Greta Thunberg, the Swedish youth activist who gained international spotlight for her work in bringing attention to, and urging action for, the environmental crisis, is, by many standards, an all but controversial figure. Even as many in the young generation view her work as invaluable in fighting the looming climate crisis, others — typically among the older folks — do not find her actions particularly conducive to the response to climate change. Over the past couple of years, the name “Greta” has become nearly synonymous with the broader movement of climate activism as her efforts to decry the insufficient response to climate change culminated into a full-fledged movement which has inspired more than 10 million people around the world to take to the streets, demanding action (Sabherwal and van der Linden, 2021). Yet, despite her endeavors in mobilizing the wider public to voice concerns on the imminent threat of climate change, critics maintain that, with all aspects considered, the issue of climate change is one of great intricacy and that real — and more importantly, feasible — solutions will not come with the baton of an impassioned teenager.
However, in this essay, I seek to refute the aforementioned claim that Greta’s work is dispensable by arguing that not only do we, as human beings inhabiting a planet in jeopardy, need Greta Thunberg’s trailblazing activism on climate change, society must also treasure the work she does and open way for more Greta Thunbergs of all realms to flourish in the future. Throughout the piece, I will dive into three main topics of contention and articulate my line of reasoning: the murky status quo she had, through her unwavering courage and unyielding spirits, almost single-handedly shattered, the tangible and positive impacts her work has brought to the world in combating climate change, and the ramifications of her specific brand of activism — a type of activism that enable voices and imbues hope into others like her — in the 21st century.
Shattering of the Status Quo
To begin, one consequence of Greta’s work that many are prone to overlook is not so much what she had achieved, but the status quo she has chosen to challenge, and the process through which this was carried out. The breaking of the status quo is precisely what this world is in need of and what must be done to tackle the dangerous prospects of climate change. The current state of affairs Greta sought to challenge is one of neglect and highly insufficient response that has the potential to jeopardize generations to come.
With the climate crisis heading well towards the tipping point — a mark where the effects of climate change would be everlasting and irreversible — it is beyond critical for an influential figure to spearhead an effort that unites humankind in a fight for the future. The grim reality that stares at all of us on the horizon is that the ice sheets are melting at an unprecedented rate, leading to alarming levels of rising sea level, the startling statistic that eight of the ten hottest years in recorded history occurred in the past decade, and residents of small island nations watching their land absorbed by swarming rise.
Even in the face of such harrowing prospects, the global community had shown a genuine lack of interest or a courage far from competent in mustering their response to the climate threat. Countries have been hesitant to pledge huge cuts in their carbon emissions — one of the major causes of global warming — and, for a multitude of economic and geopolitical reasons, have been largely mute in cooperating in regards to climate change.
It was at this time with the rise of a young Swedish teenager that gained global limelight. At first inspired by her learning of climate change and winning a local climate change essay contest (BBC, 2020), Greta ended up taking her grievances to the United Nations, delivering a fiery tirade scolding world leaders for “failing” the new generation and turning on science. These impassioned speeches, among other efforts of hers, which will be touched on in sections below, earned her immediate fanfare. Bluntly put, she was the one who broke the silence, said the unspeakable, and rang a wake-up bell before the world’s eyes.
Her actions forcibly upended the status quo so many ill-intended people sought to preserve, and this, in and of itself, was truly remarkable.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects people examine in Greta Thunberg’s work is the impact — applauded by most as positive — her activism brought. Among all her activism efforts mobilizing the younger generation to stand in defiance against the insufficient response by policymakers around the world, her Fridays for Future campaign has gained particular traction. In this campaign, Greta’s endeavors — deliberately missing school on Fridays and marching on the streets holding signs calling for greater response in combating climate change — evolved from a mere local disobedience effort shrouded in praise and skepticism into a global, highly-acknowledged movement with the capacity to amass over one million people from more than 110 countries on one Friday morning in 2019. This, for the most part, is the epitome of Greta’s activism in the making. Her Friday school strike movement has attained a reach far beyond what she, and many who first witnessed her nascent activist work, could have imagined.
What all the school strikes and fervent marches have led to is what has come to be known as “The Greta Thunberg Effect” (Ballew et al., 2021). According to one study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, this effect refers to the psychological drive by an urge for action as a group, as Greta’s climate campaign forges a “stronger sense of efficacy” than individual action (Ballew et al., 2021). This very effect ripples into greater impact and more palpable action Greta espouses for.
All of her efforts came to a culmination on September 20th, 2019, when millions across the globe took to the streets, demanding urgent action on climate change. This event also garnered the support of major companies and unleashed a burgeoning movement at a scale inconceivable just a few years ago — after all, this was exactly what her endeavors aspired to achieve: a united front bent on tackling the issue threatening all of humanity. This level of attention finely illustrated what her activism, and the impact created, was all about — giving youths a voice to be heard, a united band to be taken seriously. The uniting nature of makes her work
Ramifications of the Greta-Brand Youth Activism
Stepping into the third decade of the 21st century, the past 20 years have brought the global spotlight to youth activism — or, in some sense, Generation Z has become more and more vocal about the social issues around them and are desperate for change. And, within this fundamental shift, Greta Thunberg appears to be the single most influential advocate leading a young generation two billion strong (2019). Her activist work, after all, is not only positively affecting the work she does, but also serving a role model for millions around the world just like her: what I dubbed the Greta-brand youth activism.
Aside from the fact that youth activists are uniquely positioned to mobilize an army of young people to fight for a common cause, the specific type of activism Greta Thunberg embodies is one grounded in inclusivity and resonation. This is best exemplified by her background. As a young teenager coming from a non-elite family and having been grappling with several mental disorders, such as Asperger syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the degree to which her work impacted the world has only extended the boundaries of what is possible.
What her unique identity spelled is the universality of activism. Her unwavering will to address the climate crisis, despite all odds stacked against her, demonstrated what youth activism could make possible and has no doubt become a source of inspiration for future leaders like her. She was fierce and unafraid, unbound by her age, gender, disability, or others’ perception of her. The 21st century will indubitably be mired with societal issues and, by encouraging youths to set aside their differences and do what they believe in, the legacy of this Greta-brand activism will go a long way in cultivating future Greta Thunbergs of gun control, future Thunbergs of universal healthcare, future Thunbergs of journalistic freedom, and more.
Through the three points above, I hope I have elucidated how by dismissing Greta for her age and qualifications, we are doing ourselves, and our future, a great disservice. To discourage her climate activism is to hinder future endeavors in making our planet a more just and equitable place. For we must recognize the transformative change Greta has brought, and it did not come easily.
In closing, Greta Thunberg’s work has not only been essential to challenging the blatantly inadequate response by the powerful against climate change and her impact groundbreaking in her own right, but the broader ramifications of modern-day youth activism ushers in a transformative era marked by the young voicing their outlook for the world, no matter how grim and how hard they’d have to fight — something this world, all in all, is desperately in need of.
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