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When Radical Activist Turned Establishment Darling

By Henrietta Flodell

A comic strip is shared on social media across the world – a group of figures are standing in the left-hand corner, drawn in a thin line of ink. Above them hangs a speech bubble with the words: ‘You fucked up!’. In the right corner of that same picture is a group of fewer and larger figures. Above them hangs the retort: ‘So inspiring’. 

A little over a year ago, a teenager had had enough. 

One Friday morning a few weeks before the general election, in the quivering climax of political campaigning, she sat down outside of the Swedish parliament.

Through a hand-painted cardboard sign she declared herself on a school strike for the climate every Friday until the election, reasoning: ‘why should I care about what school can teach me when politicians do not even care about scientific facts?’.  

Like the child who points out what the adults are pretending not to see, in the H.C. Andersen novel ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, the then fifteen-year old Greta Thunberg forced the gaze of the political elite to the elephant that has entered the democratic room: that the election promises no longer exist which legitimately can be delivered without recognition of the great, unavoidable, and uncomfortable truth that they all are overshadowed – and will be affected – by the looming and fast approaching impacts of climate change. 

The most remarkable thing about Thunberg is not the speed at which the school strikes went from a one-woman fight to a global mass movement, nor is it her outstanding ability to make complicated climate research understandable with her trademark rhetorical clarity. What is remarkable about Thunberg is how the radical has become mainstream.

Thunberg was the spark that ignited the greatest climate movement in history, but understanding its future calls for an exploration of how it came to be that the political establishment so eagerly has welcomed her critique - the critique of a system that they themselves constitute. 

The road to the worldwide movement with which we now associate Thunberg has been a long one. After the Swedish general election, she decided to continue striking until the politics of the government were aligned with the targets of the Paris Agreement. While global adoration of Thunberg began to take on a life of its own, the people in her own land were still split over the appropriateness of striking at the cost of one’s own education. ‘No one is a prophet in their own land’, said Jesus to the people of Nazareth, a maxim which still rang true in Sweden during the autumn of 2018. 

Thunberg had become Sweden’s equivalent of Brexit or Trump — a topic so polarizing that family dinners and interactions with strangers began to feel impossible without an initial navigation around the question: ‘Are you for or against Greta?’. Thunberg divided the country, and many of her critics argued that forgoing her free education was the wrong way to approach solving the climate crisis. 

But in December 2018, when she spoke to the COP 24 summit in Katowice, Poland, Thunberg turned global. The voices of her past and present critics drowned in the global embrace of her message and the sheer magnitude of the school strikes. 

Fast forward to August 2019. Thunberg is standing on the prow of a sailing boat, gazing over the port of New York. In front of her are masses of supporters waiting to welcome her. Behind her looms the outline of the Statue of Liberty and the ocean which has taken her weeks to cross. Behind Thunberg now also stand millions of children and youth, all united in the same message: this is our future.

A month after that, six million people across 185 countries joined the school strikes. In the biggest climate march in world history, 60,000 people turned out on the streets of Stockholm. Some 500,000 took part in Montreal; in New Zealand, 3.5 percent of the nation joined in.

Many are mouthing for a taste of Thunberg. As much as she has mobilised activists the world over, Thunberg has also been invited to cross the barricades and enter into the heart of power itself - addressing parliaments across Europe, the European Parliament, global high-level summits and having one-on-ones with some of the most powerful people in the world. 

It is a novel development in the history of demonstrations and strikes, that the actors at the receiving end of the critique so warmly welcome the attention. The shift begs the question of what happens to the playing field when the opposing team suddenly starts rooting for you, and moreover, if it is an embrace in anything more than name only.

Ludwig Bengtsson Sonesson is Sweden’s Youth Representative on Climate on behalf of the National Youth Council, and was part of the Swedish delegation to the UN Climate Summit in September 2019. He thinks the pressure of the sheer number of young school strikers is forcing governments to acknowledge their message. ‘It is often radical activism on the barricades that has the greatest potential to affect and shift public opinion. Then there are other forms of civic society, where you might trade in a certain degree of freedom in return for access to the politicians’ ears.’

The school strikers somehow seem to manage both. Their message is without compromise, but it has nonetheless gained an audience in some of the most powerful spaces of international politics. 

An equilibrium of critique and accessibility: the strikers challenge everything the establishment stands for, but the framing of their message appears to speak a language the establishment recognises. 

For better or for worse, Thunberg has become a symbol. In a society prone to idolising individualism, she has become the sole voice and personification of a movement. White, Western and well-spoken - she bears an undeniable resemblance to the children and grandchildren of the world’s most powerful people.

In her speech in the UN General Assembly at the Climate Summit, Thunberg furiously looked the world’s politicians in their eyes and demanded a response.

‘How dare you?’ 

And they all agreed.

They are lining up to get a chance to chat with her — and to take a photo with her. In the margins of the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel eagerly shared their meeting on social media, while Thunberg herself seemed too busy to prioritise publishing what was but one meeting of many. 

‘The goal is to lower emissions. Politicians cheering Greta Thunberg and the school strikers on is not a successful experiment until they manage that’, Bengtsson Sonesson reflects.

Åsa Persson is the Research Director of the Stockholm Environment Institute, an international environmental think tank. She finds the increased awareness a significant step forward in itself, but fears that the establishment’s support of Thunberg’s message might not stretch far beyond grand speeches and social media posts. ‘The lack of concrete commitments during the Climate Summit was disappointing. Everyone is holding back waiting for someone else to take the first step’, Persson says. 

Ahead of the upcoming COP 25 conference in December, the Stockholm Environment Institute published a new report, ‘The Production Gap’. Some early results, which they released for the September summit, concluded that the world is on track to produce 50 % more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be consistent with the Paris Agreement’s goal of a 2°C pathway and 120 % more than would be consistent with a 1.5°C pathway. 

Persson remarks that some of Thunberg’s critique is ignored or at least less warmly received, notably regarding the unsustainability of endless economic growth and the exploitation of resources. ‘This is the elephant in the room. They are talking climate with one hand, but the other is fiddling around with the fossil fuel industry.’

According to a report by the UK transparency nonprofit InfluenceMap, the fossil fuel industry actively invests in lobbying against climate change policies. Since the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the five largest US oil and gas companies have spent close to 1 billion dollars on blocking attempts to tackle global warming.

The incoherency Persson points to, between what the establishment says and what it does, reinforces the impression that the accessible appeal of millions of children asking for help in saving their future might prove equal parts a blessing and a curse. It is, after all, easy to support a movement largely led by citizens too young to vote against you should you fail them. The school strikers lack the democratic accountability mechanism, as well as the lobby resources of the fossil fuel industry. 

Hope might instead be found by turning to the strikers’ influence on the general public. ‘Public opinion is shifting remarkably quickly’, Persson observes. ‘In the US, we are seeing a clear discrepancy between people’s rising climate concern and the utter denial of their elected representatives.’ 

Scholars of political science are turning their attention to transformation theory, analysing how ideas originating from different niches of society interact with the ruling narrative. When these radical innovations or ideas are introduced to the political landscape, new windows of opportunity present themselves. The landscape can shift in two directions – to ‘fit and conform’ or ‘stretch and transform’. That is, either the ideas can be shaped in the mold of the ruling regime, or the regime will expand to encompass the ideas. 

Few theories could likely have predicted the birth of a folksy radical activism in the hands of the lone teenager outside the Swedish parliament a mere year ago. Whether it will be her ideas that conform, or the establishment that transforms, remains to be seen.


Henrietta Flodell is a Swedish graduate student at Oriel College, University of Oxford, reading for an MSc in Environmental Change and Management.

Art by Ueli Johner and Caitlin Kinney


This article is an online feature of Anthroposphere Issue V.

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