The Emotional Power of Greta Thunberg


Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN summit on climate change last week resonated across the world, eliciting widely differing reactions. Many people were deeply impressed and moved by the strength and passion of her words. Concern was also raised about Greta’s supposed vulnerability, and comments on her state of mind ranged from the snide to the grossly inaccurate.

Misconstrued and pathologised

Greta’s expression of anger and upset during her speech prompted questioning of her parents’ judgement for allowing her to lead an activist campaign that involves fame and public scrutiny on an epic scale. In much of the commentary there was an assumption that Greta’s distress signalled some kind of mental breakdown, resulting from her appearance on a world stage.

RTE's Ryan Tubridy suggesed that Greta should be brought home from New York “to watch a film” or to “go for a walk with her Ma and Da”. He spoke of feeling uncomfortable watching “her face contorting in agony” and went on to say that while he supported Greta’s cause, her distress reflected a “mental illness situation that we should all be aware of”. Over on Newstalk, Ivan Yates wondered if what we were hearing in Greta’s speech was “excess emotion” or something “hysterical.” After all, “she may have a condition”, he added, referring to her autistic spectrum diagnosis. Neither man dealt with the substance of Greta’s words which starkly set out the havoc that climate change is already wreaking on parts of the world, and the undeniable truth that a similar fate will be visited upon all of us if political indifference continues.

This kind of pathologising commentary, repeated by many others, is the ultimate dismissal of Greta’s message - making her emotional expression, not the deepening climate crisis, the focus of concern. Greta’s distress at the UN summit was a normal emotional reaction to a looming catastrophe that is repeatedly denied or glossed over by politicians. She briefly became upset while reflecting on the tragic absurdity of life on earth being squandered by a relatively small group of people in power. She was not having an autism-related “meltdown”. She was not unravelling before our eyes.

Hasty generalisations

Of course, young people need to be shielded from the harsh realities of the world. They are entitled to their childhoods and should not have to become adults before their time. The abrasions of fame can leave lasting damage, and Greta’s rise as a leader of climate activism has been meteoric. However, her journey there and her motivations have been very different to other 'child stars’ in the realms of acting or music.

After first becoming aware of the seriousness of climate change Greta felt despondent and hopeless for a long time. She educated her parents on the subject and eventually experienced some relief from her distress by taking action – beginning with a lone school strike outside the Swedish parliament last August. Within a few months she had inspired tens of thousands of young people to take to the streets across Europe. As of last week, that figure had risen to several million worldwide.

Once you know the facts of climate change you cannot unknow them. The idea that Greta should step back from her activism because at times she feels distressed by the hypocrisy and recklessness of politicians is a major leap of judgement. It is for Greta and her family together to decide whether the stress of that role is worth it. On RTE’s Drivetime, Adam Harris from the autism advocacy organisation As I Am highlighted that no two people with autism are the same. He also cautioned against assuming what is right for Greta based on her diagnosis.

The power of emotion

The power of Greta Thunberg lies in the clarity and directness of her message, and the emotional connection she makes with the forbidding reality of climate change. Her perspective as a young person confers on her a special moral authority. Greta’s unvarnished truth-telling is the antithesis of political spin.

For years, climate change has been spoken about in abstract terms, an object of scientific study popping up occasionally on our newsreel as a remote concern. There has been a dogma in environmentalist circles that the public must not be confronted squarely with the reality of climate change. The assumption was that climate change must be framed positively or people will become hopeless, and turn away from the subject completely.

Greta and the climate strike movement have robustly debunked that myth, which has been based on a misunderstanding of human emotion. Sadness, anger, fear and despair are normal, adaptive responses to learning about climate change. They are emotions to be embraced and worked through, not avoided. This process, painful in the short-term but ultimately freeing and restorative, is the basis of most psychotherapies. "Facing it, always facing it, that's the only way to get through" as Conrad's Captain McWhirr says in Typhoon when confronting a violent storm at sea.

Greta has brought climate change right into our daily lives with an emotional immediacy and resonance it never had before. She has (to sustain the theme of the previous quote) the gift Orwell identified as the “power of facing unpleasant facts” and has helped millions of people to reckon with the gravest challenge of our time.

Protecting our youth

At an individual level we adults can reduce our impact on climate change by, among other actions, taking fewer flights and consuming less meat and dairy. We can best protect our youth from the burden of this crisis by holding our politicians to account. Crucially, we need to distinguish spin from substance and judge politicians by their commitment to radical reform of our transport, energy and land use sectors.

Liam Quaide is a Clinical Psychologist and a Green Party Councillor in East Cork