At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, Greta Thunberg did it again. The environmental activist and Time’s Person of the Year won global attention for calling for urgent action on climate change.
Over the past year, more than 10 million people across the globe have taken to the streets to demand action. And it’s Thunberg who set the whole thing ablaze. How does she do it, time and again? Her message is clear: The climate crisis demands action now.
None of Thunberg’s facts are new. Researchers, climate activists, pundits, and politicians have long been warning that we have a crisis on our hands and the time for action is now. But their doomsday calls often have ended in “apocalypse fatigue.” Thunberg has — with calm and fearless fierceness — cut through that fatigue to become the face of the youth movement demanding change.
First, she is candid about the shortcomings of adults — we’re not anywhere near doing what the crisis demands of us. Many adults pretend there is no crisis, reverting to excuses, fairy tales, and cheap self-justifications rather than being responsible. Thus we are stealing the future from the children, Thunberg’s generation. Her main message amplifies what climate psychology has uncovered: that we distance ourselves, avoid doom messaging, seek refuge from dissonance, or prefer passive denial. Thunberg rips apart our elaborate mental barriers as if they were thin paper walls.
She has initiated a successful environmental movement with her message: Our house is burning, the carbon budget is gone. She wants us all to panic. But climate psychology typically recommends messengers to stay on a positive note. How come she triumphs with this content where others have been brushed aside and, in spite of seemingly well-founded recommendations from climate psychology, stays positive? Were the psychologists wrong all along? Should we now all copy Thunberg’s doomsday approach?
This is based on a misunderstanding of climate-psychology research. The findings were not “Never use fear.” But rather: “Balance fearful facts-messaging with salient opportunities for actions.” Preferably, around a 1:3 balance of threats to possibilities.
It is a fact that Thunberg’s speeches contain blunt criticism of grown-ups, politicians, and those profiting from worsening the crisis. But she has equally emphasized the opportunities for actions now: Voice truth to power. Demonstrate. Strike. Vote. Use social media, embrace humor and inclusive networks. Thunberg now has more than 15 million social media followers.
She has made the climate crisis highly visible in our social networks, calling for widespread strikes. And she has also lowered the threshold for kids — and gradually grownups, too — to demonstrate publicly. They no longer need to feel alone with their climate despair and outrage over the lack of meaningful action. They get a nudge each Friday, with a new invitation for joint action.
We can build on her strategies by making climate action visibly social across schools, generations, cities, and organizations. While being candid about the threat, we can simultaneously highlight the abundant opportunities for action. Daring to be personal when we speak about how the climate touches our heart. Giving praise and feedback to everyone else who acts. Reminding one another that every week brings an opportunity for another step. We know, from many studies, that these strategies do create engagement. But none have ever mastered and applied all these solutions as brilliantly as Greta the Great. She personifies the Greta Generation.
Per Espen Stoknes is a professor and the director of the Center for Green Growth at the Norwegian Business School in Oslo. His latest book is “What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming.”