Why has Greta Thunberg got so many people riled?

The 16-year-old climate change activist has been inundated with abuse from those who should know better

TOPSHOT - Swedish environment activist Greta Thunberg speaks at a climate protest outside the White House in Washington, DC on September 13, 2019. Thunberg, 16, has spurred teenagers and students around the world to strike from school every Friday under the rallying cry "Fridays for future" to call on adults to act now to save the planet. / AFP / Nicholas Kamm
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The fictional master detective Sherlock Holmes once said: “You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.” Then there is his most famous observation: “When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

With the great detective in mind, I’ve been puzzling over a modern mystery: why do some people actively loathe Greta Thunberg? She is the 16-year-old Swedish activist who is trying to save the world from climate change. Ms Thunberg has inspired schoolchildren all over the world to protest in the Fridays for Future movement. The idea is to shake powerful people out of their lethargy – or blatant ignorance – over climate change.

Last Friday, she demonstrated with American students at the White House. She has been honoured with Amnesty International’s ambassador of conscience award for 2019, putting her alongside previous recipients such as Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai and the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. So why does she inspire such rancour?

For example, she travelled from Europe to the US to attend the coming Climate Action Summit in New York on a zero-carbon yacht, choosing to sail across the Atlantic rather than fly. The point was obvious: air travel is bad for the planet. It was a fortnight's crossing in hurricane season, during which she suffered seasickness. Yet some sniffed that it was mere gesture politics, even if it was for a good cause. Some of the critics went much further. A contributor to the right-wing US TV channel Fox News, Steve Milloy, a former member of the Donald Trump transition team, ranted that Ms Thunberg was an "ignorant teenage climate puppet". Mr Milloy is a strong supporter of the US fossil fuel and tobacco industries. Another middle-aged critic is the British businessman Arron Banks. He helped bankroll the British Brexit referendum in 2016. Mr Banks, who is more than three times older than Ms Thunberg and has two daughters, tweeted: "Freak yachting accidents do happen in August", comments which were reported to Twitter and were described as "vile" by a British MP. Mr Banks claimed he was merely joking. Another 50-something, British radio host and former journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer, tweeted: "Hi Greta, I've just booked some long haul flights for my family to enjoy some winter sun on the beach this Christmas. Level of guilt being felt: 0%."

Which brings us back to Holmes and the “observation of trifles”. Why would these apparently secure, established middle-aged adults troll a teenager who cares about her – and our – future? Stumped for answers, I spoke to environmental campaigner and columnist George Monbiot. He himself is no stranger to verbal attacks for his views. He explained that such abuse could be rooted in shame or guilt. The people who publicly despise Greta, Mr Monbiot suggested, know that the science is clear and climate change is real. They know that unchecked, it will destroy life on earth, so they compensate for the uselessness of their own generation by transferring their guilt into being angrily patronising towards young people determined to resist. A kind of generational angst might be at work here, he suggested, but there is more to it. Recently a British Conservative MP, David Davies, jumped into the fray, attacking the rock band The 1975 for campaigning against climate change because they were also on a world tour. Mr Davies wrote an open letter, sarcastically asking: “I just wondered how you are going to get to these places?...Will you be sailing in a £4m superyacht like your mate Greta?”

Climate change is a problem created by humans. That means it can be fixed by humans, all of us

It’s difficult to believe, given the chaos in British politics in Westminster, that attacking a 16-year-old girl and a rock band is top of any politician’s agenda, but Mr Davies went ahead anyway.

There is a common theme here. All those attacking climate activists appear to believe that because campaigners cannot avoid all use of fossil fuels, they should do nothing. Instead, the critics need to recognise that if we all do something, and do it quickly, we might be able to buy time for an orderly transition to other energy sources. Thinking governments are already trying. You can see it in the solar energy farms in the UAE, or the way education has become a top priority in the region, or in the UAE's status as – in the words of one contributor to a regional conference I attended – a kind of "Hong Kong" for the region, an economic and financial centre, preparing the future for generations to come. You can see it on the roofs of houses in rainy Britain where homeowners have fitted solar panels. And you can see it in the worldwide outrage over the burning of the Amazon rainforest.

A Sherlock Holmes investigation would conclude that the threat to the fossil fuel economy is not from a Swedish teenager or a touring rock band but from basic science and the human need to survive. We need to change or die. And once you eliminate the impossible then what remains is clearly the truth.

Climate change is a problem created by humans. That means it can be fixed by humans – all of us. As Ms Thunberg says: “I’m not that special. I can’t convince everyone.” True – but she might just be irritating many of the right people.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter