From school girl strikes to curating a global movement, one can not underestimate the power of Greta Thunberg. At just 15 years old, she was carrying out climate strikes outside the Swedish parliament, prompted by her deep concern over their climate inaction. Almost overnight, her “Skolstrejk för klimatet” snowballed into an international action, with the girl in the yellow raincoat mobilising a whole generation. She went on to become a global climate trailblazer, with her work prompting millions worldwide to coordinate their own climate strike action. Up until this point, there was a relatively high level of indifference to global warming, despite the work of environmentalist heroes like David Attenborough. It was not a pressing idea in the public consciousness, which meant that leaders were able to continue ignoring the issue of environmental degradation with their reputations relatively unscathed. Now, thanks to Thunberg, climate change has turned into a political issue of great concern, with more people than ever making lifestyle adjustments, and expecting governments to take action.
However, just four years after Greta Thunberg was catapulted to international fame, would it be fair to say the ‘Greta-mania’ has begun to wane?
The climate emergency has once again been thrust to the forefront, with the November COP27 Climate Change Conference. This event is designed to facilitate discussion and agreements, and is also an opportunity for activists to influence on a global platform, side by side with those in government. This time, the pressure was more intense than ever to make agreements. Before the conference started, UN-Secretary General Antonio Guterres emphasised how time was running out, outlining “Europe’s hottest summer in 500 years. The Philippines hammered. The whole of Cuba in black-out”. He referred to Hurricane Ian in the United States, in an attempt to highlight that no amount of economic power can shield you from environmental damage.
However, Thunberg was notably absent, citing that the conference was nothing more than “greenwashing”. The design of the summit is flawed, with many rich nations attempting to shirk responsibility. But, given the high stakes that were attached to this conference, Thunberg may have been needed more than ever. Her emotive power is undeniable, and her speeches serve not just to pressure politicians, but her presence also encourages those excluded from such forums to take note, and be aware of their government’s response.
Despite this, there was a range of young climate activists who stepped up to the plate, suggesting that Thunberg may have now rendered herself unnecessary due to her work mobilising youth participation and activism. Iranian-American climate activist Sophia Kianni (dubbed online as ‘Greta 2.0’) was one of the young activists who made waves, being the youngest member of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. Kianni observed herself that “Young people are definitely shaping outcomes here at COP27” and that they had become a powerful force.
Additionally, it is easy from a Western European perspective to underestimate the consequences of the worsening climate emergency, as we have not yet felt the extent of it. Thunberg herself has done much work to magnify the suffering of those in the Global South, with her encouraging us to listen to the most vulnerable. But maybe now is the time we hear from these people directly. Indigenous communities have such a rich knowledge of their land and its ecological deterioration, but historically these opinions have been sidelined. Perhaps, in a ‘post-Greta’ era, there may be more appetite for these voices to be heard.
Many climate activists from high-risk countries attended COP27, arguing that instead of boycotting over ‘greenwashing’, they were “calling it out” from the inside. Pakistani activist Ayisha Siddiqa was one of the main speakers at the Children and Youth Pavilion at the conference. She dismissed questions about Thunberg, focusing on how summer floods in Pakistan had killed 1,700 people, and that “the stakes are so high that I can’t just give up hope for change”. Kenyan climate activist Mana Omar was another impressive figure, who described how droughts in her country are having a catastrophic impact. She detailed how “Voices of women farmers need to be heard […] and to be well represented in decision-making, we need finance for loss and damage for communities like mine that are badly affected”.
Overall, Greta Thunberg has been one of the most powerful political forces we have seen in the twenty-first century. However, perhaps the most influential work has already been done; mobilising an entire generation to fight for the planet. She need not disappear from public life, she can continue to harness her influence for good, and protest is a powerful tool. But, with such a globalised issue as climate change, collaboration between activists and governments is essential, rather than boycotts of international forums. Also, now that all eyes are on the climate emergency, it could be time for us to focus on listening to indigenous and global-south experiences, in order to coordinate a global climate response that serves all.