasons, I previously judged Greta Thunberg’s vision as ineffective: no environmental change can be driven without an active and responsive political class. Revolutions can lead to drastic changes, but a worldwide revolution is somewhat utopic, and environmental change must be driven by the vast majority of nations, or at least by those which are largely populated and more influential.
With her latest speech at the UN last month (see video below), Greta Thunberg provided us with new pieces of information to decipher her long-term strategy. If her attack on politicians assumed mild tones in previous circumstances, her tone of voice and the strength of her accusation has grown considerably in her latest UN speech.

Although its content strongly resembles the one she gave in Katowice at the COP24, her concluding sentence

“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. Thank you”

now assumes revolutionary traits. Only one year ago in Poland she appeared as a shy young girl trying to communicate a strong message. Although she already showed she has little faith in the political class – “You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again.” she said in her concluding remarks – she pushed politicians to take action, or otherwise “change will come”.
One year ago she concluded her speech by saying:

“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”

The winds of change started blowing, as people protested each Friday around the world, guided by Greta’s engaging character. Although a large number of people were moved by her speech and many people demanded change in their countries, many did not have elections scheduled in the last few months. Meanwhile “Green” parties – likely dragged by the success of Thunberg’s initiative – have gained consensus in Europe, but no positive consequence for the environment could be tangibly measured so far.

Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg. Cartoon @ Dan Salinas for Culturico (copyright)

In her latest speech at the UN – in contrast to her COP24 speech in Poland – she raised her voice even stronger, this time seemingly suggesting that change has to be immediate, and that politicians are to be given no more time to come up with tangible solutions. Democracy is a bureaucratic political system that does not succeed when fast decisions have to be taken. It follows that the change Thunberg wants is a revolution. In her words “People will drive a change”, there is no more bargaining, no awaiting a response from her audience this time. Her final “thank you” sounds nothing more than an ironic accusation.
Was the growth of her character, of her strength, scripted already before the COP24 conference? Was this all a premeditated plan?
As previously mentioned, the contents of her speeches have remained substantially unaltered, almost identical. The practical difference lies in the momentum: in Katowice she gained popularity for being a child that wanted to save our planet. In New York she was consecrated as a strong woman able to lead masses of youngsters to protest against their governments’ inaction.
Greta Thunberg is likely seeking a green revolution, where masses of angry people take over institutions (peacefully?). She is becoming the modern Joan of Arc, the young heroine who successfully guided a French army against the English – and at a similar age.

What other mission – if not revolution – is the entourage of Greta Thunberg seeking? Listening to her words, we find little else but anger, frustration and firm belief. There seems to be no better explanation. Perhaps, in case of a failed revolution, Thunberg would settle for bringing awareness of environmental issues to the broader population.

Would a revolution led by Greta succeed? Most likely not. The answer however cannot be resolute, as her number of followers has grown so large, so fast and so unexpectedly, that we may be surprised by how the future unfolds. In the remote possibility that the green revolution would succeed, policy change could only be driven in those already developed states that are currently only mild polluters, compared with the whole international arena.

Developing countries historically see the discussion over climate change as a sign of the developed world’s avarice against the needs of poorer and developing countries. 
In 1972 Indira Gandhi, the president of India at the time, spoke at the first global conference on the human environment (UNCHE), asking rich countries to prioritize the fight against poverty, as she proposed poverty itself to be the main cause of pollution. Following the logic, removing poverty would lead to a cleaner world. But in order to achieve these results, developing countries should be allowed to pollute, just for a while longer. 
More than 45 years have passed since then, and yet we are still discussing this same issue, development versus environment.

Whether Greta Thunberg is able to apply enough pressure to achieve drastic policy changes in the Western world is a possibility, although remote, but she surely wouldn’t be able to influence the Chinese or Indian government, and their emissions constitute, to date, the major threat to our future. India and China, and in particular the latter, are democracies with a strong state control. The Chinese political system, in particular, is strong enough to prevent “democratic movements” to push for change from the bottom. It is unsurprising, in this context, that no Fridays For Future protests have taken place in mainland China.
Even in the remote case of success, pollutants do not respect borders and will continue poisoning our planet and steal the future of mankind.
Greta Thunberg’s entourage should understand that a political solution is the only way forward. It is not the ideal one, but the only plausible one. Her large following, her energies and her work should be redirected for this cause.

By taunting a political solution to the environmental crisis, Greta Thunberg is unknowingly becoming the paladin of the rich Westerners. By boycotting the political class, she is indirectly shutting down the discussion between the developed and less developed nations, with two unforeseen consequences. Polluters will keep polluting, without receiving pressure from the international community. And the needy and the hungry will consider her sentence “you have stolen my dreams and my childhood” as an insult to their condition.
Yet, she also hasn’t considered that her supporters may turn against her – if the revolution succeeds – once economies collapse, and the price of fuel and food triple.
The wealthy West will be furious for the decrease in their quality of life, and the less developed world will be disappointed by a new Green political class that hasn’t managed to give them the tools to improve their lives.
As Joan of Arc was sold to the English, Greta Thunberg will be given to her enemies, while the Earth will burn at the stake.

The only possible solution remains political, must involve the major powers and must include China and India.


Federico Germani


Received: 12.10.19, Ready: 18.10.19, Editors: Celeste Varisco, Robert Ganley.

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