Greta Thunberg, a 17-year-old environmental activist from Sweden and TIME Magazine’s person of the year, has become an international icon. Last week, political journalist Tom Rogan published an article that criticized the media’s tendency to “inflate” Greta Thunberg’s importance, claiming that she is often compared to Donald Trump in a way that suggests they hold the same political power. He advised the media to stop treating her in equal relevance to Trump.
While Rogan is correct that the media tends to draw attention to the tension between Thunberg and Trump, he ignores two critical details in his claim. First, Rogan missed that the media does not conflate Trump and Thunberg’s leadership positions. And, second, that, while the nature of her power is very different from Trump’s, Thunberg has become a major public figure, speaking first and foremost on behalf of the environment.
News articles on Thunberg typically describe her as a Swedish teenager involved in the environmentalist movement. What started off as her one person “skolstrejk för klimatet,” or “school strike for climate,” evolved into protests not just in Sweden, but all across the world.
Since then, Thunberg has made speeches on climate change to many significant audiences, such as the United Nations and the People’s Climate March. Her actions have been met with backlash by certain audiences, specifically politicians and journalists tied to the fossil fuel industry. Despite some negative reactions to Thunberg as a person and activist, the protests she inspired are creating an environment that may force governments to be more accountable and sustainable.
Thunberg is not presented as a representative of Sweden or any other nation, just herself and the movement she supports. Media outlets don’t claim she is capable of making policies, just speaking out about environmental issues and putting pressure on governments across the world to take action against global warming. Her power comes from authentically motivating people to act on climate change, not the constitutional authority of an elected office.
Thunberg’s role may be very different from Trump’s, but it doesn’t necessarily make her any less “relevant,” as Rogan claimed. In addition to speaking at a variety of important forums, she was also a key source of inspiration for the global climate strikes. Additionally, Thunberg has been positively recognized by several world leaders, such as German chancellor Angela Merkel.
What is perhaps most striking about Thunberg and Trump’s interactions is that they are reflective of the current struggle between people and governments over climate change policy across the world.
Since the start of Trump’s presidency in 2017, his administration has announced plans to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, lower fuel efficiency targets set by the Obama administration, loosen air pollution laws, as well as show the intent to reverse many policies created over the years to reduce environmental damage. These actions are but one example of what climate change protesters are fighting to stop. With Thunberg being the face of the movement, her responses to these policies are more than just her own.
Panels of scientists have agreed that carbon emissions must be severely reduced by 2030. As this critical year draws closer, climate activists like Thunberg may become even more relevant.
Young people are particularly concerned with the state of the environment. Surveys have found climate change to be one of the most concerning global issues for members of both the millenial and Gen Z generations. As we come of age and are able to start voting, we may choose to become more involved with the politics surrounding climate change.
Climate activists like Greta Thunberg are an important part of public discourse, and will likely continue to be in the next decade. She may not hold an executive position, but her words are influencing how people all over the world are responding to climate change. Thunberg’s voice matters and her relevance shouldn’t be devalued by comparing the nature of her power to that of a very different public figure.
Caroline Kuntzman is a first-year political science student. She is probably reading right now.