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Wednesday, June 19, 2024
The Observer

Greta Thunberg is just a kid

On Sept. 23, Swedish climate activist and 16-year-old Greta Thunberg spoke at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit. Her speech did not mince words: she accused, quite directly, the assembled leaders of ignoring science for their own personal political and monetary benefit, at the expense of people’s happiness and lives.

“I shouldn’t be standing here,” she said. “I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. … You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

It would be a powerful speech from anyone, let alone a 16-year-old speaking a second language. I couldn’t speak another language when I was Thunberg’s age. I still can’t. I couldn’t even drive a car. I certainly would not have had the ability to write and deliver a speech to the world’s most powerful leaders on an issue as crucial to our future as climate change. If I somehow did, I wouldn’t have done so with half the confidence and composure of Thunberg.

Many were not as moved as I was. In the days following her speech, Thunberg became the subject of hate, bullying and vitriol from a number of prominent pundits and politicians. In an appearance on Fox News, Daily Wire podcast host Michael Knowles outright dismissed climate change and said “If it were about science, it would be led by scientists rather than by politicians and a mentally ill Swedish child.” The network almost immediately condemned Knowles, calling his comments “disgraceful” and adding that there are no further plans for him to appear on the channel. That same night, however, Fox News host Laura Ingram played a clip of Thunberg’s speech and followed it with a scene from the 1984 horror film “The Children of the Corn” about a group of possessed, murderous children.

President Trump left Thunberg’s speech ten minutes in. When it concluded, he took to Twitter and mocked her, saying, “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”

These people all have the right to disagree with Thunberg. They can question her methods, her motivations, her tone. But in doing all of this, they must remember one thing: Greta Thunberg is a 16-year-old child. A brilliant child, absolutely. But a child nonetheless. And she is absolutely right — she should be in class in Sweden. She should be having a normal childhood. She should be having fun. She should not have to spend her time worrying about climate change. She should not have to deliver a speech to the United Nations. And she certainly shouldn’t be bullied, called mentally ill, mocked for all the world to see by the President of the United States. No kid should be.

My research for this column reminded me of one I wrote in January 2019, “On Covington Catholic,” about the incident at the March for Life event where a number of Covington Catholic students got into an altercation with Omaha Elder Nathan Phillips. In the column, I condemned the students and compared their behavior to Gov. George Wallace’s famous Stand in the Schoolhouse Door. I was wrong. It was not my place to condemn the students, nor was it the place for many on my side of the aisle to attempt and harass the students online. I still disagree with their actions. But in writing that column, I failed to remember what the students were: kids, no older than Greta Thunberg. Kids make mistakes. They’re allowed to. Publicly decrying them, mocking them, threatening them, is probably worse than any mistake a kid could make.

There’s an old episode of “The West Wing” that explains my argument well. In it, an American child flees to Italy (a country without the death penalty) after killing his teacher. Josh Lyman, the Deputy Chief of Staff, meets with the Italian Ambassador as part of an effort to have the child extradited. The ambassador says, “You’re in a restaurant, and there’s a little girl who is really misbehaving. She runs around, she’s throwing food. The father decides to punish her right there by cracking the wine bottle over her head, throwing her to the ground, and kicking her repeatedly.”

“The kid wasn’t throwing food,” Josh says. The ambassador responds by asking, “Is there a crime that girl could commit, that would have justified what the father did?” No, there isn’t. Not throwing food. Not wearing a MAGA hat to the March for Life. And certainly not having the courage to deliver a passionate speech to the world on the dangers and tangible costs of climate change.

Thunberg is a kid. This shouldn’t have to be her fight yet. It is the job of adults to fix the world’s problems. To teach them, to make sure they are informed citizens who will make intelligent voting choices, yes. To let them know the world is not perfect, of course. But it is also the job of adults to protect children. It’s our job to make sure they’re not bullied and belittled for standing up for what they believe in. It’s our job to shield them from the greatest of this world’s evils, in the hope that their generation may know fewer of them.

Patrick McKelvey splits his time between being a college senior and pretending to be a screenwriter. He majors in American studies and classics, and will be working in market research in New York after graduating. If you can’t find him at the movies, he can be reached for comment at or @PatKelves17 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.