A lonesome fifteen-year-old girl carrying the world on her shoulders outside the Swedish parliament. I was there on the first day of “the school strike for the climate” that started exactly a year ago. You all know her name by now and so do powerful people acting in self-interest to control the world order of status quo.
“ I write this story, not because I want, but because we can’t let people who are actively working against a liveable future win. I’d be lying to you if I’d say that I’m not nervous about publishing this article. But it doesn’t matter. Because the climate crisis is a bigger threat to us all. We won’t be scared to silence. We must dare to speak truth to power whomever posses it. Together we will win.” — Ingmar Rentzhog, founder of WeDontHaveTime.org.
Her message was clear. “Since you grown-ups don’t care about my future, I won’t, either.’’ Greta’s candour and firm resistance in the face of ecological breakdown continue to inspire millions to rise up and demand action. She has since become the symbol and the lightning spark that so many of us had been waiting for.
In 2017 I had decided to quit a successful career in finance to found the organization We Don’t Have Time. The election of Donald Trump was a wake-up call for me. Living on Earth will not be meaningful, or even possible unless we focus all our attention on solving the climate crisis . Politicians and the people in power are not reacting to the immense threat that global warming poses. In our social network, we want to encourage people to take climate action and share it with a global audience. We support those who speak up against the status quo. We want to amplify and spread their message. And we’re not overly respectful of the rules and the mindset that protect business as usual.
You can see why I took an interest in Greta. But on that Monday morning in August 2018, I couldn’t in my wildest imagination predict her impact. Being part of the Swedish climate community, I was tipped off about a school strike outside the Swedish parliament. Together with my colleague, a photographer, we went there on our way to work to speak to the kids and document their protest. It was not what I had expected, at all. Instead of a group of loud activists there sat a silent and lonely girl. Next to her she had the now-famous sign “school strike for the climate” and in front of her a pile of leaflets weighted down by a stone to keep the wind from carrying them. People passed by, rushing to work. I stood there for a while, contemplating what I saw. No one seemed to care. Those who at all noticed her pretended she, or the problem she was raising, didn’t exist. Being a father of three, and once myself that kid in school no grown-up listened to, I found the scene hurtful. This lonely girl was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders and no one was giving a damn.
I remember finally walking up to her and talking to her. A shy but polite young girl handed me one of her leaflets. I asked her what her friends made of her striking from school and she told me she didn’t have any friends and no one at school cared, either.
The message on the leaflet was strong and to the point. “We children don’t do what you tell us to do. We do like you do. And since you grown-ups don’t give a damn about my future, I won’t, either. My name is Greta and I’m in ninth grade. And I’m on school strike until election day.” Then followed some scientific facts about climate change.
We talked for a while, and then I asked her if she would agree to be filmed reading her statement. In English, I stress, since most of our followers don’t speak Swedish. She agrees, and I’m impressed by how she, with no preparation, reads her message in fluent English.
Back at the office, I couldn’t let go of the thought that I needed to help this solitary girl who’d impressed me so. It didn’t feel right that she was supposed to sit there all on her own carrying such an important message. I posted this in my personal Facebook feed, telling my friends about my emotional morning and encouraging them to show the young girl their support. The post went viral, generating thousands of shares and likes. Later that same day I published the video of her reading her message. It didn’t take long until journalists from all over the world reached out and the day after she was joined by young people who shared her conviction. Greta was no longer alone.
I want to be clear that I helped her get her message out, but if I hadn’t shared it, she would, of course, have gained support anyway. The very first person to share the action on social media was probably Greta herself in this tweet.
People got inspired and was fascinated by the story of how one brave teenager refused school for the climate. But it didn’t take long before Greta’s critics started lurking around in commentary sections. Many complained that Greta’s parents were at fault for not forcing her to attend the school which, in a sense, was close to the point she was making herself. Indeed, not going to school is bad but look at the bigger picture. There’s a crisis happening and going to school is pointless unless this crisis is addressed. But there were also voices that went beyond this criticism, attacking Greta’s character and wilfully misinterpreting her motivations.
In order to support Greta and advance the climate cause We Don’t Have Time co-hosted a free street concert on September 7th, the last day of the “full-time” part of Greta’s strike (that is, before she went on to strike only on Fridays). The concert was titled “Our challenge, not the children’s” — the message being that while we adults must listen to the younger generation, it’s also our responsibility to act.
Greta’s strong speech at the concert moved the audience.
At this point in time, Greta had achieved far more than she could ever have hoped for. Her story had been picked up by national and international media and with it her message that we adults are failing future generations on the climate. Her candour, clear-sightedness, and persona made people listen. She was constantly surrounded by fellow strikers and supporters. But she was not the international climate super-icon she’s become since then.
Her mission aligns extremely well with that of We Don’t Have Time. Our goal is to raise awareness, change the status quo and amplify the voices of climate advocates all over the world, be they business leaders, parents, students or activist teenagers. The WeDontHaveTime Foundation seeks to support the younger generation and give serious weight to their perspective, which is pretty obvious considering that today’s youth will face the worst consequences of a climate breakdown.
On October 2nd I sent an invitation to Greta Thunberg to join our foundation board as a youth advisor (you need to be over 18 years old to become a legal member of the board) that she accepts. Not long after, she attends the UN Climate Summit in December. A fellow board member, Stuart Scott arranges for Greta to receive an invitation to the UN climate meeting in Katowice (COP24) where she attends several meetings, for instance below press conference hosted by Stuart Scott.
It’s also at COP24 where she gives her speech to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, in which she asks the crisis be treated as a crisis, and that particularly the rich countries must reach net-zero emissions quickly.
The climate negotiations in Katowice in December 2018, meant a significant bump in international attention for Greta. Not all of which was benevolent in kind. Something was set in motion. A wide variety of alternative and social media joined in an effort to debunk Greta. Various lies and deliberate misconceptions appeared simultaneously and from a variety of sources. The claims made were out of touch with reality and had the clear aim of making trying to make Greta less, or something else, that what she was: an extremely independent and headstrong adolescent whose climate protest just happened to go viral. No, the detractors said, Greta’s action was a PR coup carefully planned and executed by myself and Al Gore. Some claimed that I had ghost-written Greta’s speeches and social media posts. There were conspiracy theories according to which Greta’s ulterior motive was, in fact, to promote free immigration. Professional pundits and politicians also ventured into the debate, spreading false information or heavily biased articles intended to discredit, mislead or confuse. Even propaganda agencies such as state control media in some totalitarian countries and blogs with extremist links helped create and spread false and misleading articles.
And their actions stretch beyond falsehoods. The negative articles started to appear suddenly, within a few days and were joined by threats. It began with hateful posts across commentary sections but soon I started receiving personal messages and even phone calls. Below is one example. There is worse.
“ If you want to listen to the voices of lonely girls, you can start with those who have been group raped by immigrants. It would be a little more dressy, damn hypocrites. Hope you happen to suffer an accident. “
Being personally threatened is an experience no one deserves. The threats escalated into sophisticated hacking attempts. We Don’t Have Have Time social media accounts were subjected to sophisticated hijacking efforts where, among other things, someone pretending to work for Facebook requested administrative status to our Facebook account. In our webmail log, an unknown mobile phone was logged in all of a sudden. We took steps to increase security and block unauthorized access. I also have very strong reasons to believe that my mobile phone and those of my colleagues had been tampered with. The attacks and the social media hate storm escalated and on December 14 I penned an open letter to our supporters.
Shortly thereafter the threats, hacking attempts and social media activity ceased. All of a sudden, as if someone waved a magic wand, everything returned to normality. For a while. On January 25, 2019, Greta gave her “We need to panic” speech at Davos. The old lies and misconceptions from back in December resurfaced but this time around the hatred was more focused at Greta Thunberg herself. The critics took aim at the connection between Greta and We Don’t Have Time and claims to the effect that we paid her, or she paid us, circulate. Totally untrue of course. Meanwhile, Greta continued her ascent into international stardom. The school strike movement now counted millions of young people and the media attention was huge. The situation was very different from October 2018 when she accepted an advisory role at the board of directors of the WeDontHaveTime Foundation. She decides to leave the board.
In order to concentrate on her own initiative, she needs to be independent of other organizations. I understand — and support — this decision of hers. We Don’t Have Time helped her reach out but the initiative is hers and hers alone and part of what makes it so powerful is that she represents no one but herself.
An article in a major Swedish newspaper (SvD) falsely claimed that We Don’t Have Time used Greta’s in marketing campaigns for a fundraising, when in fact we had reported about our activities related to Greta in our financial prospectus — a legal document in which we are obligated to detail the operations of the company, including persons that serve in various positions within our organization. A prospectus is required by Swedish law when raising money from the public. The newspaper had to back down from their claims and issue a correction. Unfortunately, these falsehoods still linger uncorrected on the internet. We have, however, apologized to Greta Thunberg and her family for failing to inform them beforehand that Greta, a minor, was mentioned when we reported on our activities in the financial prospectus.
Media around the world are now writing various versions of this news instead of talking about what was actually said in Davos.
During the first months of 2019, the falsehoods and conspiracy theories continued to circulate. This intensified as the first global school strike approaches. New threats. Renewed hacking attempts. And it becomes even more sinister in nature with an email containing serious threats against the climate youth movement.
The event was reported to the police, of course. These new threats seemed to be designed to provoke a reaction. That whoever sent them wanted them to become public. On March 15, the first global Fridays For Future strike was held, one of the largest manifestations for the climate cause ever. We Don’t Have Time attended the Stockholm protest but had no hand in organizing the event nor any collaboration with Greta around it. Seeing so many come together to protest the status quo gave me so much hope!
The threats, however, became even more sinister. Greta was scheduled to give a speech in front of the European parliament in April. Two weeks before we received a new email from the same sender. This time around a copy of the mail is also sent via bcc to local news media, and directly to the Swedish Security Service. The sender was obviously seeking attention and media publicity. But no one took the bait. Again, the police were informed. And so it continued. Falsehoods, hatred, misleading claims and threats.
Greta’s on-going trip to the United States has led to an increase in this activity. Blogs and alternative news outlets continue to repeat falsehoods and misconceptions, while the established media primarily focus their attention on Greta herself and not her message. When Greta does something the activity increases. It seems coordinated, sophisticated and sinister.
Who’s really behind those threats?
Who initiates the assaults on Greta’s character and the character of those who support her?
Who supports and guides right-wing bloggers and internet trolls against the climate movement?
Who attempts to hack our social media accounts?
Who tried to tap into my phone?
I don’t know, and will probably never find out. I’m certain though that the people behind these anti-Greta propaganda operations act in callous self-interest and have reason to consider the global climate movement a threat to their vested interests.
Not knowing who they are, let’s call them out for what they do. Having observed their actions for several months, myself in the crossfire at times, their strategy has become evident to me: Divert focus from Greta’s message. Make it about her — not the cause. To understand this one needs to look at what Greta actually does. She leverages her outsider position as a minor, with no affiliations, to challenge the system that upholds the status quo. By claiming the position as a representative for a generation that has no future due to climate change, and by harvesting the explosive potential of the contemporary media landscape, she becomes an icon on which we can project our fear of global warming and our anger at those most responsible for it. She taps into, amplifies, directs, and radicalizes the global climate movement. The defenders of the status quo are right to be afraid because her impact is real. She is to the climate movement what Trump is to the alt-right movement. The method is similar, they both communicate directly with their followers and show little respect for conventional behavior if it stands in the way of their aims, although their respective agendas and personas couldn’t differ more.
Which is the most sophisticated method, then, for taking the edge off someone who, as an activist strategy, becomes a symbol for a cause? You can’t claim she’s in the wrong — the denialists lost that battle years ago. Ignoring her is not an option since the contemporary media logic allows her to completely dominate the scene.
Her detractors are left with one option: Make everything about Greta, not her cause. Don’t challenge her message. Focus on her and those around her. Disrupt, mislead, lie, distract. If you can somehow make it all about her choices, her appearance, her affiliations, her family, her age, the way she travels, the plastic wrapping around her sandwich, her Asperger’s — at the expense of focusing on her cause: avoiding climate breakdown — they’ve won. And we must not let them win.
In fact, Greta’s not the target of these lies and distractions. Their goal is to distract the established media. When Greta sat down outside the Swedish parliament a year ago she was very open about her strategy. She wanted to use the media attention her action gained to talk about the climate crisis, thereby increasing the media coverage of it. The anti-Greta propagandists seek to shortcut this logic. They use her strategy — the attention she receives — against her. Flow the airwaves with junk about Greta and her message must compete with it, clouding it in the process. Feed the meme to contain the movement.
Sadly, established media is prone to fall into this trap. One big reason why is because the media does not treat the climate crisis for what it is, namely, the greatest news story of this century. This is unsurprising, considering that news stories typically deal with particular, recent events, not on-going systematic shifts with enormous consequences for our future. Greta, the icon, her movement, her detractors are much more click-baity than the deaths caused by recent and future heat waves, the current Arctic sea ice extent, the threat against the Amazon or the increased amount of wildfires and their effect on the climate and our societies. Did you know that Indonesia plans to move its capital because Jakarta is literally sinking into the sea? What can be a greater news story than an entire city sinking into the sea? Everything from Trump tweets to boat crews taking flights, it seems. Distractions, distractions.
This does not have to be so, and it proves that Greta’s — and our — mission is far from completed. Our movement for climate action, net zero emissions and a safe future will continue to grow. But we don’t have time to wait. Every action, every reformed climate ignorant, every ounce less of carbon in the atmosphere counts. Let’s join Greta in her fight for a new and radically different media landscape, one that truly deals with the crisis as a crisis and not a click-bait, one in which news outlets compete with one another to offer the broadest and most in-depth coverage of the effects and the solutions to climate change. You can help by sharing news about the ongoing crisis and the solutions available to avoid the catastrophe. If someone takes climate action, it is important to encourage it. You can also reach out to your local newspaper or TV broadcaster and help them vastly improve their climate coverage.
A media landscape that focuses fully on this crisis and its solutions is possible, likely even, given the nature of the issue, but the sooner it materializes the better, because it would help push world leaders towards negotiating real solutions. In this imagined world, Greta receives significantly less coverage. Nothing scares the enemies of the climate movement more. No one — I think — would welcome this world more than Greta herself.
CEO & founder of We Don’t Have Time
David Olsson, co-founder of We Don’t Have Time, contributed to this article.
Facts about We Don’t Have Time
We Don’t Have Time is a social media network for everyone who wants to be a part of the solution to the climate crisis. If a large enough number of people want change, and if that energy is directed towards those in charge — change comes. But we don’t have time to wait. The social network is operated by the company WeDontHaveTime AB (publ), whose majority shareholder is the WeDontHaveTime Foundation. The Foundation’s principal purpose is to contribute to a reduced climate impact and an ecologically sustainable environment. Our headquarters is located in Stockholm, Sweden.
Read more about our organization here.