REPORTER AT LARGE
Greta against the world How a 17-year-old Swedish activist took on climate-change denying strongmen leaders and galvanised a global movement
By Martin Fletcher
For the World Economic Forum in Davos in January Donald Trump and his huge entourage flew from Washington, DC to Zurich in both his official Boeing 747s, then completed the final leg in a fleet of seven helicopters. He stayed in the Inter-Continental Hotel’s presidential suite (normal charge: £2,670 per night). He was cocooned by security agents. His speech was crafted by professional speechwriters.
Greta Thunberg came by train and electric car with a family friend, Erika Jangen, and met her father, Svante, there. She had no aides, no spokespeople. She wrote her two speeches herself. For security reasons she had to stay in a hotel, but wanted to stay in a flat with other young climate change activists like 19-year-old Isabelle Axelsson, a fellow Swede. “She was complaining about having to stay in a hotel,” Axelsson said. The little protection Thunberg had was provided by the Swiss police.
It seems improbable that the president of the United States, the world’s most powerful man, would let a 17-year-old girl with Asperger’s Syndrome, plaits and a homemade protest sign get under his skin, but clearly she did.
Nobody doubted who he was targeting when he used his address to denounce climate change “prophets of doom” and their “predictions of the apocalypse”. As Thunberg sat listening in the audience, Trump called her and her ilk “the heirs of yesterday’s foolish fortune tellers”, adding: “These alarmists always demand the same thing – absolute power to dominate, transform and control every aspect of our lives. We will never let radical socialists destroy our economy, wreck our country or eradicate our liberty.”
Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s Treasury secretary, joined the assault, sarcastically asking a Davos press conference: “Is she [Thunberg] the chief economist? Who is she? I’m confused.” He then suggested she earned an economics degree before lecturing the world.
In Our House Is On Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis, a book by Thunberg’s family published in Britain on 5 March, her mother, the Swedish opera singer Malena Ernman, recalls her saying on the eve of her first lone school strike against climate change in August 2018: “I am going to be so incredibly hated.”
But Thunberg could never have foreseen quite how much hatred she would attract. Trump had tweeted in December 2019 that she had an “Anger Management problem” and should learn to “chill”. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has dismissed her as a “poorly informed” girl who does not understand complex global issues and is being manipulated. Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, has labelled her a pirralha (brat). Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, has denounced her for causing “needless anxiety”.
Conservative commentators have accused her of being “mentally ill” and “unstable”, and her parents of exploiting their daughter for fame, financial gain or to advance their political agenda. They say she is being used in the way that Nazi propagandists used images of blonde young German children. A veritable tsunami of abuse has been unleashed against Thunberg on social media where she is portrayed as the brainwashed puppet of some vast left-wing conspiracy to gain global ascendancy on the pretext of curbing carbon emissions.
Fake photos widely circulated online variously purport to show Thunberg feasting in a train while starving children stare through the window, standing in front of an Islamic State flag, and meeting the financier George Soros, a favourite villain of right-wing conspiracy theorists. Her face appeared on a fabricated magazine cover above the words “Annual List of Highest Paid Activists”. Her effigy was hung from a noose beneath a bridge in Rome. A cartoon depicting Thunberg being assaulted recently circulated online. One conspiracy theory suggests t
6-12 MARCH 2020 | NEW STATESMAN | 33