Opinion

Greta Thunberg: The teenage climate activist rejects environmental award, and for good reason

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Lauren Geall
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Greta Thunberg

Since she gained recognition for her climate activism all over the world, Greta Thunberg has been called a “beacon of hope,” an “inspiration,” and, most recently, awarded The Nordic Council’s 2019 environmental prize. But, as her rejection of the award shows, praise is the opposite of what the teenage climate activist actually wants.     

There are few teenagers who would be chosen to receive a national environmental award, and even fewer who would take the brave choice to decline the prize in correspondence with their values. But Greta Thunberg is truly one of a kind.

This week, the teenage climate activist was chosen to receive The Nordic Council’s environmental award for 2019 for mobilising million of people around the world to demand climate action with her #FridaysForFuture initiative. But instead of accepting the award and taking attention away from the movement she’s worked so hard to create, Thunberg did things differently.

“I have received the Nordic Council’s environmental award 2019. I have decided to decline this prize,” she wrote on Instagram. “I want to thank the Nordic Council for this award. It is a huge honour.

“But the climate movement does not need any more awards. What we need is for our politicians and the people in power to start to listen to the current, best available science.”

This hesitancy to accept praise – and willingness to focus on the issue at hand – is something Thunberg has repeatedly echoed during her time in the spotlight. As she took to the stage at the UN’s Climate Action summit on 23 September, Thunberg made her frustration with the inaction taken on the climate crisis incredibly clear.

“My message is that we’ll be watching you,” Thunberg opened. “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope? How dare you!

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones,” she continued. “You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.”

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While, as expected, some leaders and pundits chose to comment on Thunberg’s anger itself rather than the actual address (no, she does not need to cheer up, thank you very much), there were also the usual reactions on Twitter, hailing Thunberg an “inspiration,” saying that she gives people “hope” and calling her “brave”.

But these remarks all miss an extremely vital point: those “empty words” which have cost Thunberg so much. Because at the heart of Thunberg’s message is something vitally clear. She is sick of words – whether they be positive or negative – distracting from the action that needs to be taken. 

Greta Thunberg speaking at the UN
Greta Thunberg: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

It’s safe to say that we’re all pretty much in awe of Greta Thunberg’s achievements. She’s spoken at the UN, had her speeches printed into a book which is on sale all across the world, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to attend two climate summits, won an “alternative Nobel prize” and been hailed an “inspiration” by thousands of people online. But none of this is what Greta Thunberg really wants.

Because, at the end of the day, all Greta Thunberg really wants is concrete governmental action and mass-societal change focused on tackling the climate crisis – and right now, that seems the only thing she can’t get. 

We should not be tweeting about Greta Thunberg’s speech and labelling it “impressive for a 16-year-old” or “incredible,” and we should certainly all be thinking twice about calling her an “inspiration”. Throwing compliments, praise and admiration at Thunberg is not what the climate activist wants or needs – and she’s made that remarkably clear.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s far better to put positive energy out into the world rather than mock or criticise the genuine words of a passionate speech. And it’s so easy to sit at home and tweet about how young climate activists give you hope for the future – I’ve done it, plenty of times – but it’s time to admit how our passive words could actually be the root of the problem. 

Greta Thunberg with fellow youth climate activists at the global climate strike last week.

The phenomenon I’m talking about is slacktivism. Defined as “the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterized as involving very little effort or commitment,” slacktivism is a very modern dilemma. And while social media buzz and discussion is always important in raising the profile of movements and reaching new voices, it also leads people to believe that more action is being taken than there actually is. Which, in turn, leads to less people feeling obliged to act. 

After all, the problem with words is that, while they may inform, rouse and move emotionally, words themselves do not equal change. As a writer, I’ve spent my fair share of time considering the power of language to change the world – but that only happens when people take words and make real, tangible change.

Greta Thunberg does not want your praise – she wants your action. She wants you to campaign, pressure and write to your MPs to urge them to take action in the face of climate change. She wants you to protest, rally and inform your neighbours and community on how to make better, more sustainable choices.

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It’s been 11 months since the IPCC warned the world that we only have 12 years to avoid irreversible damage. That figure will soon be 11 years. Greta Thunberg already has enough opponents who fundamentally do not want to see change.

So next time you go to retweet a video of Thunberg speaking or send a message to a friend admiring her bravery, stop yourself for a moment. If her words are really that powerful, isn’t it time we all try and do something about the problem?

Greta Thunberg’s appearance in the news shouldn’t be an opportunity for us to share our praise on Twitter – it should be a reminder of the change that needs to happen.  

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Lauren Geall

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