At age 15, Greta Thunberg began her career as an environmental activist by staging weekly protests outside the Swedish parliament for stronger policies on climate change.
Now 16, she traveled to the United Nations in New York last week to scold world leaders about the same topic.
She summarized climate science with fluent ease. And she boiled with anger. For 41/2 compelling minutes Monday, there was no question who the adult in the room was.
The world was in trouble, said Thunberg, who looked tiny and fragile and yet commanded rapt attention. The future was threatened. And grown-ups who should know better were being shortsighted and selfish by ignoring or denying it.
“You are failing us,” she said. “But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”
And then the trolls attacked. Grown men and grown women scurried out of dark crevices to question her mental health and compare her to Nazis. Some pounced in prime time on national television. Others from the nether regions of the internet. All without shame or remorse.
They were cold and they were cruel. And they seemed not to realize — or care — that they were bullying a girl who is too young to drive. And whose only crime was her concern that we are letting the Earth go to hell in a handbasket out of greed and willful ignorance.
“People are dying; entire ecosystems” Thunberg said in her impassioned speech at the U.N. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of economic growth. How dare you!”
How dare she. The headwinds from the right were cold and bitter.
A guest commentator on Fox News repeatedly and unapologetically referred to Thunberg, who has Asperger’s syndrome, as “mentally ill.”
“None of that matters because the climate hysteria movement is not about science,” Michael Knowles said. “If it were about science, it would be led by scientists rather than by politicians and a mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents and by the international left.”
This was too much even for Fox, which issued a formal apology for Knowles’ “disgraceful” comments, and added that Fox News had “no plans” to book Knowles for future appearances.
Fox did not apologize for one of its stars, Laura Ingraham, who cited Thunberg as emblematic of climate change “hysteria” among youth. The segment included a clip from the Stephen King horror movie “Children of the Corn,” about a cult of murderous children. Ingraham is well-practiced in the disparagement of young people. In 2018, she poked fun at one of the Parkland school-shooting survivors, David Hogg, then 18, over college rejections (he was, however, accepted into Harvard). After a number of advertisers bolted from her TV show, Ingraham apologized to Hogg. He didn’t accept.
“The apology ... was kind of expected, especially after so many of her advertisers dropped out,” Hogg told CNN. “I’m glad to see corporate America standing with me and the other students of Parkland and everybody else. Because when we work together, we can accomplish anything.”
Meanwhile, conservative author, commentator and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza didn’t wait for Thunberg to make her speech. The night before he noted her braided hair and compared her appearance to that of an illustration of a braided girl in Nazi Germany who was standing in front of a swastika.
“Children, notably Nordic white girls with braids and red cheeks — were often used in Nazi propaganda,” D’Souza wrote.
There is nothing wrong with disagreement, and even young people shouldn’t be immune to being challenged. But they should not be personally attacked. Or dismissed or marginalized simply because they are young.
Often our youth speak with an honesty and moral clarity that adults lack — or choose to ignore. Their hypocrisy and absurdity detectors are especially acute. So it was with the Parkland survivors and the Triad youth who have held their own rallies against mass shootings and climate change. And so it is with Greta Thunberg, who appeals to the best in those who will listen. And to the very worst in those who won’t.