Research: The Climate Movement -Do We Need Greta?

By Eleanor Li.

Research: Social Science


As Earth’s temperature continues to rise, raising awareness about the drastically changing climate is crucial. The onerous combination of increasing carbon emissions and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has led to global warming, which continues to cause irreparable damage to the planet’s ecosystems and organisms. The climate crisis has reached a point of critical mass; we cannot afford further inaction.

Greta Thunberg, a teenage Swedish climate activist, has become a lead figure in the growing climate movement. Despite her young age and her struggles with Asperger’s, OCD, and selective mutism, Greta has the courage to stand up to global giants and make her voice heard. Greta’s activism, although originally well-intentioned, contradict the goal of her aspirations. While she has successfully inspired an international movement to fight the climate crisis, Greta creates a false image of the problem, making the complicated conundrum seem easy to solve. Through her exaggerated rhetoric, the global environmental crisis, a comprehensive and complex issue, is transformed into a single one-dimensional scolding of those in power without realistic solutions. Levying baseless charges yet failing to propose practical changes, Greta serves as a new saint to the Western world. We, as a society, do not need Greta Thunberg.

Our Common Goal

Addressing climate change is a shared responsibility; it supercedes all the differences and boundaries that divide us. From the Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Climate Agreement, nations have been seeking partners to stave off the worst of the climate crisis.

Collaboration is built upon trust and mutual respect, yet Greta’s biased standpoint and arresting behavior severely hinder that. Greta imposes a double standard when it comes to examining different issues, blaming one while turning a blind eye to another. On May 6, 2021, Western media published reports that hyped China’s impact on climate change, citing Rhodium Group’s research “China’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Exceeded the Developed World for the First Time in 2019”. Greta immediately retweeted the CNN report and commented: “We can’t solve the climate crisis unless China drastically changes course.” She wrongly puts blame on China without taking more accurate per capita and delocalized emissions into consideration. On April 13, 2021, an international outcry broke out when the Japanese government announced its plan to release contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific. The nuclear-treated water, once released, will cause irreversible damage to the global marine ecosystems. Greta, in sharp contrast with her character of being very critical on environmental conservation issues, only retweeted the decision without any comment. If everything is bad when related to environmental damage, why only comment on China? Instead of tearing each other down as Greta is doing, we should focus on collaborating as different nations to combat climate change. The fact that Greta did not maintain the same standards in evaluating these two events demonstrates that she not only politicizes climate issues, but also exacerbates prejudice and misconceptions.

Greta’s Approach

In addition to upholding an unfair double standard, Greta’s approach to activism disregards the value of education and villainizes world leaders.

Education that equips the younger generations with the necessary knowledge and skills to power sustainable growth plays a significant role in tackling climate change, yet Greta’s approach diminishes its importance. Instead of continuing her education, Greta skipped school for an entire year to go on a journey of protests and campaigns. As a lead figure in the “School Strike for Climate” movement, Greta encourages students to skip school to demand action on climate change from their governments. Understandably, the youth are speaking up for their future since the ramifications of climate change will directly affect them. However, strikes, protests, and campaigns are merely superficial shows based on social stability and wealth that do not actually solve the problem.

The hypocrisy of her claim is exemplified by her two-week sail across the Atlantic on an “emissions-free” boat to give a speech at the UN. Greta refused to fly because of carbon emissions, yet her journey emitted far more carbon than a flight would since a crew was flown to the US prior to her arrival just to take the boat back to Europe. When it comes to actually proposing realistic solutions, Greta is all talk and no action. Even her zero-emissions boat trip was not thought out. Greta calls governments and businesses to stop investing and subsidizing fossil fuels, saying: “Instead, they should invest their money in existing sustainable technologies, research, and in restoring nature.” Greta implicitly states that the sole solution to climate change is the complete elimination of carbon by compromise economic growth and development, yet the science evinces that, despite climate change, the future is not hopeless. Fossil fuel has been a key source of human development and prosperity for centuries since the Industrial Revolution. Any solution to tackle climate change should seek to minimize the impact on daily life while striving to maintain the unprecedented rise in wealth; anything else would be potentially disastrous and could reverse decades of gains in combating poverty. When a 50% greenhouse gas reduction by 2030 can catalyze a net-zero carbon emission future without compromising on our progress and development, Greta, claiming: “We must forget about net zero. We need real zero,” still demands the extreme and unsustainable action at the expense of halting development.

Solving the climate issue is no easy task; it requires scientific studies and research, collaborations across different fields, policy-making, and much more. The right solutions will most likely be found through green-energy research and development, like that promoted by Bill Gates and the Breakthrough Coalition. A repeated phrase of Greta’s is we should “listen to the science,” yet the scientific credibility of her message is close to none. Greta delivered an impassioned speech at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, saying: “How dare you? I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean, ... You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” Greta falsely claims that her childhood is stolen when her generation has grown up in the most prosperous period in history. Entitled and spoiled, Greta is unable to recognize her own blind spots: nations for which fossils fuels represent the best chance for earth-shattering gains in living standards. How can she call for people to “listen to the science” when the science behind her own pleas and actions are focused more on scolding wealthy Western elites than on providing realistic, sustainable growth for developing nations?

The Rise of Environmental Politics

Greta’s rise to fame is tied to the rise of environmental politics on a global scale. Gaining tremendous support from youth around the world, Greta perfectly fits the European Union’s need for greater internal integration within social classes and external competition for global leadership.

First, environmental politics has flourished because of the support of youth groups. Historically, the global left-wing youth movement, which began in the 1960s, has provided the ideology for environmental politics and the structure of its political organizations. For instance, after the West German student movement stagnated in the late 1960s, it gradually merged with the environmental and anti-nuclear movements. Its left-wing ideas were combined with the “green ideas” of the environmental movement, which laid a solid theoretical foundation and a broad mass base for contemporary environmental politics. Like the youth movement, environmental politics has from the outset subscribed to a “cosmopolitan” philosophy, attempting to transcend the existing nation-state system and develop a corresponding institutional mechanism by appealing to a sense of global morality. Environmental politics, therefore, requires a global network of organizations to exert pressure on governments and international organizations around the world. Like Greta, young people are generally inexperienced in political and social realities while also possessing unrealistic sentiments and ideals, which coincide with the exaggerated idealism embedded in the environmental movement.

Second, environmentalism serves as a religious alternative to the public at the ideological level. Given the ongoing decline of traditional religions, environmentalism offers a new secularized religion that fills the spiritual world of many youth. From its ideological roots, environmentalism was a rebellion against a Christian worldview; in 1967, Lynn White pointed out in his article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” that the precepts of the Bible made Christianity the most anthropocentric religion in the world. In contrast to other religions’ “animism” philosophy, Christianity establishes a “dualism” between man and nature, in which man’s use and transformation of nature is the will of God. While this historical purposefulness with progressive connotations laid the intellectual foundation for modern science and contributed to the industrial revolution, it seriously distorted the relationship between man and nature, leading to serious environmental problems.

Environmentalism creates a new set of values by placing faith above science and reason. It builds organizational structures and behavioral practices, and has its prophets and leaders, one of whom is Greta Thunberg. By angrily venting emotions through scolding world leaders, Greta, a youthful figurehead, prevents a real mass mobilization around the issue. Through organized strikes and campaigns, Greta and her followers are able to establish a sense of identity within the group, which strengthens their inner piety while individualizing the actual problem, rather than creating a rallying call for a new politics of mass mobilization. From promoting veganism to reducing air travel, these individualistic commandments become laws that discipline environmentalists, giving them a greater sense of reverence within themselves. This behavioral discipline is exemplified by Greta sailing across the sea: an insane dogmatic adherence for the sake of symbolism.

From the perspective of realpolitik needs, the universal discourse provided by environmental politics provides not only a powerful ideological resource for the political integration of the EU, but also a new legitimacy for it to lead global governance. Economic integration has always been the most powerful driving force for European integration, yet this process is increasingly challenged by right-wing populism since the financial crisis in 2008. Amidst the difficult integration process, environmental politics aids political cohesion within the EU. With the rise of the Green Party and various environmental movements, environmental protection has become a discourse that shapes the EU-centered consultation mechanism and a trump card for the EU to build leadership in global politics.

The EU is making great efforts on the climate issue to shape its own international soft power, as well as out of practical economic interests. As “carbon politics” continues to heat up, international capital is entering the new energy field in never before seen volume, with the rapid emergence of related financial and technological derivatives. In this situation, the EU tries to build a new trade and industry chain by virtue of its technological advantages in energy saving and new energy, thereby reversing its relative lag in the global technological change.

However, environmental politics has not helped to address the growing social and economic polarizations within the EU. Furthermore, it has failed to challenge the one-dimensional economic logic of capitalism, which left Europe’s momentary advantage in environmental technology at risk of being caught up by other countries. This highlights the limitations of environmental politics with Greta as its mascot, since the resulting institutional frameworks and international agreements are unlikely to serve the EU’s political and economic purposes and instead will leave it mired in environmental discourse.


As Putin puts it: “No one has explained to Greta that the modern world is complex and different... people in Africa or in many Asian countries want to live at the same wealth level as in Sweden.” Real environmental conservation requires practical actions: we cannot win this hard battle with idle speeches and playacting, nor with panic, prejudice, and hypocrisy. Greta Thunberg, the naive environmentalist who serves as a loudspeaker for promoting Western values and unrealistic solutions, is not a competent leader of this global movement. She is the exact opposite of who we need as a society: a leader that unites, speaks the truth, and takes affirmative measures to solve the problem.


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