A new film, designed as an homage to climate change’s child deity Greta Thunberg, in fact portrays a terrified, badly misled girl
The new documentary I Am Greta follows the Swedish soothsayer from when she began her protests in 2018 to today. It was intended to show her global campaigning impact, but my feeling after watching it was just one of pity.
“I don’t actually see the world in black and white. It’s just the climate issue I see in black and white. Sometimes I feel that it might be good if everyone had a bit of Asperger’s. At least when it comes to the climate.”
These are the closing remarks from the star of I Am Greta, about the climate-campaigning sensation Greta Thunberg. But perhaps those comments tell us more about the state of politics today than they do about the climate issue.
The film begins in August 2018. Thunberg is conducting a one-schoolgirl protest outside the Swedish parliament, with a simple handmade sign, Skolstrejk för klimatet (‘School strike for the climate’). The filmmaker, Nathan Grossman, says he was told about her protest by a friend and went down to film her, perhaps for a short film. However, he adds: “When I really understood that this [was] becoming a national base was when the strikes popped up in Australia and Belgium suddenly. It’s important to remember that the strikes [by] the Scandinavians then were maybe 50, 60, 70 people maximum per strike. Suddenly, in Australia, there were 10 or 15,000 people striking.”
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Thunberg is certainly an unlikely hero for an international campaign. She grew up experiencing significant difficulties with socialising and making friends, due to having Asperger’s. When she was eight years old, a film about climate change was shown at her school, showing “starving polar bears, floods, hurricanes and droughts”. She explains: “That’s when I started to get depressed. And… anxiety set in… and I stopped eating, I stopped speaking. I was sick. I almost starved to death.”
Thankfully, she recovered, but her ‘laser focus’ on things that interest her came to the fore with her climate activism. It takes sheer bloody-mindedness to sit outside a parliament building on your own, refusing to go to school, with the aim of putting the climate issue at the centre of the Swedish election debate. But her protest was a failure: the Green Party got just 4.4 percent of the vote and lost nine seats in the 2018 election. That was just a quarter of the vote for the right-wing populists, the Sweden Democrats, who stood against further environmental action in Sweden. (After months of wrangling in a very divided vote, the Greens remained part of a weak governing coalition led by the Social Democrats.)
As we see in the film, Thunberg’s fame continues to grow, however. Weekly school strikes under the banner ‘Fridays for Future’ spring up around the world. Greta is invited to speak at the UN climate talks in Katowice, Poland. She is told she will be very lucky if she gets any time with the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, who is “very busy”. But in the next scene, they are side by side as he patiently listens to her short speech to a group of young campaigners. He was just the first of a long line of world leaders to find time for Greta.
Her speech in the plenary session is picked up by the media around the world and suddenly every politician in the world, it seems, wants to be seen with her. We see her chatting to Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, and hobnobbing with leading parliamentarians in the UK. Even the Pope wants to meet her.
But what is it about Greta that means they all want to be seen with her? She is rightly suspicious about whether governments are serious – in her terms – about climate action. She makes a funny point about the climate talks, pointing out that the only vegan options on offer there are rice and bulgar wheat, while the hamburgers have all been scoffed.
“It feels like all they want is to be spotlighted, to make it look like they care, as if they are doing something,” she says.“They know exactly what to say, they know what sells. But in actual fact, they are doing nothing. If the solution to the climate crisis was changing tea bags for loose-leaf tea and eating vegetarian once a week, then it wouldn’t be a crisis.”
What Greta represents is, essentially, childish idealism: there’s a big problem and we just have to solve it. Adults are liars and robbing children of their futures.
It’s no surprise that other children are inspired by her. But the desperation of politicians to be seen connecting with young people is rather embarrassing. And she is no more childish than the adult members of Extinction Rebellion, who really are old enough to know better and who cause far more damage with their petulant protests. It seems there are plenty of people with a black-and-white worldview when it comes to climate.
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The trouble for Greta is that politicians are answerable to voters. And in almost every democratic test, green parties have been, and continue to be, a failure. Climate change is low among the concerns of voters across the world. When the costs of introducing cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are opened up to scrutiny, green policies are rejected.
Nonetheless, Greta is wrong to say that politicians are doing nothing. In fact, the biggest problem is that they are doing something: all the wrong things, clamping down on emissions without any sense of the problems their policies will cause.
The only way such policies are enacted is by taking the choice away from voters, either through undemocratic institutions like the EU, or by the creation of a consensus between the major parties. In the UK, for example, all of the major parties agree that eliminating greenhouse gas emissions – ‘net zero’ – is a worthy goal, and only argue about how quickly it should be achieved. Boris Johnson’s 10-point Green Industrial Revolution plan, launched today, is just the latest episode in a bidding war about which major party has the best green credentials. He certainly wasn’t elected to implement such policies.
Greta is useful to politicians as a means to curtail debate. We must listen to Greta! The rest of you must shut up! Think of the children! Climate-change policies are regarded as ‘above politics’ – which means that the rest of us don’t get a vote on them.
It would be easy to dismiss Greta as a hypocrite. After all, there she is on her MacBook Air writing her speeches, or sailing off on a trip to New York on a multi-million dollar yacht, Malizia II, to avoid flying. On the trip, she keeps in touch with her family by satellite phone, without apparent guilt about how the satellites got there. She’s created a global network thanks to the very energy-intensive internet servers that power social media.
But my feeling at the end of this 90-minute documentary was one of pity for her. Scare stories about climate catastrophe left her mentally ill in her childhood. She must live in a constant state of panic about future disasters – she seems particularly animated about mass extinctions – that have been blown out of all proportion by activists. As Bjorn Lomborg noted in his recent book, False Alarm: “We are not on the brink of imminent extinction. In fact, quite the opposite. The rhetoric of impending doom belies an absolutely essential point: life on earth is better now than at any time in history.”
Whether Greta, who will be 18 in January, remains a significant figure in the world as an adult remains to be seen. But I Am Greta should really be seen as a portrait of a terrified schoolgirl, frightened out of her wits by adults who should know better.
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