The Power of Greta Thunberg’s Stare Down
The 16-year-old climate activist is not alone in waging a generational fight. It’s going to get ugly — just as it should.
Greta Thunberg “sells fear.” This, according to climate change skeptic Marc Morano, the so-called “[Matt] Drudge of Denial,” is the real issue that should concern most adults. In an appearance on Fox & Friends on Monday, Morano accused Thunberg of “causing and instilling fear in millions of kids.”
He’s right — at least, in part. Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist, whose solo protest outside Swedish parliament last year has helped spark a global movement, does sound a bit scared herself. Her presence on the national stage highlights a gaping divide between generations old and new: On one side, kids are endlessly propped up as totems of a brighter future; on the other is everyone else, who has done little to secure it for them.
It might be Thunberg’s obvious fear that makes her so captivating. After all, fear about climate change is not a difficult idea to sell, if that is all she’s doing (it’s not). By most accounts, it’s likely that things on Earth are going to tip into chaos pretty soon, and before reaching that point, they will continue to get deeply weird: more once-in-a-lifetime storms blowing through every year; more killer heat waves; more glaciers melting into the ocean. We’ve only recently come to terms with just how terrifying that progression will be, not to mention what comes next. Maybe someone should have been selling fear to young people for decades.
As Thunberg noted later Monday in front of an audience at the United Nations, kids themselves are being packaged and sold as tokens. “This is all wrong,” Thunberg told a gathering of world leaders. “I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back at school on the other side of the ocean. Yet, you come to us young people for hope. How dare you?”
Apparently, President Donald Trump wasn’t in the room to hear Thunberg’s remarks in person. He stopped by the UN earlier in the day to listen to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi talk about things like clean cooking gas and water conservation, then left. But Trump and Thunberg did cross paths briefly — and a GIF was born.
Thunberg’s probing question of the day — “How dare you?” — doesn’t quite capture the intensity of her piercing stare aimed at the U.S. president. Her glare cuts through a crowded room of reporters and security guards, dressing down Trump from several feet away. But in that split second, the silent, one-sided exchange doesn’t project a sense of anger. What we, as viewers, feel is time; the immense generational gap and all the grandiose expectations, the false hope, and unfairness that it has brought. The difference between them is an entire understanding of the world, of what it means to live today, and of what tomorrow looks like.
Generational fights are nothing new, but in this moment, the stakes feel higher than usual. Climate change is the most pressing matter at hand, but it’s hardly the only issue that inspires existential dread, if not outright fear, in young hearts these days. Beyond the threat of a climate crisis, young people must also wrestle with widening economic inequality and the institutional acquiescence to increasingly racist and exclusionary policies and ideas. There’s plenty in their futures for young generations to worry about.
The climate crisis stands to exacerbate bleak economic trends and introduce new, more complex factors into the mix for millennials and Gen Z. Not being able to afford a house might soon be the least of their worries — the question may be more about how to best move further inland for survival. Rising sea levels could upend real estate as we know it, not to mention the potential mass migration it may cause. Climate change will increase the risk and frequency of extreme weather, and the economic destruction and shock that come with it. As far as jobs — let alone careers — go, it’s anyone’s guess. Even as it stands, young people struggle to achieve upward mobility, often having to opt for tasking work in the gig economy over total unemployment. What of manufacturing? Or global supply chains? Food? Water? It’s going to be chaos.
Unless things change — immediately.
Anyone who sees Thunberg’s stare down and thinks her message is just about the weather is being willfully delusional. She — and the millions who’ve joined her protest in the last year — is asking for something more than action on climate change. She’s asking for quality of life. It’s an entirely reasonable request.
As Thunberg showed Monday, the kids are getting very pissed off.
But she has reason to fear, and to be angry, that it won’t be granted. Kids and young adults — and even those who still remember the 1980s, the oldest millennials — have been raised to believe that the democratic capitalist system we are inheriting has been designed for generational success. What we’re realizing is that promise might have been a half-truth. As it turns out, the system we’re inheriting might have only been designed for one generation’s success — that of our parents and grandparents, not ours. And all you have to do is look around to see that this unfairness is not sitting well. As Thunberg showed Monday, the kids are getting very pissed off.
Over the summer, as Thunberg’s long campaign finally began garnering attention in the United States, Christopher Caldwell took to the pages of the New York Times to outline what he saw as a problem: Thunberg’s age. “Since a 16-year-old is not a legally responsible adult, she cannot be robustly criticized and, even leaving aside her self-description as autistic, Ms. Thunberg is a complicated adolescent. Intellectually, she is precocious and subtle,” Caldwell wrote. “She reasons like a well-read but dogmatic student radical in her 20s.”
It’s a revealing couple of sentences, in that it exposes a special kind of fear. With youth, Caldwell suggests, comes extremism. Caldwell’s column was mostly an unfair and silly dismissal, but he might have been onto something. And he may be right to be scared, because a reckoning is coming. In Thunberg’s stare Monday was the distance between generations, yes, but equally the anger that the separation was allowed to grow so vast. The adults of the world have been so negligent in leaving their kids alone that they’ve (quite literally) exposed them to the elements. How much longer will they stand for it?
Thunberg seems intent on closing that gap. And it isn’t about hoping the adults like Trump, or his generation, come back to the rescue. It’s about making sure their actions catch up with them. If you think you have seen youthful radicalism, just hang on. You ain’t seen nothing yet.