Who is afraid of Greta Thunberg?

As the world starts to take note of the teen climate activist, her critics have launched increasingly personal attacks.

Greta Thunberg
Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg completed her trans-Atlantic crossing in order to attend a United Nations summit on climate change in New York on August 28 [Reuters/Andrew Kelly]

It was, in a subtle way, a defining moment. 

After a 15-day trek across the Atlantic Ocean, Thunberg looked exhausted. Still, the 16-year-old climate change activist knew she had to talk about the meaning and purpose of her unorthodox journey with supporters who greeted her on an overcast New York shoreline.

Predictably, the tired, petite Swedish schoolgirl faltered, losing her train of thought briefly before apologising. “I’m sorry,” she said, “my brain is not working correctly.”

The crowd applauded. Energised by the encouragement, Thunberg finished her short speech, where she urged the rest of us to “work together, despite our differences” to avert “the biggest crisis humanity has faced … because, otherwise, it might be too late. Let’s not wait any longer. Let’s do it now.”   

For me, that distinctly human moment crystalised the appeal of Thunberg – a young woman who, distressed at the world’s inexorable destruction, was moved to do something about it. Alone, if necessary.

She disdains celebrity. She makes no claim to heroism. She rebuffs efforts to idolise her. She isn’t calculating or preoccupied with fame or ego. There is no artifice about her.  She speaks plainly, without affectation or embroidery. 

In words and deeds, Thunberg is the embodiment of philosopher Howard Zinn’s admonition: “We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can quietly become a power no government can suppress, a power that can transform the world.”

Of course, the marauding swarm of vitriolic right-wing climate-change deniers see Thunberg – not how the prophetic Zinn envisioned her – but as a tiny, pretentious zealot who threatens the existing order. Their order. Their comforts. Their traditional “way of life”.

De rigueur, they have set out to discredit and, if possible, to destroy Thunberg with their, by now, familiar and crass modus operandi.

They have mocked her. They have belittled her. They have denigrated her. They have insulted her. They have dismissed her. They have questioned her motives. They have suggested she is anti-democratic. They have, in the fetid recesses of the internet, even threatened her.

To afford all their fuming, sophomoric attacks the imprimatur of seriousness, they insist – as they always do – that they are the implacable realists, who, unlike starry-eyed leftists, aren’t duped by the media’s veneration of a youngster peddling doom and gloom over the supposedly still-contested science about whether the end is nigh or not.

They would, no doubt, recoil at any suggestion that their furious hostility towards Thunberg is also the product of a calcifying cynicism, seething malevolence or signature cruelty.

Rather, they insist, it is an expression of their necessary role as sceptics or contrarians in the noble tradition of their philosophical patron saint in name only, Galileo, who also questioned the prevailing scientific orthodoxy.

It is a lie and an insult. They aren’t “sceptics” or “contrarians”. They are scientifically illiterate bullies who amplify their malice and ignorance with a bullhorn on TV or keyboard on Twitter.

They share no intellectual affinity with Galileo. None. Bereft of an argument that could remotely be considered empirically or rationally sound, they traffic in hyperbole and smears designed to pummel Thunberg into an inconsequential afterthought.

The teenage revolutionary must be stopped before the climate revolution she leads goes beyond their ability to halt it.

Consider what the Australian columnist, Andrew Bolt, had to say about her.

“No teenager is more freakishly influential than Thunberg, the deeply disturbed messiah of the global warming movement,” he wrote. “I have never seen a girl so young and with so many mental disorders treated by so many adults as a guru.”

Not done calling her a freak and disturbed, Bolt invoked Thunberg’s reported past eating disorder, emotional and psychological struggles and autism as a cudgel against her.

I defer to psychologists to discern the pathology that would prompt such viciousness. But Bolt’s fear of the Thunberg phenomenon is plain. She is prevailing. He is losing. She is being heard, while he shouts obscenities. She grows more relevant by the day, while he slips further into irrelevancy and hysteria.

When the predictable character assassination of a teenager gambit fails, it’s time to raise “questions” about who or what powerful forces may be acting as Svengalis exploiting a vulnerable, damaged “child” for their parochial aims and possible profit.

“Is Thunberg a green prophet or a schoolgirl puppet controlled by more sinister forces behind her?” the always temperate London-based The Sun newspaper asked, rhetorically.

Using innuendo and recycled drivel, The Sun claimed a “naive” Thunberg was being manipulated by her “fame-hungry” mother and “energy giants”.

Like the paper itself, it is all empty conjecture designed to undermine Thunberg’s legitimacy and authenticity and her just cause. It will not work because, clearly, she is no one’s marionette.

The irrational, absurd assaults on Thunberg’s personality and motives aren’t the exclusive preserve of the rancid tabloid press.

Indeed, The New York Times newspaper permitted one journalist, Christopher Caldwell, to argue that Thunberg’s appeals for immediate action are, incredibly, “in conflict with democracy”.

“Ms Thunberg believes that we should act, not argue,” Caldwell wrote in his missive, oozing with condescension about her lack of life experience, “crude language”, “unrealistic” world view, and “out of balance” priorities.

While simultaneously acknowledging that the “authorities” agree with Thunberg that the climate crisis constitutes an “emergency”, Caldwell claims that the youthful Swede is only interested in “sowing panic” and “simplification”.

His cockeyed prescription: more patience. “Democracy calls for waiting and seeing.”

This is climate change denialism with the patina of gravitas.

Thunberg, like the overwhelming scientific consensus she is intimately familiar with, is loud and clear on this urgent imperative: The time for waiting and seeing was over long ago.

Patience, in this pressing context, is not a virtue, it is an abdication of responsibility.

Thunberg has deployed every democratic tool at her imaginative disposal to make this salient point again and again. She is the personification of the democratic impulse, not the antithesis of it.

So, I join millions of other global citizens who have been humbled, inspired and stirred by Thunberg’s steely steadfastness in the face of the often-repellent locusts who come to bury her, not to praise her.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.