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The Passion of Greta Thunberg

The icon of the movement for action on climate change is a teenager. Shouldn't that worry us?

Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

I didn’t feel good about asking Greta Thunberg for an interview. She’s a kid still; stardom rots the soul; and the spotlight is clearly torture to her—a torture she has chosen freely, but a torture all the same. And her celebrity has never seemed entirely healthy: this Nordic child, from one of the most comfortable and privileged societies the Earth has ever known, leading a movement to confront a planetary crisis that disproportionately harms people who do not look anything like her—people who live in Mozambique, the Bahamas, Somalia, San Juan, whose lives could not be more different from hers. Wasn’t the media playing the same tired, old game, elevating a photogenic white savior figure so that it wouldn’t have to deal with voices and faces that might make it uncomfortable? And wasn’t I part of that media?

But I was also on my way to Madrid to cover December’s United Nations climate summit, and it was sufficiently important to Thunberg to be heard there that she sailed across the Atlantic twice. It felt irresponsible not to try to interview her, if only to ask her the same questions I was asking myself. Plus, she and the other youth activists would be the more lively subjects in those windowless convention center halls. Without their idealism and anger, the event would look like just another bureaucratic death march.

I found an email address for interview requests. Greta wasn’t even on land yet at that point, but she had internet on the catamaran. She was tweeting still, and occasionally posting selfies. I couldn’t help but notice that out there in the swells and spray, she looked much happier and more at ease than she had on any of the stages I had seen her on over the previous month, each day looking more and more exhausted. Every time I saw her happy, I realized, I felt happy too. But this was part of the problem, wasn’t it? That I—and I knew I wasn’t alone in this—had become so invested in her individual happiness; that I had managed to funnel a portion of my rising panic over the climate crisis into her, brave little Greta, with the fierce eyes and the stainless steel backbone, those earnest pigtails a reminder that she was, despite it all, a child.

Her media coordinator may also have been wary of all the attention, because he offered to put me in touch instead with “another high profile climate activist.” In the end, he put me in touch with three: one from Uganda, one from Spain, and one from Chile. This seems to be her current strategy: to frustrate the media’s more abject and starstruck appetites by ceding the platform to those whose struggles are otherwise erased. On her tour of North America, Greta sought out local and indigenous activists and listened far more than she spoke. When she made it to Madrid, she barely said a word at her first event, stepping back so that other activists—from the Philippines, the Marshall Islands, Uganda, Russia, and Minnesota—could step up. Standing behind them, she looked much happier, I thought, than ever she did out in front. But she would be out front again soon enough.

It’s not easy, you might remember, being a teen. The adult world seems incomprehensible, hypocritical, deluded, and corrupt—because it is. As you age, you decide that things are perhaps not as simple as you’d thought.

But some things are simple, and the climate crisis is one of them. However tangled the accompanying political realities may be, the brute facts do not benefit from nuance. Carbon emitted through the combustion of fossil fuels over the last century and a half has caused sudden and drastic global warming, melting the poles and the glaciers, altering the acidity of the oceans, disrupting the currents in the oceans and the air. If we continue to burn oil, coal, and gas at anything close to the rate that we currently do, the climate will warm so much that human and most animal life will be endangered everywhere on the planet. We must change our ways, and very, very quickly, or we, as a species, will die. None of this is complicated, and once you understand it—especially if you hope to live for another 60 or 70 years—all the excuses in the world add up to a pile of ash. The climate crisis, as Thunberg put it to the assembled masters of the universe in Davos, “is so simple that even a small child can understand it. We have to stop our emissions of greenhouse gases. Either we do that, or we don’t.” Pundits and politicians hem and haw as the flames spread, but the kids have no time for their dances.

In the end, I would interview youth activists from four continents. Every one of them was brave, eloquent, and funny. There was Alexandria Villaseñor, from New York, who began protesting on the steps of the U.N. when she was just 13 and whose eyes shine with eagerness, even as she speaks of her own “climate anxiety and eco-grief”; Vanessa Nakate, from Uganda, who laughed with undisguised delight when she told me how the U.N. security officers “went crazy” when youth activists took over the stage, “but they couldn’t do anything because we were so many”; Sebastián Benfeld, Tamara Toledo, Joel Peña, and Ángela Valenzuela, all from Chile, and all of whom had more sophisticated political analyses than you will hear from most American pundits two or three times their age.

I didn’t ask them about Greta, but when her name came up, the other youth activists spoke of her with obvious respect. If they found her celebrity irksome, they also understood that it was produced by a machine not of her making, a loud and foul-smelling apparatus that will screech on about almost anything before it listens to what the activists are actually saying. They also knew that whatever bullshit-slicing superpowers adolescence may have granted them, Greta possessed another superpower as well.

Thunberg has described Asperger’s syndrome not as a disability but a gift—one that means that she doesn’t understand “the difference between what you know and what you say and what you do.” It makes her, she says, constitutionally unable to accept the lies, large and small, out of which the fabric of the social is woven. Even if that fabric weren’t already so obviously tearing, the fact that integrity and an unbreakable attachment to truth count as signs of neuro-divergence might suggest that all is not well. Appreciation for the bottomless virtues of nuance—and for a class of technocrats making a living off of such complexities—is one of the fundamental ideological supports of the current, decadent stage of liberal democracy. Greta isn’t having it. “You say nothing in life is black or white. But that is a lie,” she says. “A very dangerous lie.”

Greta either didn’t know or didn’t care that teenagers are supposed to be silly, shallow and self-obsessed. They aren’t supposed to call out the hypocrisy, inaction, and cowardice of the most powerful people in the world to their faces, again and again and again. She didn’t realize that it is impolite to acknowledge the utter insanity of a society that, racing toward apocalypse, continues on as if nothing much were wrong, as if “climate change” were one story among others, like Brexit or Baby Yoda. She didn’t care that all dire messages are supposed to be sweetened with tranquilizing hope. (“I don’t want you to be hopeful,” she said in Davos, last January. “I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.”) She didn’t know that climate discourse is supposed to limit itself to environmental concerns, rather than denouncing capitalism’s fundamental reliance on “fairy tales of eternal economic growth” or the constitutive inequities of a global order in which “the sufferings of the many … pay for the luxuries of the few.”

In the end, I didn’t see her in Madrid. I kept running into scrums of reporters rushing after what turned out to be some far less consequential star: Michael Bloomberg or Harrison Ford. When she gave a speech to the main assembly, I didn’t make it there early enough to get into the hall and had to watch over the monitors in the press room. Five days later, the summit ended in dismal failure, delivering only the most lukewarm language while punting most substantive issues to next year’s gathering. As they had the year before, U.N. officials invited Greta to speak, applauded heartily, then proceeded to do exactly what she had warned them not to do. “The real danger,” she said this time, “is not inaction. The real danger is when politicians and CEOs are making it look like action is happening when in fact nothing is being done.”

Every time the audience clapped, Greta paused and seemed to wince. How dare they, it was easy to imagine her thinking: sitting there and clapping while they do nothing? Later that day, when word spread online that Time had chosen her for its Person of the Year, I couldn’t help but think that the magazine was trolling her. Don’t look at me, she had been saying in various ways for more than a year: I am not what matters here. (President Trump, it turned out, thought Time’s editors were trolling him with the pick, so he trolled Greta, and Greta, better at the internet than he is, trolled him far more ably back.)

Six days later, Greta was home again in Sweden, posting a photo of herself reunited with her dogs. She was grinning. It struck me that in Madrid, one year and four months since her first school strike, her speech had ended on an unusual note of optimism. “I’m telling you,” she said, “there is hope. I have seen it, but it does not come from the governments or corporations. It comes from the people. The people who have been unaware but are now starting to wake up.” Last Friday, wearing a hat and scarf and a yellow rain slicker and looking a little like Paddington bear, she was out there again. She retweeted school strikers in Japan, Uganda, and Germany. She held the same “School Strike for Climate” sign she had painted all those months ago. She stood once more in the gloomy blue twilight of a Swedish winter morning, unexhausted and unafraid.