FEMFACTS
06 May 2019

According to some of the press, the only thing scarier than climate change is a young woman talking about it

Spiked magazine is just one of many media outlets intent on attacking teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg for speaking up and speaking out.

Guest Mavens
Sian Norris NewsMavens, Europe
According to some of the press, the only thing  scarier than climate change is a young woman talking about it - NewsMavens
Greta Thunberg 2018, Anders Hellberg, Wikimedia Commons

When 16-year-old Greta Thunberg first spoke about climate change, young people all over the world pricked up their ears and listened. She invited schoolchildren to take part in a “climate strike” and thousands joined in.

Since then, this articulate and outspoken young woman has sat down with MPs in Westminster and addressed the UN. Thunberg has castigated global politicians, saying “you did not act in time” to respond to climate change. She is painfully honest, warning that her generation “probably don’t even have a future anymore” as a result of the brutal exploitation of the planet’s resources.

But her message is one of hope too. She has provided recommendations to prevent the continued degradation of the planet, and inspired a generation. Thunberg told UK Parliament that young people like her “are doing this to wake the adults up. We children are doing this for you to put your differences aside and start acting as you would in a crisis. We children are doing this because we want our hopes and dreams back.”

However, the sight of a young girl addressing the most powerful men and women in the world and demanding change has not been met with universal praise.  

Thunberg’s articulate speeches and decisive actions have enraged sections of the right-wing and libertarian press. “Spiked” editor Brendan O’Neill labelled her a “millenarian weirdo”. Various Spectator writers accused her of being “a well-crafted piece of PR” sharing her “ramblings about the future”, while Toby Young criticized her in a now deleted tweet for being “the privileged daughter of Sweden’s Eurovision star” (Young has a history in deciding which women are allowed to speak based on their privileged backgrounds). In the Sunday Times, Rod Liddle echoes O’Neill, referring to her as “that weird Swedish kid” who “does not know what she’s talking about.”  

WHAT’S THE CLAIM?

Spiked magazine claims it wants to “change the world as well as report on it”. But when it comes to young people speaking out with a determination to change the world, editor Brendan O’Neill resorts to protecting the status quo.

In an article titled The Cult of Greta Thunberg, O’Neill launches an ad-hominem attack:

This poor young woman increasingly looks and sounds like a cult member. The monotone voice. The look of apocalyptic dread in her eyes [...] There is something chilling and positively pre-modern about Ms Thunberg.

Placing the blame for her activism on the adults around her, O’Neill portrays Thunberg as having been “injected” with “dread”. He accuses adults around her of having “pumped her – and millions of other children – with the politics of fear.”

O’Neill goes on to argue that adults:

...celebrate Thunberg because she tells them how horrible they are: it is an entirely S&M relationship, speaking to the deep self-loathing of the 21st-century elites.

He then accuses Thunberg of being a “patsy”.

His argument is echoed in an article by Croatian journalist Višnja Starešina, who set up a poll to asking if we are “hurting Greta Thunberg by making her an icon” and accuses Thunberg’s mother of abusing her daughter:

The question now is: was Greta actually abused? By her mother, media, the system?

Starešina argues that Thunberg is being manipulated by ambitious adults, and needs “help” from the public to escape from those are who are “hurting her”.

Beyond Thunberg herself, O’Neill writes that “climate change alarmism is becoming ever stranger, borderline religious, obsessed with doomsday prophecies” and that climate change protests demonstrate the “upper-middle classes’ contempt for industrialization and progress.

Climate change protests are characterised as attacks on “ordinary people”, with protesters full of “contempt for how the masses live.” As with Young, O’Neill seems to argue that people with privilege shouldn’t protest about climate change, while framing any protest as an “attempt to lecture us plebs about all our eco-destructive holiday-making.

O’Neill finishes by telling young people to “sin against St Greta” and “appreciate that mankind’s transformation of the planet has been a glorious thing.

What are the facts?

O’Neill’s characterization of Thunberg’s speaking manner borders on ableism. Thunberg has Asperger syndrome. The attributes he criticizes are common in people on the autistic spectrum. It also feels crass to mock a child speaking in her second language for not being an orator -- particularly when our cultural framing for what makes a speaker great skewers towards a male style.

It seems beyond O’Neill’s -- or Starešina’s -- comprehension that a 16-year-old girl could have her own political conscience and decide to campaign on an issue that matters to her and to her generation. His attempts to portray Thunberg as a “patsy” who is parroting what elite adults have told her has no basis in fact. This is ironic, considering at the end of his piece O’Neill extorts young people to take his advice and reject climate protests.

Rather than someone persuaded by adults to care about the environment, interviews with Thunberg reveal a young woman who has cared passionately about the environment for a long time and who was self-motivated to take action.

Thunberg told the Guardian that “when I was younger, and in school, our teachers showed us films of plastic in the ocean, starving polar bears and so on. I cried through all the movies [...] Those pictures were stuck in my head.” Her worries about the planet’s future prompted feelings of depression. She was “talking about this all the time [...] and after a while, they started listening to what I actually said. That’s when I kind of realized I could make a difference.”

O’Neill further portrays climate change activists as part of an elite who despise those he considers to be “ordinary people”.

This characterization ignores that it is the poorest and most vulnerable people across the globe who will be hit hardest by the impact of climate change -- whether that’s as a result of devastating floods and extreme weather, famine, and drought, or, closer to home, through rising food and fuel prices.

His characterization of “ordinary people” as gas-guzzling, meat-eating, package-holiday-enjoying “plebs” indulges in classist stereotypes that treats protest and civil disobedience as a game for the rich. Not only does this ignore a rich history of working class protest, it ignores who is worst affected by climate change. In fact, it is the wealthiest elites in society who benefit most from man-made climate change which “helps the rich and hurts the poor.” It is the elites in society who are determined to maintain the destructive status quo in order to reap rewards -- just look at Donald Trump, Putin, and their friends in the oil industry.

Spiked has a record of denying or expressing scepticism about climate change -- and it is financially supported by organizations that indulge in climate change denial. While the magazine disputes accusations that it is influenced by the worldview of Spiked's US financial backers, the Koch Brothers, the billionaire disaster capitalists say they spend money on organizations which “will go along with our intent.” The Koch Brothers also fund other climate-change denying organizations such as the US Heritage Foundation.

Conclusion

O’Neill is just one of many male commentators expressing outrage at Thunberg’s activism.

At the same time, Spiked’s characterization of climate change protests indulges in classist stereotypes, ignores the impact of extreme weather on the poorest in society, and lets the wealthiest elites off the hook for the way they benefit from climate change.

Whether it’s Spiked, the Sunday Times, or the Spectator, it’s hard to ignore a seam of sexism running through the criticism of Greta Thunberg. There appears to be a lot of anger at the sight of a young woman standing up and speaking out with success. Although Spiked has criticized other climate change protesters such as David Attenborough in the past, men speaking on this issue have not attracted the same level of ire as a 16 year old girl.

Alongside the implicit sexism, O’Neill’s characterization of Thunberg as a “monotone” “weirdo” are ableist, and his assertions that she is a pawn of the liberal elite ignores her own testimony and demonstrates a lack of respect for young people.

O’Neill’s article is an example of biased reporting, and his ableist rhetoric represents intersectional discrimination.

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