Greta Thunberg in America The Climate Activist vs. World Leaders

Greta Thunberg has become a symbolic figure in the battle against climate change, with many revering her as a savior. Is it possible that she's the last reasonable person on a planet that has gone off the rails?

Kena Betancur / AFP

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Less than a half hour after her stirring speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, Greta Thunberg stands in a subterranean room of the UNICEF building in New York. An air conditioner has brought the temperature inside down so low that the young climate activist shivers and dons a blue hoodie. But she only puts it on halfway, as if she can't decide whether she's too cold or too warm.

Thunberg has just asked world leaders how they dare steal the future from her and her generation. Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swede whose calm and rational composure often makes her seem like the only adult in the room, got so worked up that she raised her voice. She's never done that before.

As Thunberg left the spacious assembly hall of the famed UN headquarters, she happened to run into President Donald Trump. She has been in the United States for nearly four weeks, visiting the only country to have abandoned the Paris Climate Agreement. It's a country led by one of the few people left in the world who still considers man-made climate change to be a figment of our imagination. Like so many other climate activists before her, Thunberg could have used her numerous public appearances in the past weeks to rail against Trump. Instead, she didn't mention his name once. He's not the problem -- everyone is. That includes the oh-so-nice Barack Obama, whom Thunberg met the week before. It also includes the oh-so-nice Angela Merkel, who took the stage shortly after the young Swede.

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Nothing Is OK

Thunberg finds herself in the basement of the UNICEF building to announce that she and 15 other youth from 12 different countries have lodged a formal complaint with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child against the oh-so-nice Ms. Merkel. The group accuses Germany, along with countries like Argentina, Brazil, Turkey and France, of violating the Convention on the Rights of the Child, arguing that they have not done enough to combat climate change and have not kept their promises. At the moment, it's not entirely clear what comes next. The complaint, it seems, is mostly aimed at attracting attention. It's a stunt, first and foremost, and that's not usually Greta Thunberg's style.

Thunberg is the last one to walk onstage. She stands at the far edge, her blue hoodie now only hanging from her forearms. She keeps fussing with it, though her face remains expressionless. She gives the appearance of an ill-tempered pupil hoping not to be called on.

A 14-year-old activist from New York gives the opening speech. Apparently someone else is supposed to be the center of attention for once. The first question from the audience, however, is directed at Thunberg -- who else? The person wants to know why she filed a formal complaint and, if she would allow a second question, how she's feeling after her emotional performance in front of the UN.

That's the big question, of course. Here's this girl, tender, young, fragile and thin, looking much younger than 16. She has just given a rather disturbing speech, angry and desperate, that nearly brought her to tears. It's hard not to feel concerned for her. "How dare you!" she screamed. How could politicians ever think to seek comfort from her? With their empty words they stole Thunberg's dreams and her childhood. "How dare you?" she demanded. How dare you keep looking the other way and then come here, saying everything's going to be OK?

It's not OK. Nothing is OK.

Into the Heart of Darkness

Some of the things she said that day have already become iconic. They were instantaneously beamed across the world as she spoke them, heard by millions and shared on Twitter and Instagram. Maybe one day Thunberg's speech will be considered one of the most important of the early 21st century. In four and a half minutes, she exposed all the talk of factual constraints, successful negotiations, small steps and compromises for what it really is: talk. Thunberg's speech also marks a radical break from the optimistic rhetoric of recent decades, from "I have a dream" to "Yes we can" and "Make America great again." Her "How dare you?" represents the end of an era known for its euphoric anticipation of the future, unwavering belief in progress and pathos of feasibility. In its place, Thunberg's speech steers us toward reflection, contemplation, taking a second to stop, think and reverse course. Hers is an appeal to morality rather than pragmatism, controversy instead of reconciliation.

Thunberg's trip to the U.S., into the heart of darkness, must feel strange for her. It's a trip into the realm of adults and politicians, the very culprits who, for Thunberg, are either dumb or evil. Probably both.

How strange it must be to meet Barack Obama. He's a climate destroyer like the others, but in the end, he asks Thunberg if she and he could be a team. She can't think of anything else to say except, "Yes," as the former president sticks out his clenched hand for a fistbump. How strange it must be to speak with Angela Merkel, who listens so intently and later speaks of a wake-up call from the younger generation, although she, too, simply talks and doesn't act. Or to appear on late-night TV with Trevor Noah, where the live audience laughs at her answers, as if she were a comedian or some circus animal doing a performance. Or to read Donald Trump's tweet making fun of the "very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future." Or to receive applause for her angry speech in front of the UN from the very people who are responsible for her anger.

What a crazy America. What a crazy world.

A Lonely Girl with a Sign

There's a black-and-white photo that was taken 13 months ago of Thunberg during her first demonstration in front of the Swedish parliament in Stockholm. Her homemade sign reads, "Skolstrejk för klimatet" (school strike for the climate). She's all alone, sitting in front of the beautiful, old building.

Two weeks before Thunberg's speech in New York, some 4 million people around the world participated in the Global Climate Strike. That's 4 million people who only came because a 15-year-old girl sat on the street, alone, more than a year ago. One year, one girl, a few public appearances, a weekly Friday demonstration -- and the world is a different place because of it.

Thirteen months was all it took to turn a Swedish teenager into a savior, a political figure and a potential Nobel Peace Prize laureate. For some, Thunberg is little more than an annoying, know-it-all wunderkind who would be better advised to leave politicking and climate change to the professionals. And there are even those who see Thunberg as a threat: a doomsayer and a scaremonger who is spearheading a modern children's crusade against all that is evil in this world.

Either way, it's a strange and disturbing story. But the question is who or what exactly is so strange -- the actions of this young girl or those of a world that has gone off the rails?

Thunberg has never shown even the slightest twinkle of emotion during all of her marches, speeches or appearances on podiums or on talk shows. It has been explained that this is due to Asperger syndrome, about which she herself has sometimes spoken. It's a condition that falls on the autism spectrum. Like Tom Cruise in the movie "Rain Man," Thunberg's perception of reality is hyper-rational. And it wasn't long ago that Thunberg still suffered from an eating disorder, depression and panic attacks. It wasn't long ago that she was teased at school by her peers until she stopped speaking altogether. Her father, Svante Thunberg, an actor, quit his job to help his daughter. Her mother, an opera singer, wrote a book about this period of their lives. The story that the book tells goes something like this: Her daughter is sick, so is her sister and even her mother; they're sick because the world is sick.

In this respect, Greta Thunberg's protests are also a form of therapy -- and a fairly successful one in her case. On Twitter, she wrote: "Before I started school striking I had no energy, no friends and I didn't speak to anyone. I just sat alone at home, with an eating disorder. All of that is gone now, since I have found a meaning, in a world that sometimes seems shallow and meaningless to so many people."

Her condition can also be a form of protection. Those people with only a limited experience of what is going on around them, who register life's blacks and whites but not the infinite shades of gray -- people like Thunberg who have Asperger's -- can protect themselves from too much complexity. From too much excitement. And chaos. And they can do what other 16-year-olds cannot: They can tell the world the truth. And this can be both liberating and disturbing.

Dazzling Contradictions

Normally, Thunberg has one or two standard replies at the ready for any question she's asked, like, "Why are you doing this?" "How was the voyage?" or "What is your message to politicians?" Her goal is not to sound original, she just has to be correct -- and precise. And so it is on a recent Monday in New York, when asked about the Convention on the Rights of the Child, that she replies: "It was 30 years ago that you signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and world leaders have failed to keep their promise. They promised to protect our rights and they have not done that." Then she pushes the microphone away.

And how does she feel after giving her speech?

"I think," Thunberg tells a journalist some 30 years her senior, "that is not for this."

At first, people in the room are stunned, then they begin to laugh approvingly. Finally, they burst into applause. Hear, hear! It's not about her sensitivities -- it's about nothing less than saving the world.

It's Thunberg's contradictions that make her seem so dazzling. She is at once strong and vulnerable, childlike and mature, shy and fearless. There is also her seemingly unyielding commitment to a cause that, for many, seems hopeless. Bookies currently give her 1.25:1 odds of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. The next best candidate has odds of 11:1.

Thunberg has been compared to Joan of Arc, the revolutionary, but that's inaccurate. She's not calling for anything radical. On the contrary, her demands are fairly dull. She insists that treaties like the Paris Agreement be respected, that commitments be honored and that scientific findings and projections be taken seriously.

A Story of Redemption

There is no real climate debate. The various projections offer only slightly different takes on the devastation that is to come, but in their essence they are the same. That essence is this: Global warming has reached approximately 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). If current levels of CO2 emissions remain unchanged, a rise in global temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius can be expected as early as 2050. This would have catastrophic consequences, including rising sea levels, rising temperatures, droughts, incalculable extreme weather and a prevalence of vast, steppe-like landscapes. In the Paris Agreement from 2015, almost every country in the world committed to keeping global warming "well below 2 degrees Celsius." In a special report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted how severe the changes would be if global warming rose above 1.5 degrees Celsius. And in order to prevent temperatures from rising above even this relatively high threshold, CO2 emissions would have to be halved by 2030 and drop to zero by 2055 at the latest.

There is virtually no chance this will happen.

Enter Greta Thunberg. A damaged child with abnormal behavior, but a clever one nonetheless. Nothing that she says is assailable. It's just a bit strange. Traveling with Thunberg in the U.S. exposes one to audiences who, on the one hand, represent the country's enlightened, liberal elite. But on the other, they're not too proud to place all hope in the hands of a child. Thunberg finds this abhorrent: "You all come to us young people for hope? How dare you!"

This story of redemption began with Thunberg crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a sailboat. The savior who arrives via ship is one of the oldest Christian allegories. She reached the port of Manhattan in late August. Many climate activists were already waiting for her and it took forever for the boat to finally moor. Greta and her crew, led by the skipper Boris Herrmann and the Monegasque prince Pierre Casiraghi, had to wait for the right wind. The solitude and remoteness were wonderful, Thunberg said. It was just her and the sea.

Conquering America

Thunberg had arrived in the very country that was standing in her way like no other of saving the world from climate disaster. The average American emits around 16 tons of CO2 a year. The average German emits only 9 tons. The average Swede 4.5 tons. And the average Bangladeshi only 0.5 tons.

Thunberg began protesting only two days after her arrival. It was Friday, after all. Excluding the two Fridays while she was at sea, she hasn't missed a single demonstration in 13 months.

Maybe the sailboat voyage across the Atlantic did take a lot out of her after all -- in any case, Thunberg seems a bit listless. For three hours, she doesn't even seem to notice anyone and doesn't utter a single word. All of the people have come to see her and hear what she has to say, but their savior seems unable to give them what they want. The American activists try to distract from their leader's behavior; being suddenly indisposed is simply not the American way. Perhaps Thunberg is just shocked by the crowds and the jostling. There are so many "Greta"-shouting cameramen, photographers, bloggers and journalists everywhere that her people have to form a human chain around her.

It's almost as if she is a pop star trying to capture the American market. If that were the case, "I want you to panic" -- the sentence she said earlier this year in Davos, Switzerland -- would likely be her first single. It would be followed by her next big hit, "How dare you!" She did in fact record a song together with the British indie rock band The 1975 that got released in July. "It is time to rebel," she says over the synthesizer tracks. The proceeds from the song are going to the militant climate activists with Extinction Rebellion, who failed in September to ground all air traffic at London's Heathrow Airport by flying drones.

Of course, Thunberg isn't a pop star, but the young people who have chosen her as their role model today grew up with the superhero films of present-day Hollywood. Films in which the world has to be saved by unhappy, unredeemed figures, who, though disabled and injured, are endowed with a special gift for fighting evil.

'The Seeress'

In this Marvel universe, Thunberg would be "The Seeress," because she has the gift of being able to see the world as it is. As people get into their cars to drive to a restaurant, she would see the CO2 and the dead animals on their plates. On vacation, she would recognize the poisoned sea and the rising tides. In the dialectic of superheroes, the Seeress knows more than everyone else, but she also has to bear the weight of this knowledge on her shoulders. The belief of knowing a truth that has been suppressed by the powerful and that would be too uncomfortable for most people is a classic feature of the counterculture movement.

In the science fiction film "The Matrix," a modern Hollywood classic, the hero Neo has to decide between a red pill and a blue pill. If he chooses the blue pill, it will allow him to stay in his comfortable, prosperous world. But if he takes the red one, it will reveal to him what the world really looks like. Greta Thunberg took the red pill.

On the third Friday of her America trip, Thunberg protests in front of the White House in Washington. This time, only a few hundred protesters have showed up, mostly young people and activists. But this time around, she at least manages to address them with a few words through a megaphone. She tells them she has already said everything she has to say. And that she's proud of everyone who turned up. "Never give up," she appeals to them. Then she sits down.

It seems like she just wants to get away, but people follow her -- children, photographers, cameramen. At the corner of Madison Place and Pennsylvania Avenue, on the other side of the White House, Greta Thunberg starts running. She's trying to escape. Suddenly, she's a little girl who just wants to be left alone. How dare you put your hopes in me?

A few days later, she is set to address the House of Representatives' Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. She'll be in front of the men and women who draft and approve legislation. Laws that have so far done little to save the climate. But on this rather hot September afternoon, Thunberg says nothing.

'Ms. Toonberry'

Bill Keating chairs the House committee. The 67-year-old has been in office for eight years. A Democrat from Massachusetts, Keating seems likable enough but he keeps calling her "Ms. Toonberry." When he offers the floor to Thunberg, she says she's done enough talking and that she's brought something with her instead. She says the politicians should listen to the scientists, not to her.

The stack of papers she has under her arm is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's famous SR 1.5 report, which came out last year. It includes the most alarming findings to date on the condition of the climate, and there are no doubts about its integrity.

It contains everything politicians need to know in order to act.

Keating asks a question: "Could you expand on why it's so important to listen to the science?"

Thunberg doesn't totally understand the question and seems a bit flustered. "Well, I don't see a reason not to listen to the science ... this is not political views or my opinions, this is the science," she says, almost imploringly.

The report is a devastating read. And what it actually says is this: People, it's too late. The measures that would have to be taken to stop climate change are more extreme than we are prepared to handle.

Who's the Dreamer Here?

"Politics is that which is possible," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the presentation of her climate legislation package for Germany last month. It was also a response to Greta Thunberg: Merkel was essentially dismissing radical and immediate transformation as impolitic, unrealistic and utopian.

But what if it were the other way around? What if it were politicians like Merkel, Keating, Obama and Macron who hoped we would come up with some solution in the near to distant future? What if they were the dreamers and utopians and not Thunberg? What if, in truth, the youth climate movement was actually the most conservative rebellion against the authorities this world has ever seen? The changes necessary to master future challenges will have to be radical. It is reasonable to acknowledge this. Radically reasonable.

Thunberg's appearance in Washington is that of a pragmatic politician. There are no speeches about supposed utopias, and, like any good lecturer, she provides the politicians with the necessary reading. She also makes reference to a very real-political contradiction: That it is impossible to prevent a climate catastrophe as long as economic growth is the sole measure of human well-being.

Thunberg can be annoying, to be sure, what with her stoic Greta Thunberg face, her somewhat late-pubescent obstinacy and her aura of Scandinavian wokeness. But she's also a formidable opponent. Her accusations are aggressive, but anyone who tries to counter her looks like an aggressor themselves, bent on attacking a young girl. And that's not to mention the fact that Thunberg's ascetic lifestyle, carefully curated to minimize her carbon footprint, has long since served to make enlightened yet complacent city-dwellers feel bad about their choices. Who could possibly challenge a 16-year-old who feels cheated out of her future by frequent flyers and SUV drivers?

Fifty-seven weeks after Thunberg first sat down outside the Swedish parliament with her hand-painted sign, she's huddling inside a white tent that has been set up behind an enormous stage in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. When she pokes her head outside and looks up, she can see the tower of the new World Trade Center. It's a memorial designed to remind people that America will never give up, no matter how big the calamity.

The Death of Hope

According to the organizers, a quarter of a million people have gathered in front of the stage and along the surrounding streets. Only 5,000 registered for the event. On stage, Will Smith's children, Jaden and Willow, are singing their hit, "Summertime in Paris." They're more or less the opening act for Greta Thunberg. The atmosphere is festive, even though the world is supposed to be ending.

As always, everyone is gathered around Thunberg. Even her dad is present. He accompanied her on the sailboat. He tries to speak to his daughter. She gestures with her hand. It's not clear what she means, but then she walks to the microphone. "Why should we study for a future that is being taken away from us?" she asks.

It's a big show. Yet somehow, a veil of futility lies over Battery Park. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen, one of the most important contemporary writers in America, published an article about climate change. It was titled, "What If We Stopped Pretending?"

In it, Franzen writes that the fight against climate change is realistically no longer winnable and that the impending catastrophe can no longer be averted. It may be liberating, Franzen argues, to accept this and stop pretending that we're working hard to prevent climate change. Franzen's novels have always had a resigned, melancholic touch, but good writers have the gift of being able to understand the oscillations of the present better than others. "You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world's inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope," Franzen writes.

It's too late. It's over. There's no chance anymore, Franzen argues. But isn't a society that no longer believes in a better future already lost?

Franzen's proposal to accept the coming doom seems like a leap for most healthy human psyches. It would actually mean that we are a bit crazy. We could think it, but it wouldn't really sink into our consciousness. Because in order to have hope, we have to shield ourselves from too much truth and knowledge.

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