Why Greta Thunberg Captured Our Attention on Climate

For one thing, Thunberg’s history with climate depression—she has described these feelings as having been, at one point in time, debilitating—is familiar to a lot of people.

We’re finally ready to absorb her bleak message, and maybe act on it.


Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg poses for a photograph on board the Malizia II sailing yacht in Plymouth, England, on Aug. 13./ Ben Stanstall/AFP/Getty Images

It’s been a year since teenage Swedish climate protester Greta Thunberg began her solitary school strike outside the Parliament building in Stockholm. The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen profiled her in October 2018, and that’s when I first heard of her: her trademark braids framing a round face, her depression and Asperger’s diagnoses, how she’d convinced her opera-singer mom to stop flying and her family to go “mostly” vegan. Since last fall, she’s given several unrelenting speeches excoriating powerful adults (at Davos, at the United Nations’ COP24 climate talks, in the British Parliament), been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and fuelled a new wave of teenage climate activism. She’s also become a major target of the global right wing—a sign, perhaps, that what she’s doing is working.

But even as I’ve watched her rise, and felt personally inspired by her message, I haven’t been able to figure one thing out. Why has Thunberg been able to break through and become a catalyzing figure, when other young people have been pursuing climate activism? Why was it Greta who had her face made into a 50-foot mural on the side of a building in Britain? Why, for example, didn’t the plaintiffs in Juliana v. the United States, a 2015 lawsuit filed against the American government for its failure to ward off a future of climate chaos, become media darlings? Is it because, as Thunberg’s critics continuously suggest, the left loves a victim—especially (I might add) one who’s also an adorable Scandinavian in braids? Or were we simply ready, in 2019, to hear somebody be as blunt and urgent as we sometimes feel, about this huge problem we’ve been mostly ignoring?

Read complete story in Slate Magazine

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