When the Kids Are the Grown-Ups

Greta Thunberg is only 16. If you’re not with her, kindly shut up, step aside, and let someone prepared to lead on the subject of climate change get to work. (Photo Credit: Twitter/@GretaThunberg)

It’s hard not to be impressed with climate activist Greta Thunberg. Well, that is, unless you’re a climate change denier.

In that case, her clarion call to stronger action apparently gives you carte blanche to call her all sorts of names and demean her, a girl of 16 with Asperger’s syndrome. Because, evidently, that’s what adults do.

Take Rich Lowry of National Review, who insists we not listen to Thunberg because she is a “pawn” who, as a kid, has “nothing interesting to say to us.” Or Kentucky governor Matt Bevin, who panned Thunberg as “remarkably ill-informed,” despite being an abject blockhead who, among other things, tried to advance the notion his constituents were being “soft” for wanting to close schools despite dangerously low temperatures in his state. Or conservative commentator Michael J. Knowles, who dismissed Thunberg as “mentally ill” amid his ranting against the left’s “climate hysteria” during a recent FOX News segment. When your fellow, ahem, FOX News contributors are admonishing you for your conduct, you know you’re behaving badly.

Even President Donald Trump, never one to shy away from a war of words, mocked Thunberg’s warning of widespread suffering, death, ecological collapse, and mass extinction in the service of maintaining the bottom line of the world’s wealthy, tweeting, “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”

Under usual circumstances, we might look at a sitting president taking a sarcastic jab like this at a young woman and consider it an instance of punching down. But this is 2019 and that president is Trump, a man-baby who wouldn’t know decorum if it were dressed like Frederick Douglass and bit him on the ass. On a maturity level, he’s punching at eye level—if not looking up at Thunberg.

What’s telling in all of these responses—aside from the fact these are all older men talking down to a younger female—is their utter lack of substance. Lowry pivots to talk of a declining global poverty rate and an increase in life expectancy, professing that today’s youth will have ample resources and technology to deal with tomorrow’s problems. These trends say nothing about the actual state of the climate crisis, though, and seriously undercut the urgency of Thunberg’s and others’ messaging. Gov. Bevin has already disqualified himself from discussion of climate change and weather patterns by virtue of his callous “kids are too soft” rhetoric. Trump speaks in the sarcastic, dismissing tone of a bully. Again, no mention of the scientific consensus surrounding the warming of the planet and humans’ role in contributing to it. Not that I totally grasp the science behind it, but you can bet Trump doesn’t get it.

And Knowles’s deflection on the subject of Thunberg’s supposed “mental illness” is uniquely loathsome. Asperger’s syndrome is a neurodevelopmental disability. This diagnosis does not imply, however, that Thunberg is mentally or intellectually incapable of understanding the threat the planet faces; in fact, while acknowledging it makes her “different,” she nonetheless has referred to it as “her superpower,” Going back to Lowry’s discussion of technological advances, Thunberg, like many students her age, has access to untold stores of information regarding climate change. She has done her homework. Knowles evidently wasn’t paying attention the day they addressed global warming in class—that or he was and he simply chose not to believe it.

This, presumably, is why self-professed climate “skeptics”—which is a funny way of saying “climate change deniers,” but we’re all prone to euphemisms from time to time—feel the need to attack one teenage girl with such acrimony. She represents an existential threat of a different kind: that of a rebuke to their insufficient explanations and ad hominem attacks. Thunberg and other concerned youths like her are smarter, better-informed, and, frankly, more well-liked than them. Lowry et al. cater to a conservative crowd characterized by a rapidly-shrinking demographic. Thunberg et al. have a growing worldwide audience fueled by worsening planetary conditions. The former group knows this is and is clearly scared of the latter group. They should be.

Such is why musings on Thunberg playing the part of the impetuous child pawn or the hysterical individual ring hollow. As Thunberg herself underscored in her latest impassioned speech to world leaders, she should’ve been in school, not telling the world’s so-called “elites” to do their job as responsible stewards for a planet on the brink of catastrophe. When the adults behave and think like children, however, the kids apparently have no choice but to fill the grown-ups’ void.


Greta Thunberg is not the only young activist to be sounding the alarm on the climate crisis facing Earth. This article on Mashable identifies five other climate activists who are making an impact beyond their communities and who haven’t even reached 20 years of age. Twice as old as them in some cases, I feel all the more unaccomplished and unproductive by proxy. Gee, thanks, kids! In all seriousness, I am glad these kids and young adults are sounding the alarm on an issue that demands immediate, substantive action and for which ego and strict geographical boundaries (i.e. “They are the biggest polluters, not us!”) should have no bearing.

For men like Donald Trump, Matt Bevin, Michael Knowles, and Rich Lowry, however, they clearly don’t share the same sense of gratitude, and I wonder exactly why. Are they beholden to the designs of the fossil fuel lobby and thereby compelled to help spread its disinformation? Do they go against the consensus as a means of making a name for themselves and despite what they truly believe? Do they loathe these teens as a function of generational distrust and reflexively refuse to value their ideas as the products of attention-seeking and entitlement?

On the last count, I feel as if, owing to preconceived notions about young people’s character, they should be celebrating these children for being so outspoken and politically active. These kids aren’t spending too much time on their phone or playing video games all day. They’re making an impact by raising awareness of a critical issue facing our planet. This is a good thing, right?

It is, unless you’re a conservative/Republican whose influence is predicated by and large on dissuading younger, smarter people (especially women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and every intersection therein) from political involvement. These men must sense that a cultural shift is underway, one which challenges their absolute authority and which makes their proverbial place in the sun (getting hotter with the passing years) not the guarantee it once was. Simply put, we don’t need them. That must shake them and their regressive outlooks to their core.

So, armed with faulty science, they resort to the kind of name-calling you witnessed earlier. Greta Thunberg is a pawn. A brat. A mental case. If you’re especially an asshole who somehow got elected to the highest office in the United States, a very happy young girl. Such are the tactics of schoolyard bullies, not adults. They should shut up, get out of the way, and let the real adults get to work.

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