"The Greta effect" may be a wave of inspiration, but it's not without a subconscious personality cult

Fridays for Future appears to have an over-reliance on "personality cults" surrounding particular activists. Part 1 in a series of pieces on Fridays for Future's founder's personality politics & provocation.

"The Greta effect" may be a wave of inspiration, but it's not without a subconscious personality cult

Featured image - Youth for climate protest in Brussels with a placard stating "Make the world Greta again". Image by @BrunildaPali via Twitter.


Fridays for Future is a global climate strike movement, with a focus primarily on youth representation and youth-led initiatives, with several other offshoots, such as Scientists for Future in the German-speaking part of Europe.

It was founded by activist Greta Thunberg, who began a series of school strikes in front of Swedish parliament in August 2018, pictures of which she shared on social media, in the wake of forest fires in Sweden and an upcoming election. As more activists joined in their own regular strikes, it garnered attention across the globe, culminating in what were, then, possibly the single largest environmental peace-time strikes in history, on September 20, and in conjunction with Earth Strike on September 27, 2019. (Other large historical strikes include those protesting US President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq, the Occupy protests in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, and the Farmers' Protest in India.)

The movement protests inaction on climate change, with a focus on pressuring policy makers, politicians and world leaders. Its three main demands, as of the Declaration of Lausanne, are to fight to keep the average warming of global mean surface temperature since pre-industrial levels to within 1.5 degrees Centigrade; to "ensure climate justice and equity" particularly in relation to the responsibility of reducing emissions, and in the response to the fallout of impacts from the climate crisis; and to follow and listen to "the best currently available science". Previous demands are listed on the website, and the demands of national branches vary.

The question of effectiveness in tactics and messaging is a crucial one for a movement seeking to rapidly push forward the global crawl in acting on what is recognised as a planetary emergency.

The movement has been praised for garnering much needed attention on the climate crisis. However, the movement appears to suffer from too large a focus on singular persons, particularly its global founder and founders of local chapters. This can taint the degree to which messaging across global chapters can be nuanced, comprehensive and targeted, which are essentials for a movement that seeks to represent the views and demands of a worldwide base.

The movement does seem to have more impact on public debate and awareness of the urgency and severity of the climate emergency, though, at least within Europe, and it has had some visible direct degree of influence on the political sphere there. Activists have met with politicians and spoken at parliaments in Europe, and some jurisdictions and countries have declared climate emergencies.

The conviction of its activists appears to be a clear part of the movement, but the emergence of personality cults and heavy use of identity politics signals a possible absence of highly cohesive, organised and sophisticated tactics and messaging from the Fridays for Future movement. The movement has been capable of amassing large numbers of people initially, but it appears that it is continuing to sustain an audience primarily by relying on individuals' appearances at major events, and appealing to simplistic binaries such as "activists vs. politicians" or "young vs. old", rather than confronting, fully and effectively, "the battle for hearts and minds" that is the last, and most difficult, hurdle to overcome, to achieve effective action against climate change — the challenge that is a most spectactular expression of life's wrestle with entropy.

[In the interest of disclosure, I have attended three climate strikes organised by the Australian branch of Fridays for Future, School Strike 4 Climate, and I have attended one orientation meeting organised by a representative from the Action Network, but am no longer involving myself with the movement.]

Representation of individuals

Appearances at major events and representing the movement in meetings with politicians

It might be understandable that, as the founder of Fridays for Future, Ms. Thunberg might receive much attention when it comes to matters that relate to the movement, but her role, as founder, appears largely overrepresented amongst the other roles and factors that are vital to the movement.

Not only is Ms. Thunberg a very regular representative, of a select few from the movement, at major events, such as the Conference of the Parties and the World Economic Forum — appearing at COP24, COP25, WEF2019, WEF 2020, WEF2021, the UN Climate Action Summit, European Economic and Social Committee, European Parliament, U.K. Parliament, US Congress, as well as L'Assemblée Nationale in France — but she also delivers what tends to be regarded as the centrepiece speech from the movement, at such conferences. This has the effect of setting much of the tone of the movement, reflected again and again across the messaging of its activists.

To be fair, not all these factors are within the movement's control. Some of the choices to cover Ms. Thunberg are made by the press, for example, and these contribute to certain speeches gaining more momentum than others. Some events are invite-only.

But continuing to have Ms. Thunberg and certain individuals as the regular, central representatives would only keep feeding that loop.

The more Ms. Thunberg speaks for the movement, the more she will be included in the press, increasing the chance that she is asked for interviews by other journalists. When she accepts, it increases her coverage, and again increases the chance that she is asked for more interviews.

Having more sets of representatives more often would enable the press to also divert questions to those members, and ask about more relevant matters on each global area. There were about 60 representatives at the UN General Assembly hosted by the United Nations Secretary-General, and though Ms. Thunberg again did end up delivering the centrepiece speech at that event, more diverse representation of this kind would be welcome.

Fridays for Future International does not appear to have this kind of representation. If you visit the press page on their international website, there is a Gmail address to contact Ms. Thunberg for media interviews. If you want to contact other representatives, you are directed to go to each country's website individually. This suggests that there is no organisation in place for getting information from representatives of the international movement, other than Ms. Thunberg.

Delivery of the movement's position and demands is almost exclusively first by Ms. Thunberg

Some might say that the "Greta effect" comes from her speech content and delivery, as well as the ignition of the climate strikes. It is not at all unusual for large organisations to have spokespersons.

What is unusual though, is for a large organisation to have its founder deliver every single position.

Ms. Thunberg has been exclusively the first person to deliver positions such as

  • real zero and not net zero
'Forget about net zero, we need real zero' — Ms. Thunberg at WEF2020, source: BBC [January 2020]

This is on the international Fridays for Future website a year later, and only an optional demand to adopt by branches.

What we need are not meaningless goals for 2050 or net-zero targets full of loopholes, but concrete and immediate action in-line with science. Source: Fridays for Future website, March 19 demands, 2021

And other activists only bring this up more than a year later as well:

Maya Ozbayoglu from Poland [said,] “Numerous countries all over the globe have committed to seemingly ambitious pledges about reaching ‘net-zero’ emissions. Empty promises like these can be a very dangerous phenomenon, because they give the impression that sufficient action is being taken, but in fact that is not the case as these targets are full of loopholes, creative accounting, and unscientific assumptions.” Source: Fridays for Future website, March 19 demands, 2021
  • calling for annual binding carbon budgets (first along with Luisa Neubauer, Anuna De Wever and Adélaïde Charlier)
Our demands include halting all fossil fuel investments and subsidies, divesting from fossil fuels, making ecocide an international crime, designing policies that protect workers and the most vulnerable, safeguarding democracy and establishing annual, binding carbon budgets based on the best available science. Source: The Guardian [2020]

These have subsequently been only partially adopted by other activists, and, again, you don't hear other activists bring it up until the following year:

Mitzi Jonelle Tan from the Philippines [said,] “What we need now are not empty promises, but annual binding carbon targets and immediate cuts in emissions in all sectors of our economy.” Source: Fridays for Future March 19 demands [2021]
  • choosing to opt for the carbon budget for a 66% chance of staying within 1.5 degrees Celsius of global mean surface temperature increase

This is after Ms. Thunberg previously citing the 50% budget for 1.5C:

Our house is on fire, I am here to say our house is on fire. According to the IPCC we are less than 12 years away from not being able to undo our mistakes. [Ms. Thunberg WEF2019, [January 2019]

in the meantime, she has had exclusive access to scientists to inform her demands:

I have scientists contact me and say, “If you want to ask something, you can ask.” And I contact scientists and ask, “What does this mean?” To have things explained to me, that is very helpful.

WP: Have you learned anything from that process over the past year that you think is really important? Aside from the idea that this is a crisis, what stands out?

Thunberg: This was very striking to me — that people always talk about this “12 years left, 11 years left” to reduce emissions by 50 percent. Then I learned that that was for a 50 percent chance of staying below the 1.5 degrees [Celsius] of warming [above preindustrial levels]. And those figures are global, so they don’t mention the aspect of equity. Also, they don’t include many feedback loops and nonlinear tipping points.

and then this is reflected in the change in her speeches about half a year later:

Right there it says that if we are to have a 67 percent chance of limiting the global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees, we had on January 1st 2018, 420 gigatons of carbon dioxide left in our CO2 budget. And of course that number is much lower today. We emit about 42 gigatons of CO2 every year. [...]

There is no middle ground when it comes to the climate and ecological emergency. Of course you could argue that we should go for a more risky pathway, such as the alternative of 580 gigatons of CO2 from january 1st 2018, which gives us a 50/50 percent chance of limiting the global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees. That amount of carbon dioxide will run out in about 12 years of current business as usual. But why should we do that, why should we accept taking that risk, leaving the future living conditions for humankind to a 50/50 flip of a coin. — Ms. Thunberg at  L'Assemblée Nationale [23-07-2019], source: Fridays for Future website on archive.org

This is only partially adopted by Fridays for Future much later:

Note: The current list is not final and is only a suggestion. National/local groups and other sectors of society can suggest modifications to improve this proposal. The final list will only serve as a general guide for groups participating in the upcoming strike, who can determine specific targets relevant to their own local campaigns. [...]

Establish annual, binding carbon budgets based on the best available science and the IPCC proposal that gives us a 66% chance of limiting global heating to below 1.5°C. These budgets must take into consideration the common but differentiated responsibility among countries in the Global North and the most affected peoples and areas, and must not be reliant on possible future negative emissions technologies. Source: Fridays for Future March 19 demands [2021]
  • calling for immediate divestment from fossil fuels
We demand that at this year’s World Economic Forum participants from all companies, banks, institutions and governments:

Immediately halt all investments in fossil fuel exploration and extraction.

Immediately end all fossil fuel subsidies.

And immediately and completely divest from fossil fuels.

We don’t want these things done by 2050, 2030 or even 2021, we want this done now. — Ms. Thunberg at World Economic Forum 2020, source: World Economic Forum

This is included on the Fridays for Future website more than a year later, and it is not a final list:

Note: The current list is not final and is only a suggestion. National/local groups and other sectors of society can suggest modifications to improve this proposal. The final list will only serve as a general guide for groups participating in the upcoming strike, who can determine specific targets relevant to their own local campaigns.

* End all investments in fossil fuel exploration and extraction. Governments, financial institutions, and companies must immediately end fossil fuel subsidies and immediately and completely divest from fossil fuels. Moratoria on all new fossil fuel projects should be imposed worldwide. Source: Fridays for Future March 19 demands [2021]

And it is only included by other activists around that time too:

“If we don’t act now, we won’t even have the chance to deliver on those 2030, 2050 targets that world leaders keep on talking about,” said Mitzi Jonelle Tan from the Philippines. “What we need now are not empty promises, but annual binding carbon targets and immediate cuts in emissions in all sectors of our economy.” Source: Fridays for Future March 19 demands [2021]

This illustrates very poor coordination amongst activists when it comes to delivering messaging.

Exclusive meetings by core leaders

A fairer way to conduct processes for which members are selected to represent the movement, at a given event or for a given time period, could be to have members nominate themselves or each other, for a position of spokesperson or representative. Then have each nominee make their case, such as through including the work that they have done as part of the movement thus far, and let others vote.

It is also possible to have different policies in place to ensure equity and moderation in such application processes, such as through preferential voting in the case of moderation.

If there isn't a proper process for selecting representatives, it will just fall to uncompetitive processes like being the founder of a local chapter — riding on the waves of established presence that, in fact, comes from others joining you, with no chance to prove yourself if you're a newcomer and want to contribute — as it has for Ms. Thunberg,

  • and also for Luisa Neubauer, founder of Fridays for Future in Germany:
[...] Neubauer, Germany’s Fridays for Future’s main representative who is seen as the country’s leading climate activist [...] Source: The Guardian

Notice the same cluster of activists here, in exclusive meetings with politicians — Ms. Thunberg, Ms. Neubauer, Adélaïde Charlier and Anuna de Wever, (founders of Fridays for Future Belgium), Isabelle Axelsson (Fridays for Future Sweden).

  • Meeting the Prime Minister of Belgium
  • Meeting the German chancellor in an exclusive meeting
Angela Merkel meets with Greta Thunberg and Belgian youth climate activists
German Chancellor Angela Merkel met on Thursday with several leading figures from the youth climate movement, including Greta Thunberg and Belgian Anuna De Wever and Adélaïde Charlier. The meeting too
  • in a private meeting with the Canadian prime minister
Greta Thunberg meets Justin Trudeau amid climate strikes: ‘He is not doing enough’
Activist has private meeting with Canadian prime minister, who later says he ‘agrees with her completely’
Greta Thunberg meets Trudeau, tells him he’s not doing enough to fight climate change | CBC News
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg told Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau this morning he’s not doing enough to protect the environment from the threat of runaway climate change.
Trudeau met the teenage activist ahead of Friday's mass climate rally in Montreal in his capacity as prime minister. The pair spoke in private for about 15 minutes, shortly before Trudeau joined the rally marching through the city's downtown. Source: CBC
  • in another private meeting with the Swedish prime minister
[Thunberg] had a session with the Swedish prime minister about a European green deal follow-up and wanted assessments. Source: The Guardian
  • and with the EU Commissioner for the environment

Fun fact: in democracies, leaders can change in a snap. A way to bring real, lasting change, would be to consistently talk to the people, not to leaders who might be out of power at the next election.

But those activists have pretty much confirmed the exclusive, private meetings:

Between the four of us [Thunberg, Neubauer, de Wever and Charlier], we have met quite a number of world leaders during the last two years and you’d probably be surprised to hear some of the things they say when the cameras and microphones are off. We could write lots of articles about this. And trust us — we will. [Source: Medium]

Compare this approach, with that of the organisers of March 4 Justice (marching against gendered violence) in Australia, who declined an offer to meet with the Prime Minister and Minister for Women in private, "behind closed doors", stating:

We have already come to the front door, now it’s up to the Government to cross the threshold and come to us. We will not be meeting behind closed doors. [Source: SBS]

The Australian Prime Minister was, in fact, seen by some people as using the private meeting as a shield for not having to face the crowd publicly.

It seems that these four Fridays for Future activists have gobbled up the bait of those leaders. Of course, in private meetings, there are no microphones or cameras — that is the point.

Ms. Thunberg has also denied that she is a leader of the movement,

I’m not the leader of any movements. Source: New York Times Magazine
Are you a leader who creates other leaders?
– I don’t see myself as a leader. Even though many others do, she says from the lookout in Lisbon. [...] Source: Dagens Nyheter

but this is contradicted by the sheer fact that she is taking part in these exclusive meetings in the aim of representing the interests of the movement. Additionally, she moves to the front to lead climate strikes:

There’s more to say, but now it’s time to march. The children’s crusade forms into a regimented mob. Greta moves to the front and holds a "Skolstrejk för klimatet" banner with some other teens. The taller kids lift it too high, and she nearly vanishes. All you can see is Greta’s winter hat and her gray eyes. That’s enough.
[Former U.S. Vice Presient] Al Gore was right. A child leads us. Source: Rolling Stone

Travel and accomodation arrangements for major events

A part of Ms. Thunberg's activism that has become noted, aside from becoming vegan in 2018, is that she has not flown on aeroplanes since 2015, and tries to travel by train or electric vehicles, as a statement about stopping emissions.

Historian and journalist at The Correspondent, Rutger Bregman, wrote that this was what contributed to making Ms. Thunberg "the most effective climate activist of our time". [Source: The Correspondent]

But the question remains to be seen, as to whether this aspect of activism is particularly equitable and accessible within Fridays for Future.

When COP25 was moved to Spain from Chile due to social unrest in the latter country, Ms Thunberg was able to secure travel back to Europe while her fellow activists were not, due to differing circumstances. She had also had an electric car lent to her by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger while in the U.S., which he offered after she was in New York City.

Now we are sitting in an electric car that she has borrowed from former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Source: DN
Since then she has been travelling via train and an electric car borrowed from Arnold Schwarzenegger. Source: The Guardian

And she also received free accomodation from many people throughout her trip, ranging from "scientists" to "hippies".

During the night, we either sleep in motels, or with people who open up their homes — activists, scientists, authors, doctors, journalists, hippies, diplomats, movie stars and lawyers. Source: Sverige Radio, from 20:35 / Time

It is hard to imagine anyone else in the movement receiving this kind of treatment.

It appears to be part of a result of a lack of planning — after having "no idea" of how she was going to get to Chile even when she was in Manhattan:

Three days after my speech in the UN, I leave New York City [...] It feels like a huge relief to move out of the house on the upper-west side of Manhattan and say goodbye to our hosts for the last month. I've taken a sabbatical year off school to be able to travel to Santiago in Chile [...] I have no idea how to get there. All I know is that, in order to get to Santiago in time, I've got to get to Los Angeles by November 1st. Source: Sverige Radio, from 17:13

Without planning, clearly it falls to incredibly uncompetitive processes such as Ms. Thunberg making use of people knowing her, to offer her free accomodation and travel — that is, relying on her personal fame, which, apparently, she has appeared to try so much to negate.

She claims:

I’m not doing [climate activism] because I want to become famous or popular or get followers on social media. I’m doing this simply because no one else is doing anything. Source: Time

(Of course, in the latter sentence, she is ignoring other groups such as Extinction Rebellion who started before her, in May 2018, and other environmental activists — and what can be learnt from their difficulty in appealing to a broad base — as well as the work of climate scientists and indigenous activists.)

But because of a lack of structural organisation, she finds herself relying on being famous and relying on her followers on social media:

As #COP25 has officially been moved from Santiago to Madrid I’ll need some help. It turns out I’ve traveled half around the world, the wrong way:) Now I need to find a way to cross the Atlantic in November... If anyone could help me find transport I would be so grateful. Source: Ms. Thunberg on Twitter
Greta Thunberg asks for lift back across Atlantic as climate meeting shifts to Madrid
As delegates to the COP25 climate summit scramble to adjust to a last-minute change of venue from Santiago to Madrid, one of the highest-profile attendees has stuck out a metaphorical thumb on social media to ask for a lift across the Atlantic. [...]

Teresa Ribera, Spain’s ecological transition minister, said on Twitter on Saturday: “Dear Greta, it would be great to have you here in Madrid. You’ve made a long journey and help all of us to raise concern, open minds and enhance action. We would love to help you to cross the Atlantic back.” Source: The Guardian
I had to find a solution. I consider every possible option. Zeppelin airships, solar powered airplane and even sailing across the Pacific Ocean and then taking the Trans Siberian railway home.
Hundreds of people get in touch and want to help, but very few actually have something concrete to offer. The French and Spanish governments reach out and assure that they are going to help me find a way. However it is very unclear how they will do that.

Two Nordic airlines email and offer to arrange a flight using “50% sustainable fuel and then use the remaining 50% on another flight so that in total it becomes 100% fossil free”. As if biofuels were sustainable. If I wouldn’t have been who I am I would probably have hitched a ride on a cargo ship, since they – unlike airplanes and cruise ships – don’t depend on paying passengers. [...] Source: Time

(On another note, cargo ships are not famous for clean travel.)

Many cargo ships still use “bunker fuel”—the sludgy dregs of the petroleum refining process. The noxious blend is dirt-cheap, making it possible to charge next to nothing to ship goods internationally. All of which means our unbridled consumerism hitches a ride on some of the dirtiest vehicles on earth. Source: Wired

A sailor was flown from the United Kingdom to the United States to sail Ms. Thunberg and her father back across the Atlantic, and Australian YouTube influencers offered her a ride on their sailboat. [Source: The Guardian]

Then suddenly one night in a hotel room in Savannah, Georgia, the phone beeps. It is Riley and Eleyna, a couple of young Australian YouTubers who are reaching out. They’re living on their catamaran with their one year-old son Lenny and are sailing around in the world, with no planned route. They offer to take us to Europe. [...]

We are completely in the hands of the meteorologists helping us, sending weather updates and recommendations a few times a day. We’re very lucky to also have Nikki, a professional sailor, onboard. Source: Time
"Elayna and I responded [to Ms Thunberg's tweet], and about a week later here we are about to sail 3,000 nautical miles across to Europe," he said. Source: ABC
And with just two days notice [sailor Nikki Henderson] had no choice but to fly to meet them. She was criticised for that decision as the whole mission was supposed to be carbon-neutral. "In an ideal world, yes, I would have sailed there and sailed back," she says. "But this is a more symbolic trip. Greta wanted to sail because it's a good way to send a message to the world that there is no real sustainable option to travel." Source: BBC

Meanwhile, a boat carrying another group of activists, including Fridays for Future activists, as part of a separate think-tank, was not able to make it back to Europe in time to attend COP25.

Chile’s decision to withdraw as host of the COP 25 UN climate conference has prompted tears and frustration from a group of school-strike activists sailing across the Atlantic to attend the talks

They ended up organising for replacement representatives in Madrid.

And other activists from the Pacific were flown in, for example.

A more diverse set of spokespersons may again help to address this issue more equitably long-term, as well as planning.

You might think that passion is the key in civil disobedience actions and protests. Well yes, but, as Deva Woodly shows, organisation is far more important. [Source: ABC, at 1:01]

Ms. Thunberg also does not appear to be at significant financial disadvantage, which is not a reality for everyone — she has previously mentioned that her parents are able to pay for tickets and accomodation, in February of 2019.

Furthermore I only travel with permission from my school and my parents pay for tickets and accommodations. [—Ms. Thunberg] Source: Facebook

Allocation of funding would allow different spokespeople to travel where needed, regardless of financial disadvantage.

Though Fridays For Future International no longer accepts donations, (though they used to), the movement's founder has received awards, but one was declined and another appears, so far, to have been directed at the Greta Thunberg Foundation that handles royalties and donations. It appears that the former decision is not a reflection of a decision of the movement, and more of a decision mainly by Ms. Thunberg, as the wording appears to suggest that it was a personal choice.

The one million Swedish krona ($100,000) reward, given by the Sweden-based Right Livelihood Foundation, will be used by Thunberg to set up the Greta Thunberg Foundation.

Thunberg first announced a foundation late last month (January 29), in an Instagram post saying: “The foundation’s aim will be to promote ecological, climatic and social sustainability as well as mental health.

She also said that it is: “something that is needed for handling money (book royalties, donations, prize money etc) in a completely transparent way.” Source: Dazed Digital and Instagram

There was also an award specifcally to her that she made the choice to donate to other climate groups [Source: The Guardian].

When Ms. Thunberg was named as the Time's Person of the Year, she said that the accolade should be shared.

Ms. Thunberg told The Associated Press she was “surprised” to learn she had been selected as Time’s person of the year, but said the accolade should be shared.

“It should be everyone in the Fridays for Future movement because what we have done, we have done together,” she said. [Source: New York Times]

Clearly this notion has not applied to awards with money, where Ms. Thunberg has made decisions on her own, such as donating money to the COVAX scheme from award money:

About 1 in 4 people in high-income countries have received a COVID-19 vaccine, compared with just 1 in more than 500 in low-income countries. My foundation will donate €100000 to support COVAX to ensure a more equitable global COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

Since some people seem to be upset that my foundation is donating money I would once again like to remind that this money comes from awards and prizes. I don't receive any money for my activism nor do have an interest in philanthropy. Book royalties etc I give to my foundation. Source: Ms. Thunberg on Twitter

And elaborating on the personal decision to decline an award:

Wallmark states that the Nordic Council will now think carefully about what to do with the prize money of DKK 350,000. The awards ceremony for the Nordic Council prizes was held in the Stockholm Concert Hall on Tuesday 29 October. In a statement made on Greta’s behalf by two climate activists, Greta, who is currently in California, said that she is honoured to have received the award but that she cannot accept it.

“I want to thank the Nordic Council for this award. It’s a great honour. But the climate movement needs no more prizes. What we need is for those in power and politicians to listen to research.” Source: Nordic Council

Is it a wise decision to make yourself the only person who can control financial decisions relating to those awards? If Ms. Thunberg striked and no one joined her, and she somehow got an award for it, then it would make a bit more sense if she was the sole person making decisions relating to that money. But the dominant reason that Fridays for Future has grown so big as it has, and received the attention that it has, is because of all the other people joining. And it seems odd that no one else really gets a say in how that is spent.

Is it wise to funnel very little funding towards Fridays for Future, when it could be used to make activism more equitable for other activists, thus reducing the spotlight on her?

I didn’t stop flying or become vegan because I wanted to reduce my personal carbon footprint. It would be much more useful for me to fly around the world advocating for climate action. But it’s all about sending a signal that we are in a crisis and that in a crisis you change behavior. If no one breaks this chain of “I won’t do this, because no one else is doing anything” and “Look at them. They’re doing much worse than I am” — if everyone keeps on going like that, then no one will change. Source: New York Times Magazine

How effective is the point of minimising your own carbon footprint, for the sake of activism, if you're not going to make it accessible for other activists in the movement to do so?

Ms. Thunberg was able to travel in an electric car because of her fame — a former governor reached out to her. She was able to cross the Atlantic Ocean both ways because of her fame. She was able to secure free accomodation throughout her trip, because people knew who she was. Fame that has ultimately come as a result of the millions of other people who have also striked, not just her.

It is near inevitable that it will draw more attention to you as an individual, if you fail to make travel more equitable.

Access to scientists

A key refrain of the Fridays for Future campaign message, and Ms. Thunberg's message, is to "unite behind the science".

I want the people in power to listen to the science, not to me.

[…]

My message is – and has always been – listen to the science, listen to the scientists. Source: Time

This impressed German chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, who was a physicist.

At a press conference in central Berlin, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said that as a scientist she had been impressed by Greta Thunberg’s motto “unite behind the science”. Source: The Guardian

Ms. Thunberg has directly referenced reports on climate science in some of her speeches, for example, the IPCC 2018 Special Report on 1.5.

Ms. Thunberg also confirmed that she has access to scientists to fact-check her speeches:

Do you get help to correct the facts? – Yes, when the speech is almost finished I send it to one or several scientists, who varies. It can be an expert in a certain field for example. And then in a few hours they usually give me an answer. As comments in the document, ”you should add this” or things like that. And if there are inaccuracies or things that can be misunderstood I change them. Source: DN

and "to ask anything".

I have scientists contact me and say, “If you want to ask something, you can ask.” And I contact scientists and ask, “What does this mean?” To have things explained to me, that is very helpful. Source: Washington Post
And yes, I write my own speeches. But since I know that what I say is going to reach many, many people I often ask for input. I also have a few scientists that I frequently ask for help on how to express certain complicated matters. [— Ms. Thunberg] Source: Facebook

Ms. Thunberg also met with several scientists, one-on-one, during her trip in North America, as detailed in BBC's three-part documentary on her trip, A Year to Change the World, and her slot on Radio Sweden.

On the morning of Oct.21 I’m traveling through the spectacular Canadian landscapes with a film crew from the BBC, heading for the Jasper National Park.
[…] “No, unfortunately those aren’t Larch trees,” says the biologist Brenda Shepherd as she walks me round the national park.

[…] The day after my encounter with the mountain pine beetle, we have an appointment with the glaciologist John Pomeroy. His team of researchers from the University of Saskatchewan has offered to bring me up onto the Athabasca glacier. Source: Time

I am also aware of Ms. Neubauer and Ms. Thunberg visiting the Potsdam Institute in Germany.

In 2018, when Fridays for Future held its first international demonstration in Berlin, I invited Greta to come to the Potsdam Institute to meet our scientists and have a closed-door seminar on the latest climate research. She immediately said yes and I sent an electric car to pick up her and Luisa. Since then, many in the scientific community are informally offering our knowledge to Fridays for Future. They are hungry to learn.

I am in relatively frequent contact with Greta. I spoke to her this month. [...] These are clever young people. Our exchanges are very informal. I do them because I think they are so fantastic and that they can make a real difference. — Johan Rockström, Source: The Guardian

But, despite the many scientists, do many other Fridays for Future activists have access to these scientists to ask questions too, besides the core leaders? It is unclear.

Do many other activists have access to scientists to fact-check their speeches? Is it a good idea to not have that? Because if it is mainly only Ms. Thunberg, this puts the spotlight on just her and her speeches again.

I have heard about Fridays for Future Germany commissioning a scientific report:

That's why Fridays for Future commissioned the Wuppertal Institute to carry out the first study that examines what a fair contribution of Germany to 1.5 degrees looks like.

The Expert Council on the Environment calculates a remaining German budget of 4.2 gigatons of CO2 - any serious discussion about the climate goals of the Federal Government or other goals that disregard this basis risks our health and safety and questions that everyone in the world has the same rights.

The Wuppertal Institute writes that the calculated remaining budget can only be met if "Germany becomes CO2-neutral by about 2035 and [...] if emissions already fall particularly sharply in the years just ahead of us". Achieving CO2 neutrality would be extremely demanding from a technical and economic point of view by 2035, but basically possible.

The study examines how to achieve net zero in 2035 in the sectors that contribute most to German CO2 emissions. [translated from German]

More of this close collaboration and equitable access to scientists would really reinforce the "Listen to the science" message, rather than "look at what Greta is saying" (because she is one of a very few within the movement who have access to scientists in the first place).

Unfortunately, this kind of organisation with scientists appears to be extremely rare within Fridays for Future. When I attended an orientation meeting, the host was regularly mentioning to us that Fridays for Future Germany was the "most organised" of the branches — it was split up into local groups and so forth. This was after he had told us, at the start of the meeting, that Fridays for Future was a, quote, "disorganised" collection of activists. So it is unsurprising that this appears to be limited to the German branch.

I can tell that this kind of collaboration is rare also because, where I am, in Australia, we have the Climate Targets Panel, Climate Change Authority and Climate Council doing this kind of work for us — calculating Australia's "fair share" of the carbon budget in accordance with the Paris Agreement and calculating various pathways to zero emissions. Both the Climate Targets Panel and Climate Council have come out with very recent reports (more nuances and details are in the reports):

Australia should aim to reduce emissions by 75% below 2005 levels by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2035. This is a fair and achievable contribution to the global task and an imperative given our high vulnerability to escalating extreme weather. Source: Climate Council
Earlier this year, we published our findings about Australia’s required emissions reduction targets if we are to do our fair share in limiting global warming to well below 2° and 1.5° Celsius respectively, both of which are goals referred to in the Paris Agreement. We found that for Australia to remain within its remaining ‘2°’ carbon budget, we would need to reduce emissions by 50% on 2005 levels by 2030, reaching net zero emissions by 2045. To remain within the remaining '1.5°’ carbon budget, the targets would be 74% below 2005 levels by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2035. Source: Climate Targets Panel

But I have yet to see any reference to these reports on the website or social media of the Australian branch of Fridays for Future, School Strike 4 Climate. So much for listening to the science.

Also this tight, cohesive collaboration with science is noticeably absent internationally, even when browsing the websites of other Friday for Future branches, or the relevant section on its Wikipedia page, where, aside from general letters from scientists endorsing the movement, the German branch's commission is the only close collaboration present.

Not only this, but the list of demands featured on the Fridays for Future international website, a demand of which is "listen to the best united science currently available", is from the Declaration of Lausanne, which was made by involving 400 activists from only 38 countries, most of which appear to have been from within Europe.

So despite what Ms. Thunberg asserts,

But we are not saying, “You need to listen to us.” We are saying, “You need to listen to the science and the scientists.” That is, at least, what I want.

We are trying to give the scientists a platform and speak on behalf of them. Source: Washington Post

"listen to the science" isn't even a policy that is shared broadly within the movement. I have browsed a number of Fridays for Future country websites and, indeed, it is mainly European branches that have adopted the demand. It is noticeably absent on branches outside Europe. And, as mentioned earlier, it seems that very few activists have access to collaborate with scientists to actually deliver on that message.

I guess, in the meantime, with the continued lack of organisation, we will generally have more things like BBC organising for and making a film on Ms. Thunberg meeting scientists personally.

Appearances in media coverage and personal interviews

Ms. Thunberg has made comments in an attempt to draw attention away from herself, such as when an artwork was made of her, stating that there is too much focus on her and not her cause,

Thunberg often deflects attention from herself and toward the climate crisis. She said in many places, people focus on her as an individual instead of focusing on her cause. [...]
A mural on the side of a building depicts the Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg. Photograph: Ben Margot/AP
A mural on the side of a building depicts the Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg. Photograph: Ben Margot/AP
Asked about a mural being painted of her in San Francisco, she said the artists were talented and she was honored and amazed. “But as I’ve said,” she added, “we should be focusing on the climate and ecological emergency.” Source: The Guardian

or when a journalist was pressing questions for the public "to know Greta", at a protest in Sweden, to which she replied "[the climate crisis] has got nothing to do with me".

The reporter [...] is running out of time. He knows his phone battery won't last much longer in the cold.
"But who really is Greta?" he asks. "I think people want to get to know Greta."  
"I am not important," I answer. "This has got nothing to do with me. I am completely uninteresting. I'm not doing this because I want to become famous, popular or get followers on social media. I'm simply doing this because no one else is doing it." Source: Sverige Radio

At conferences, she tried to direct a number of questions to other activists, with her and Ms. Neubauer remaining silent, and it was noted by the media. [Source: Yahoo, AP and The Guardian.]

The few questions that are asked, are aimed exclusively towards the Swedish 16-year-old. After a while she asks the journalists to include also the other activists – Vanessa Nakate from Uganda, Alejandro Martinez and Shari Crespi from Spain. And when  the next question also goes to Greta Thunberg, she answers it, looks at her co-activists on stage. And ends the answer with: – And, what do you think about that?

Vanessa Nakate takes the chance. She speaks about the African countries that already  face the impacts of the climate crisis – created by human-made emissions.– There are countries like Uganda, Kenya. For two months they have been having crazy floods. And people have been dying, people have been left homeless and children have been left as orphans, she says. Source: Dagens Nyheter

But these comments are ineffectual as they are dwarfed by the sheer volume of media appearances that Ms. Thunberg partakes in.

Her comments have appeared to largely have been unsuccessful, inadequate and ultimately useless overall, as they are not a replacement for systemic changes to ensure that the movement's participants have fair and equitable access to media representation, in particular, as well as access to important decision-making.

As mentioned earlier, if you visit the press page on their international website, there is a Gmail address to contact Ms. Thunberg for media interviews. If you want to contact other representatives, you are directed to go to each country's website individually. This suggests that there is no organisation in place for getting information from representatives of the international movement, other than Ms. Thunberg. And this result is reflected in the plethora of media interviews involving Ms. Thunberg in relation to the global movement, with little other coverage of other representatives talking about the global movement's direction.

In addition to that, Ms. Thunberg's own comments, brushing aside the media attention, are contradicted by other statements that she makes, such as "I must use these channels", and it can be argued that she makes heavy use of it.

So of course, as I've gotten a bigger platform that also comes with a bigger responsibility. I must use these channels, or whatever you would call them, to educate, to spread awareness. Source: National Geographic

Ms. Thunberg also regularly conflates media appearances for her political cause versus for her personal life. In media on the latter case — interviews, a film, a three-part documntary, a family memoir — it can often be incredibly unclear if these are in a personal capacity, as she and her family make claims, relatively often, as to how circumstances and events in her personal life help to explain the movement's success. But these claims ignore most of the important factors which are largely external, and instead contribute to sustaining her position as an assumed main leader of the movement.

She also claims that the aim of using herself is to raise awareness on the climate crisis,

Although she finds all the sudden personal attention a little strange, she says, “As soon as they write about me, they have to write about the climate, so that’s good." Source: Rolling Stone
By her own admission, Thunberg doesn't like being the center of attention. But speaking on German television, she said she couldn't complain because she'd put herself in that position. "It's a small price to pay, knowing that you have an impact." Source: Deutsche Welle

when it, in fact, tends to increase more attention on her and her family as individuals, and tends to draw attention away from other activists, and away from the topic of climate change.

This year, Thunberg got really into April Fool’s Day pranks. She “Rickrolled” her five million Twitter followers, tweeting a link to a video that she said was about climate solutions but turned out to be the video for Rick Astley’s 1987 song “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Pointing to a wall clock, she noted that she had set it ahead three hours, to play a trick on her parents [for April Fool's Day]. She changed the time on all the phones and computers, too. “So my mom was here, and she was, like, ‘Is it already three o’clock?’ And then I was, like, ‘Yeah, apparently.’ And she was very scared.” (She also baked her father a loaf of bread filled with jalapeño peppers. “He actually liked it. So it didn’t go as planned.”) Source: New Yorker
“I’ve missed [school] a lot. It just feels very good to be back in school and to do normal things, to have routines. I love routines — that’s probably a lot because of my autism,” she says. “And in this environment, I’m almost anonymous in a way. People know who I am, of course, but I’m not there because I’m famous. I’m there to do something else, I’m just like the rest.” Source: Associated Press via Seattle Times
Thunberg: I miss my sister and my dogs and my mother. And just everyday life, I guess. I miss school, because I love learning. Source: Washington Post
Chapter 1: UN speech and New York. The first thing I see when I enter the United Nations Headquarters building in New York City is Roxy. My dog. The two of us are projected onto a large screen which apparently is part of an international art exhibition. When I see her brown labrador eyes it almost feels as if she was right here with me. Suddenly I’m reminded of how much I miss her. Source: Time/Radio Sweden
I was so unhappy somehow. Nothing was happening. If I managed to walk out of the door to the grocery store that was something I would write in my diary and be proud of.

What did you think when you read the diary later? – I thought that even if you disregard the activism and the fame, the life that I am living now is something I could only dream of a year or two ago.

[...] And the best way to help me at the moment is supporting my sister. Not because she is my sister, but because she is a wonderful and strong person. She is my best friend.

A few days into her sail over the Atlantic this summer Greta Thunberg started singing Swedish children’s songs that she had forgotten that she knew.

Maja’s alphabet songs, from A to Ö. The first thing she googled after going ashore was the song about the letter ”U”, the only one she still couldn’t remember. Source: Dagens Nyheter
Having a cause makes her happy. “It was like I got meaning in my life.” Source: The New Yorker
[...] In this regard, her family see her Asperger’s as a blessing. She is someone who strips away social distractions and focuses with black-and-white clarity on the issues. “It’s nothing that I want to change about me,” she says. “It’s just who I am. If I had been just like everyone else and been social, then I would have just tried to start an organisation. But I couldn’t do that. I’m not very good with people, so I did something myself instead.” Source: The Guardian
When she became famous, she frequently found herself in big, noisy crowds, being jostled, pushed and shouted at. These sorts of environments did become easier for her to handle over time, she says.

“That’s also a very beautiful and important part of the story itself. Before, I wasn’t able to speak to anyone. Going outside was hard. I was in a class of five people in school, because I couldn’t be around too many people and I couldn’t handle the noise.”

When she became a climate activist, everything changed.

“All that basically disappeared overnight. Because I was given a meaning and a purpose. And that just made me feel much better. But then again, I’m still very different. I am not like everyone else. It’s still much harder for me than for others to be in these environments. But I just think that, OK, this is for a good cause. And then it doesn’t really bother me that much.” Source: Radio Times
Thunberg doesn’t expect her fame to last. “I’m surprised that it has stayed so long,” she says. “I’ve not really still grasped it, in a way . . . You have to keep yourself distant from these kinds of things, you can’t let this occupy your personal life. Because when all this focus [on me] disappears, which it will very soon . . . then that could be a hard thing to handle.”
One thing she is grateful for is that she can still go about her daily life in Stockholm undisturbed. “I’m very lucky in Sweden, we have this thing called Jantelagen . . . no one comes up to you,” she says. “If I go to another country, even if it’s just Denmark or Norway . . . then I can’t walk down the street without people stopping me. But here in Sweden no one even looks at me. I can see in their eyes that they know it’s me, and that they recognise me, but they don’t stop me. Which is quite nice, actually.” Source: Financial Times
In last year’s feature-length documentary, I Am Greta (currently available on BBC iPlayer) and in the new BBC series, it becomes clear just how often Thunberg is stopped and asked for selfies. Does she mind it?

“I would maybe be happy if they didn’t do that,” she says […] “But of course, I also recognise that the fact that they are doing it is proof that the message is getting across, that I am reaching people. You have to see it from the bright side.” Besides, at home in Sweden, it doesn’t happen much, owing to the cultural phenomenon of Jantelagen. “The Law of Jante, you will translate it to. It’s like, ‘OK, so what, you’re famous, I don’t really care.’ Which is quite nice.” Source: Radio Times

I don't see how any of this truly serves to draw attention to the climate crisis.

(Interrupting to give a note that Law of Jante is not limited to just Sweden.

Equality is important to the Danes. The Danish governing coalition almost always includes a Minister for Equality.
Culturally, equality is also a deeply ingrained value in Denmark. The fictional, but much-discussed, Law of Jante contains dictates such as "Don't think you're better than we are" and "Don't think you are anyone special." Source: Denmark's website

I'm not so sure that I concur in relation to Ms. Thunberg thinking that the latter part rings true in this particular case for her... but whatever.

But then again, I’m still very different. I am not like everyone else. [— Ms. Thunberg] Source: Radio Times.
Editorial note. Above quote chosen as a deliberate distillation from a source referenced earlier, to illustrate how Ms. Thunberg fundamentally sees her autism. See the following quotes.
“Being different is a gift,” she told Nick Robinson when interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme. “It makes me see things from outside the box." Source: The Guardian
Thunberg believes her condition helps her look at the world and see what others cannot, or will not, see. Source: The Guardian
“But without my diagnosis, I would never have started school striking. Because then I would have been like everyone else.” [Source: New York Times]
I think in many ways that we autistic are the normal ones and the rest of the people are pretty strange. [—Ms. Thunberg] Source: TED

And of course there is also this, which is what generally comes from a belief that what you have is superior, and that people who don't have it are lacking:

Personal note. I'm autistic and I strongly disagree with the most of the assertions that Ms. Thunberg makes, on calling autism a superpower.
At the end of the film, she suggests that the world might be a better place if everyone had a little bit of Asperger’s. [Source: Vox])

Maybe it comes down to a matter of personal preferences, or the peculiarities of Western individualism that somehow deem that these aspects make a story more relatable, but I really don't care about what Ms. Thunberg did on April Fool's Day.

And I'm not sure that it is relevant to the climate crisis, to talk about how much she is looking forward to going back to school, after taking a gap year that only she could take, as her school offered it specifically.

So much for the claim on staying "laser-focused":

Thunberg believes her condition helps her look at the world and see what others cannot, or will not, see. She dislikes small talk and socialising, preferring to stick to routines and stay “laser-focused”. Source: The Guardian
In this regard, her family see her Asperger’s as a blessing. She is someone who strips away social distractions and focuses with black-and-white clarity on the issues. Source: The Guardian

I get that this must be a difficult task —  to stay on topic — for someone who is in the position of Ms. Thunberg, in general, and it is not at all easy to manage. But I would rather that this task not

  • be trivialised into something that is super easy to handle,
  • or be dismissed and just completely blamed on the media's questions, or on broader society,
  • or be treated almost arrogantly and thus ignored, such as through thinking that "as soon as they write about me, they have to write about the climate, so that's good" or that you are innately "laser-focused" and "someone who strips away social distractions"

because it can actually just exacerbate the problem if you are careless about it, as I hope to have demonstrated.

On a broader note, to decide on what is relevant, I opt for this test: imagine if every single other climate activist brought up their response for the same topic. E.g. Imagine if every single other activist talked about what they did for April Fool's Day. Does that serve to detract from, or add to, drawing attention to the climate crisis?

To bring Ms. Thunberg back to her own words:

[…] the biosphere doesn’t care about neither borders nor empty words […] Source: Time

Does talking about personal attributes serve to draw attention to the biosphere?

I don't see other activists bring up what they did for April Fool's Day in interviews, just to prove that they can have a lighter sense of humour. I don't see them bringing up what aspects of their personal traits led to them to mobilising and participating in climate strikes. I'm not sure that I would want to hear about it.

Ms. Thunberg is certainly not alone in doing this, however:

When Joyce was pressed on what policies his leadership would look to change, he talked about his "attributes" but not the agenda he would seek to stamp on the government. Source: ABC
These aspects are explored further in two follow-up pieces: a narrative of 'inspiration porn' about autism and on wielding anger. (There is some repetition of quoted material as I would like those pieces to dually be able to be standalone links, too, as well as part of a whole three-part piece. Yes, I do wish for a vision on the dynamic medium.)

Because Ms. Thunberg also has a policy of rejecting policy specifics:

she rejects specific policy proposals such as the Green New Deal, instructing politicians instead to “listen to the science.”

each time she brings up her personal attributes, it takes up way more space.

I feel like bringing up personal lives, like this, is just further submerging the already under-reported aspects of the climate crisis, rather than drawing attention to it. The conversation seems to have strayed even further away from impacts on the non-human world.

If Fridays for Future partnered more closely with scientists, and in a much more disciplined manner, we could be hearing more about these.

But we are not.

Instead, we get rehashed, half-baked, single-sentence assessments on the fact that not enough is being done by politicians on the climate, which yield very little ideas on reaching broader society, and are stripped of nuance. So, essentially, they are almost pointless for everyone else, besides people who mostly already would have agreed with Ms. Thunberg's views anyway, and would want to continue to reside in that echo chamber.

Instead, we get interviews that are half-filled with Ms. Thunberg

  • rehashing her personal ascendancy (I am supportive of talking about mental health. But, at this point, I have heard so many times about how Ms. Thunberg is very happy right now after starting activism, and it has come to a point where it appears to be more about her personal fulfilment than talking about mental health),
  • or detailing her assumed inherent humility to fame because of Jantelagen. (I would dispute the wisdom of having such concentration of attention in the first place, as to whether it services the cause. That is, instead of just talking about how one is handling fame and not taking it personally, how about trying to work on making internal structural changes, that fix the decisions — like exclusive access to scientists, exclusive access to travel and accomodation, not having robust set of spokespersons — which have necessitated that the fame is so concentrated on you, as an individual, rather than the movement of people. In other words, make this a much more equitable reality for other activists:)
"All I’ve done is to write and give speeches and to travel around, and it feels like anyone else could have done the same thing. It’s not that I’m unique in this sense. So that’s just how it is." Source: Radio Times

And instead, we also get large doses of Ms. Thunberg consistently subconsciously trying to fix her personal image — to show that she is someone who can make jokes and is happy, rather than just an angry teenager — because of her own very deliberate, poor speech choices.

Compare this to the response from Grace Tame, a sexual abuse survivor and advocate (who is also autistic — no two autistic people are the same, but Ms. Thunberg does not speak for all autistic people), to a march against gendered violence:

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Grace Tame, let me start with you. What was today's march about for you?

GRACE TAME, AUSTRALIAN OF THE YEAR: Look, it wasn't so much about, it's not so much about what it's about for me at all. It's about abuse of power, it's about an ongoing systemic oppression that we're trying to draw attention to and trying to end through coming together in solidarity and speaking up, creating noise. Source: ABC 7.30

Distinguishing personal and political would make it easier to consciously reduce the frequency of personal content in interviews, and organise for political interviews to be diversified by having other speakers from the movement, and not just its founder.

Ms. Thunberg claims that she tries to use her platform to "create new leaders":

But I understand that many consider me a leader, so I try to use my platform to create new leaders, among other things. Source: Dagens Nyheter

But her actual overall performance indicates otherwise, that she is clearly failing in this regard.

Ms. Thunberg has had individual interviews with naturalist Sir David Attenborough (part of a guest-editing slot on BBC Radio 4's Today programme) and U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which appears to have been organised by The Guardian. These appear to be in a political or environmental advocacy capacity.

She has also had meetings with actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio, Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, and former U.S. President Barack Obama. It is often ambiguous as to whether these latter meetings are in a personal or political capacity. The meeting with President Obama appears to be in a personal capacity, as, according to the Obama Foundation, others also met with the former president for his 59th birthday that year.

The meeting with DiCaprio appeared to be in a personal capacity, as other activists had spoken at an event with the environmentalist a little over a month earlier. [Source: Instagram]

Of the meeting with Ms. Yousafzai, it is suggested that it was in a personal capacity, as Ms. Thunberg writes:

So... today I met my role model. What else can I say? @malala

At the very least, these meetings serve to reinforce the cult of personality around Ms. Thunberg, and a charitable interpretation would suggest a lack of discipline in considering who meets who.

A more realistic assessment would offer that the movement's activists lack an awareness of how to employ tactics to draw attention to its cause, through the media, without having to rely on individual personas, and identity politics which will be addressed later.

Forgive me if I am missing something, but at this stage, I am just waist-deep in confusion about how Ms. Thunberg believes that these meetings serve to "create new leaders" within Fridays for Future.

In addition to the previous individual media appearances of Fridays for Future's founder, Ms. Thunberg has had a documentary made about her gap year off, I Am Greta, which debuted at the Venice Film Festival.

Though the film might be a welcome piece of coverage for her, in that she feels this media presents her more as how she wishes to present herself, not as a "angry, naïve child" but as a "shy, nerdy girl", a choice to cover her, yet again, does contribute to an ongoing issue of acutely limited spokesperson representation in the movement.

“You did succeed in framing me as myself and not the person that the media frames me to be, not the angry, naive child who sits in the United Nations general assembly screaming at world leaders. Because that’s not the person I am,” she said. “So, I think he definitely made me seem like a more shy, nerdy person, which is the person that I am.” Source: The Guardian

I must admit, I can't really think of much better ways for Ms. Thunberg to undermine her own message that "I am not important" and that the climate crisis "has got nothing to do with me", by agreeing to star in a film about her ascendancy called I Am Greta, and to have a non-profit organisation named after herself, the Greta Thunberg Foundation.

But hey, perhaps the former may not be as surprising, if considering the fact that Ms. Yousafzai also had an autobiography titled I Am Malala, as well as a film titled He Named Me Malala.

Though Ms. Thunberg commented this about the title, it doesn't make the similarity less striking:

As to the documentary, Thunberg says she is happy with it, although the title makes her uncomfortable as it suggests she takes herself very seriously. “And I don’t,” she insists. Source: The Guardian

What appears to be an interesting question, from a reviewer on The Guardian, is this:

Intriguingly, even bafflingly, Grossman’s film begins by showing Thunberg’s pre-famous self as a high-schooler with her homemade climate strike placard, enduring a lonely vigil outside the Stockholm parliament every Friday with a few grumpy older shoppers coming up and telling her off for not being in school. Here she is: the non-famous nobody, and these scenes lead seamlessly to later moments showing her campaign taking off. So … does this mean Grossman has been prophetically following her career from the very beginning? Source: The Guardian

The footage was, indeed, shot at the time.

Director Nathan Grossman recorded Thunberg’s everyday life for a year, chronicling her rise to fame from the beginning of her school strike outside the Swedish parliament in August 2018 to her trips around the world demanding that political leaders take action to fight the climate crisis.

When he began filming, Grossman had no idea that Thunberg, who was 15 when she started her protest, would quickly become the figurehead for the global climate crisis campaign. Source: The Guardian

The regular appearances of Ms. Thunberg meeting with other famous personalities, or opining on topics about which she has very little insight to give — such as the Black Lives Matter protests (I know it was asked by BBC, but why not include activists of colour or who have lived experience of racism, in conversations on racial justice and climate justice? They would have more to say than just, "it's all interconnected") and the coronavirus pandemic — suggests an ongoing lack of discipline from the movement, or from its founder, in selecting spokespersons, with appropriate lived experience or understanding for each case, to speak for its cause and position.

Ms. Thunberg insists that the climate crisis and the climate movement is not meant to be focused on her, saying "it is not about me". Her frequent appearances imply otherwise.

You’re the face of [a movement]. Frankly I don’t understand why the media focuses so much on activists rather than the problem itself. It’s an easy bridge to the problem itself. It makes it easier if you put the face on it. It becomes easier for people to understand. So I do understand why they do it. I don’t understand why they do it to this extent. It becomes almost absurd how much this celebrity culture takes over. And also, the people who feel threatened by the climate crisis and feel their interests are at risk, they go after the activists. They go for the fire alarm rather than the fire because it occupies people’s minds. When Trump talks about me,9 then people talk about that conflict rather than the climate itself. Source: New York Times Magazine
I would maybe like it if the movie was less focused on me and more focused on the science. But I understand that it’s a movie. Also, by doing this film, they show how absurd this celebrity culture we live in is, that people are so obsessed about me as an individual and an activist rather than the climate itself. Source: New York Times Magazine

How would participating in a film about you show that there is less need for obsession about individuals?

How would publishing a book with a compilation of your speeches show that there is less need for obsession about individuals?

More media content about her is instead feeding that obsession.

If she were serious, she could have chosen not to participate in yet another piece of media about her gap year off school:

BBC One - Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World, Latest Trailer - Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World
Greta Thunberg takes a year off school to call for action on climate change.

I had a brief chat with a journalist, during a Fridays for Future orientation meeting, who was working on a biography of Ms. Thunberg. He told me that the aim was to use Ms. Thunberg to (supposedly) draw people into the climate crisis.

Of course, this misguided notion is not at all uncommon:

Plans for a Hollywood film focusing on prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s response to the Christchurch mosque terror attacks have prompted frustration and disgust in New Zealand, with accusations that Muslim victims have been sidelined.

The film is set to star Australian actor Rose Byrne as Ardern, according to the Hollywood Reporter, and is called They Are Us – a line derived from one of Ardern’s speeches at the time. It is to be directed by New Zealand film-maker Andrew Niccol, and produced by FilmNation.

On Friday, some New Zealanders criticised the decision to tell the story of Ardern’s leadership against the backdrop of the mass murder of 51 Muslims by a white supremacist as “exploitative”, “insensitive”, and “obscene”.

Writer and community advocate Guled Mire said the film’s premise was “completely insensitive”. He said that while the film-makers may have consulted with some members of the Muslim community, many had no idea the news was coming. “It’s hit all of us out of the blue,” he said. “Many victims themselves haven’t even heard of this.”

He said the film’s apparent focus on Ardern glossed over the experience of Muslims who survived the attack.

[…] The Ardern quote became a widespread motto of solidarity after the attacks. But the line itself has been criticised for “othering” New Zealand’s Muslim community and whitewashing the country’s ongoing problems with racism. Source: The Guardian

When people talk about the Black Lives Matter movement, or Extinction Rebellion, their first thought usually isn't, "What do the founders think?" (With Black Lives Matter, it's about the lives of people that have been lost, and the continued lived experience of people.)

It is a slightly different story in the case of Fridays for Future.

Focus on individuals is hardly new, though. For example, cutouts of naturalist Sir David Attenborough have been brought to Extinction Rebellion protests, and this is clearly not unrelated to BBC's decisions to feature him very strongly in documentaries.

A cutout of David Attenborough is held up by Extinction Rebellion protesters marching toward parliament (Photo: Matt Dunham/AP)
A cutout of David Attenborough is held up by Extinction Rebellion protesters marching toward parliament (Photo: Matt Dunham/AP)

The main group that comes to mind, who I have seen be disciplined about their personal selves not overpowering their work is Daft Punk. Though it is true that they are more fortunate in their work in that they can let their music speak for itself (whereas pseudo-anonymity is more troublesome in the context of activism as it can make it harder for accountability), Daft Punk do really perform much better in this regard, than other artists, for example, in not letting the face become more important than the music.

“It's mainly instrumental music. We stand against a lot of ideas regarding the star system and the way music is sold with a face. The way the face is sometimes more important than the music itself. We really were intending to do the opposite and maybe sell the music for the music itself.
“We really wanted to share the music with people and people that were really just into the music we were doing, not into our face.” Source: ABC Triple J
Daft Punk in their gold and silver helmets, wearing glittering jackets of black sequins, on a black background. Image: Columbia Records
Daft Punk. Image: Columbia Records

Daft Punk are very private about their personal lives.

Both are the fathers of young children, though they don’t like discussing their families publicly. (Bangalter does note that his son is currently enjoying a biography of Jim Morrison.) Source: Rolling Stone

I don't think Ms. Thunberg or Fridays for Future have yet shown capability of acting with this level of discipline — it would require

  • first, distinguishing content in interviews for personal and political purposes. But Ms. Thunberg does not appear to understand either — for example, with personal purposes, she regularly conflates the success of the movement with her having Asperger's. And with political purposes, Ms. Thunberg actually thinks that she isn't political, despite campaigning, and even making an Instagram post tagged with #BidenHarris2020;
In a way it’s easy to tell that the Americans’ view on research is different from the view in Sweden, according to Greta Thunberg. But at the same time the same phenomena can be seen there as here.

– It’s just stronger there. You can see it more clearly. More people say things like ”I don’t agree with Greta about everything”. Agree about what? They are making this into a political question but I never talk about politics, I am only saying that we need to listen to science. That we need to care about the future.
– I haven’t made a political standpoint at any time. I have never stood behind a political party or a political opinion. Source: DN

A few months later:

I never engage in party politics. But the upcoming US elections is above and beyond all that.
It goes without saying that from a climate perspective Biden-Harris is very far from being even close to what’s needed, and many of you understandably had other preferred candidates. But, I mean… you know… damn!
Just get organized and get everyone you know out to vote! #BidenHarris2020
Ps. “Biden will not ban fracking. That’s a fact” says Kamala Harris. But the American people no doubt have the power to make him do it. And much more than that... Source: Thunberg on Instagram
  • then once the different aims of personal and political are understood, it would need minimising the extent to which she and others brings up personal content on interviews (this is clearly not the case with Ms. Thunberg's mother writing in detail about their lives and Ms. Thunberg frequently bringing up how climate activism has made her happy, which is hardly relevant to bring up in order to convince people who don't already agree about the need for urgent action on the climate crisis);
  • and then, when it comes to participating in media content for political and campaigning purposes, it would require appropriately splitting up the responsibility across multiple spokespersons and activists, to reduce the focus on any one individual.

But I can't see Ms. Thunberg doing that, as her strategy right now is this:

So of course, as I've gotten a bigger platform that also comes with a bigger responsibility. I must use these channels, or whatever you would call them, to educate, to spread awareness.
And the things, all the resources I have, they will disappear one day. I mean, I won't be this person for a long time. Soon people will lose interest in me and I won't be so-called “famous” anymore. And then I will have to do something else. So I'm trying to, as long as I have this platform, use it. Source: National Geographic

Where it becomes pervasive and systemic

"Personality cult"

The external measures of the "personality cult" are visible in the framing of other activists as "the Greta of their country", namely

"Once we decide to do something about [the climate crisis] we can move mountains.” If the motivational quote sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Meet “the German Greta”, 24-year-old climate activist Luisa Neubauer, one of the main organisers of the Fridays for Future movement in the country, which organised the school strikes prior to the pandemic.
  • Licypriya Kangujam of India who, in fact, had actually begun her protest before Ms. Thunberg did;
  • Howey Ou, called "Greta Thunberg of China" (that phrase I first heard used internally in an orientation meeting that I attended);
  • Xiye Bastida, a Mexican-Indigenous activist
Calling me “the Greta Thunberg of the United States” distorts my experiences, my struggles, inspiration - my story. But most critically, it diminishes the years of resilience that activists of colour have endured.

I have been called “the Greta Thunberg of the United States” countless times. The first time, on a PBS article I was gladly surprised because it gave me a feeling of validation. It made me feel that I was doing something right. However, when an article by the HuffPost came out, depicting me as powerful and driven individual who is fighting for just representation of activists, I realised that calling me “America’s Greta Thunberg” was not designed to be empowering for me, but rather, it was a tactic designed to get more clicks on the article. Source: The Elders

The suggestion appears to be that this character archetype is someone with a strong conviction and an uncompromising stance on advocating, in strong terms, for immediate and wide-reaching climate action. The suggestion appears to be stronger if the person is female and young.

Those particular cases are not necessarily entirely within the movement's control. But recently I joined an orientation meeting for Fridays for Future, hosted by an Action Network representative, and he suggested that the "personality cult" may also be internalised within the movement — "personality cult" being his words, not mine.

The host mentioned that they conducted an analytics experiment with a newsletter sent internally — so to reiterate, this was sent to internal members, and not external followers. One newsletter, which featured a 2.5 minute video of Ms. Thunberg, had way more engagement than the second one, which had a video featuring a talk from another activist, Ms. Neubauer.

It would make the experiment fairer if it had another activist saying the same content. But that result, on its own, already may be a bit sobering. (Both newsletters did have very similar introductions.)

The host also mentioned that he was not involved with "the core leaders", the phrase indicating that the movement is, in fact, quite centralised internally. (For example, big strike dates are often decided from centralised sources and then spread out via newsletters, etc.)

The terms "the Greta effect" and "Thunbergism" themselves are more hints of a formative personality cult. As eager as activists are to blame the media for using these terms, "The Greta effect" has also been used by researches, as the title of a research paper.

Though the impacts of this may be beneficial in encouraging people to minimise their carbon footprint, it does, again, contribute to the ongoing subconscious reiteration of the oversized attention that Ms. Thunberg has in the movement.

It may go without saying, but other activists can have their participation, commitment and resolve reaffirmed, without having to be compared to Ms. Thunberg.

The more dangerous thing is, though, that others underestimate the impact that they can have, too.

For de Wever, too, the cult of personality that has been formed around them comes with challenges similar to that of Thunberg. Source: Vogue UK

The regular emergence of cults of personality around leaders of national movements is not a well-bearing sign that the movement is able to attract attention to its cause through diverse means.

To be very clear, death threats are in no way acceptable.

But Fridays for Future activists readily blame the media for focusing too much on Ms. Thunberg and other individual activists when reporting on the movement,

Thunberg said at the event: “It’s quite obvious I get a certain kind of media attention. If I say something, it turns into a headline. Of course, that is not the case for pretty much all other climate activists, especially from the global south, unfortunately.” [Source: The Guardian]

without reflecting on their own performance in that regard.

(In fact, they do whip up enough cynicism of the media to the point that a reporter is apologetic while asking questions.)

Can I ask one more silly question? Yeah. [Source: New York Times magazine]

The list of activists' speeches on the Fridays for Future website includes eighteen videos of speeches made by its activists, at least eleven of which feature Ms. Thunberg.


When I first heard of the movement, the speeches page used to include videos and speeches that were, in fact, 100% from Ms. Thunberg.

The argument that a shift from 100% to 61% is a sign that the movement is duly making sure that it is not about Ms. Thunberg may be unconvincing.

In addition, the social feed on the Fridays for Future has a feed from one of Ms. Thunberg's personal account, as well as that of other Friday for Future branches across the globe, totalling over 200 channels, according to the website.

It is stated that this is a feed of social media accounts of national branches, yet Ms. Thunberg's account is included. Screenshot of the Social Movement Feed on the Fridays for Future website, as of 1 April 2021. 
Fridays for Future has other activists who are publicly autistic (e.g. Swedish activist Isabelle Axelsson); why not include a post from them on Autism Awareness Day (for whatever reason on the Fridays for Future website), for a change from Greta Thunberg? (Screenshot of the Fridays for Future website, as of 11 April 2021)

Why does Ms. Thunberg's account appear to carry a weight that is comparable to an entire country's Fridays for Future account, while other activists' accounts don't? Is her personal opinion singularly more worthy of being included on the website than that of other activists in the movement?

If the movement does not think so, it can make the option to remove Ms. Thunberg's personal feed from that feed, for example, or to include the feeds of other individual activists' accounts. Removing it would be part of a step on the way to de-emphasising the any oversized role that the movement's founder has in its operations.

I wrote a message to the movement notifying them of these two cases — the social movement feed and the activist speeches page — as well as the reference to "personality cult" at the orientation meeting, and the concern with the Declaration of Lausanne mainly being made in consultation with activists predominantly from European countries, but have received no response so far.

Edit: As of the initial article publish date around early April, there was no response. As of 17th April 2021, I have received a short response which thanked me for getting in touch, and "putting the light on some of the dilemmas that [their] movement has to handle".

I will have to wait and see if these issues will be managed.. and for it to be reflected in their actions, and on their website, in future. But I think their response was more of an acknowledgement of my message rather than an intent to address the issues.

Can the Fridays for Future movement detach itself from too much emphasis on particular individuals?

It is hard to see Fridays for Future being able to operate well without its global founder and the founders of local chapters, especially when compared to the organisation of other movements.

"Our political structure knows how to operate without Alexei being in the office," Navalny's chief of staff and key strategist, Leonid Volkov, told Foreign Correspondent from Lithuania. Source: ABC Australia

Focus on individuals is, again, certainly not new. This is illustrated particularly with the West placing its hopes in Aung San Suu Kyi:

The West has long had a messiah fantasy: a belief in the power of a charismatic individual to carry the hopes of his or her nation. Source: Stan Grant, ABC
This is not the happy ending we were led to expect.

When Myanmar elected Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to power in 2015, she was widely portrayed as a sort of political saint, an icon who had endured great suffering to guide her people from dictatorship to democracy.

President Barack Obama praised her. Hillary Clinton embraced her in public. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, once compared her favorably to Gandhi.

Today Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, is the target of worldwide criticism for standing by as her country’s military wages a campaign of murder, rape and torture against the Rohingya minority group.

Though her fall from grace was exceptionally spectacular, this is a common story. Western leaders champion individuals, often activists who have made heroic sacrifices, as the one-stop-shopping solution to the problems of dictatorship or shaky new democracy.

In their zeal to find a simple solution to the complex problem of political change, they overlook their heroes’ flaws, fail to see the challenges they will face in power, and assume that countries are the products of their leaders, when it is almost always the other way around. Source: Did the World Get Aung San Suu Kyi Wrong? New York Times

It is unsurprising to see the West champion a single activist as the answer to "waking" everyone else up on the climate emergency.

But wow, has Fridays for Future taken this and internalised it to a new level.

Effects of a personality cult

Name and face

Ms. Thunberg's face is plastered on many things involving the movement, from its website, to murals, to pasteups, to placards.

In fact, Ms. Thunberg has applied to trademark her name, because this has turned out not to be true:

Although she finds all the sudden personal attention a little strange, she says, “As soon as they write about me, they have to write about the climate, so that’s good." Source: Rolling Stone

How did this idea turn out? The idea of raising awareness on the climate crisis by using yourself as a hook.

“I assure you, I and the other school strikers have absolutely no interests in trademarks. But unfortunately it needs to be done,” she said on Instagram on Wednesday. [...]

"My name and the #FridaysForFuture movement are constantly being used for commercial purposes without any consent whatsoever. It happens for instance in marketing, selling of products and people collecting money in my and the movement’s name," she wrote on the social network. Source: The Guardian

Don't forget the chanting — by her fellow strikers.

The crowd chants, “Greta, Greta, Greta.…”
She must hate that. Source: Rolling Stone

What an utterly misguided idea that is.

Copycats and identity politics

The focus around Ms. Thunberg may have been a source of ignition for other activists to organise strikes in their own countries.

But the centrality around Ms. Thunberg can also mean that other activists copycat Ms. Thunberg's language and messages. More broadly, they can do it without changing it to be more nuanced and targeted to their country audiences.

Take, for instance, the use of the phrase "creative accounting" (emphasis mine).

The UK is, however, very special. Not only for its mind-blowing historical carbon debt, but also for its current, very creative, carbon accounting. [Ms. Thunberg at UK Parliament, Source: The Guardian]
“Distant hypothetical targets are being set, and big speeches are being given,” she said. “Yet, when it comes to the immediate action we need, we are still in a state of complete denial, as we waste our time, creating new loopholes with empty words and creative accounting.” [Ms. Thunberg, Source: The Guardian]
The real danger is when companies and politicians are making it look like real action is happening, when in fact almost nothing is being done, apart from clever accounting and creative PR. — Ms. Thunberg at  L'Assemblée Nationale [23-07-2019], source: Fridays for Future website on archive.org
Then there’s of course a fourth way of doing it. And this is the procedure that undoubtedly has been the most successful one so far, when it comes to reducing emissions. And it is so-called “creative accounting”. To simply refrain from reporting the emissions, or move them somewhere else. To systematically sweep things under the carpet, lie, and blame someone else. [Ms. Thunberg, Source: Time]

This has been parrotted elsewhere, such as in a press release by the movement in regards to its March 19, 2021 strike.

“It’s been five years since the Paris Agreement was signed, and three years since the alarming report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was publicly released,” said Maya Ozbayoglu from Poland. "[...] Empty promises like these can be a very dangerous phenomenon, because they give the impression that sufficient action is being taken, but in fact that is not the case as these targets are full of loopholes, creative accounting, and unscientific assumptions.” [Source: Fridays for Future website]

More subtle cases include activists using language that also might be provocative or flammatory:

This was retweeted by Ms. Thunberg:

This kind of language might go down well with other activists. But whether others in my country may be receptive to it remains to be seen.

Another common case is cynicism of the media in, generally, wanting to just sell stories and generate clicks (emphasis mine):

THUNBERG: People want something simple and concrete, and they want me to be naïve, angry, childish and emotional. That is the story that sells and creates the most clicks. Source: Sverige Radio [starting at 42:15]
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the media coverage of your climate activism?

VANESSA NAKATE: The media is so biased by the climate crisis. Its focus is on selling news. I will have to appreciate a few media that has been — that has tried their best to try and cover the activism of people from the Global South. But then there is media, especially the much bigger media, that is so biased. They want more selling news instead of selling the stories that really matter to people. They keep talking about climate change being a matter of the future, but they forget that people of the Global South, it is a matter of now. Source: Democracy Now
I realised that calling me “America’s Greta Thunberg” was not designed to be empowering for me, but rather, it was a tactic designed to get more clicks on the article. [— Xiye Bastida]  Source: The Elders

(There is such thing as public interest journalism.)

Other activists also spread the "children vs. adult" narrative:

We are the children in this, and they are the adults in this. [— Vanessa Nakate] Source: Democracy Now

This can become systemic when others also lean too closely to the narrative, such as when School Strike for Climate in Melbourne, for example, limits newcomers to only students.

"NB these are student only events", sent from a newsletter by School Strike for Climate, Melbourne, part of the Australian branch of Fridays for Future
"NB these are student only events", sent from a newsletter by School Strike for Climate, Melbourne, part of the Australian branch of Fridays for Future

It starts to make the "everyone is welcome, everyone is needed" message look very tokenistic.

Other branches are more open, but still, this is an extraordinary step from School Strike for Climate Melbourne, that can mean they lock out extra people who were willing to get involved.

We are a youth-based movement that appeals to and brings together all people. [Source: Fridays for Future, Austria, translated]

The movement is also incredibly Euro-centric, and more broadly, West-centric, as demonstrated by

Climate activists Vanessa Nakate (FFF Uganda), Luisa Neubauer (FFF Germany), Greta Thunberg (FFF Sweden), Isabelle Axelsson (FFF Sweden) and Loukina Tille (FFF Sweden), from left, at World Economic Forum 2020 in Davos, Switzerland. Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP
  • and the movement investing signficant amounts of effort on running campaigns that are very much centred on Europe, such as changing the CAP, and writing a letter to the European Commission, when there is clearly little focus for such campaigns in other parts of the world.

The convention in Lausanne boasted involvement of over 400 activists from 38 countries, but they were predominantly from Europe. Despite being the result of convening activists from just one continent, the Declaration of Lausanne is featured at the top of the demands on the global Fridays for Future website:

Declaration of Lausanne | August 2019, 400 climate activists from 38 countries

1. Keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C compared to pre-industrial levels.

2. Ensure climate justice and equity.

3. Listen to the best united science currently available. [Source: Fridays for Future website]

The second demand is to "ensure climate justice and equity". Yet, how ironic it is, that Fridays for Future have created this declaration through incredibly inequitable involvement.

Elsewhere, other Fridays for Future activists have criticised U.S. President Joseph Biden's decision to convene a summit with 40 leaders as being not equitable:

It is also reprehensible that only 40 leaders were invited to the summit. You cannot say you’re aiming towards a better world if you’re handpicking the countries that get to discuss their future — or, for many of the excluded, their survival. [Source: Fridays for Future, open letter on Action Network]

This is almost absurdly laughable, when considering the movement's own appalling performance in that regard. The movement clearly could not even include activists from more than 38 countries, or more than one continent, in the construction of its own demands, despite claiming to have activists from 125 countries and all continents participating in its March 15, 2019 strike, and activists from 139 countries participating in its September 20, 2019 strike.

These biases are some of the results stemming from the fact that the movement suffers from too much focus on particular activists.

[Updated 22 June 2021]