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Greta Thunberg says climate talks are becoming a ‘greenwash campaign’

The climate activist Greta Thunberg, center, spoke during a panel discussion alongside other young female activists, in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 4, 2021.CRAIG GIBSON/NYT

GLASGOW, Scotland — The United Nations climate conference in Scotland has become a venue for world leaders and business executives to pretend they are taking action on climate change without following through, climate activist Greta Thunberg said Thursday.

Speaking on the sidelines of the summit meeting, known as COP26, the 18-year-old Thunberg said the event was “sort of turning into a greenwash campaign, a PR campaign,” for business leaders and politicians.

“Since we are so far from what actually we needed, I think what would be considered a success would be if people realize what a failure this COP is,” Thunberg said.


At panel events Thursday at The New York Times Climate Hub in Glasgow, Thunberg and other young female activists, including Vanessa Nakate and Malala Yousafzai, also spoke about the critical role that young women have played in rallying protesters and pressuring world leaders to take action.

“It is the young people, especially young women, who are the voices of the climate movement, and that gives hope to so many people,” Yousafzai said.

The comments came on the fifth day of the summit meeting, a gathering that John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, had billed as the planet’s “last, best chance” to curb the fossil fuel emissions that are driving climate change.

More than 39,000 diplomats, business leaders and activists have registered for the event in hopes of hammering out agreements to reduce emissions and keep the average global temperature from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to preindustrial levels, by the end of this century. That’s the threshold beyond which many scientists say the planet will experience catastrophic effects from heat waves, droughts, wildfires and flooding. The average global temperature has already risen by 1.1 degrees Celsius.

So far, leaders and business executives have made some significant commitments. On Tuesday, more than 100 countries agreed to cut emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, by 30% by 2030. And on Wednesday, a coalition of the world’s biggest investors, banks and insurers that collectively control $130 trillion said they were committed to financing projects that would help get companies and countries to net-zero emissions by 2050.


Environmentalists, however, criticized the financing pledge as lacking in detail. Several key leaders, including Xi Jinping of China, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, were also criticized for not attending the event in person. Environmentalists say China's and Russia’s targets are not ambitious enough, and activists are skeptical that Bolsonaro will follow through on his country’s pledge to end deforestation by 2028.

Nakate, a 24-year-old climate activist from Uganda and founder of the Africa-based Rise Up Movement, said at the panel discussion Thursday that the pledge by leaders of the 20 largest economies to “pursue efforts” to keep the average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius did not go far enough.

She said that 1.5 degrees would “not be safe” for communities like hers. “Even right now, it’s already evident that the climate crisis is ravaging different parts of the African continent,” Nakate said.

Yousafzai, 24, said women were disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis.

“Treating climate change and gender inequality and girls’ education as separate issues is not doing justice to the cause of creating a fairer and better and cleaner world for all of us,” Yousafzai said. “It is important that we take these issues seriously and see the link between all of these.”


She and the other activists on Thursday said there was reason for hope. When the moderator at Thunberg’s event asked what one fact the panelists would want everyone in the world to know, she said that people should understand that their individual actions can make a difference. The changes that are necessary will not come from inside of conferences like COP26, she said.

“This is the misconception,” Thunberg said. “That what we as individuals do doesn’t have an impact.”

“And I’m not talking about not using plastic and so on,” she said. “I’m talking about going out onto the streets and making our voices heard, organizing marches, demanding change.”