Opinion - Politics

How 16-year-old Greta Thunberg's rise could backfire on environmentalists

Key Points
  • Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg's ascendancy to the forefront of environmental activism could end up being a major negative to the movement and the environment, writes Jake Novak.
Youth activist Greta Thunberg speaks at the Climate Action Summit at the United Nations on September 23, 2019 in New York City. While the United States will not be participating, China and about 70 other countries are expected to make announcements concerning climate change.
Stephanie Keith | Getty Images

Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden is the new face of the environmentalist movement, thanks to a pair of impassioned speeches to the U.S. Congress and the United Nations.

But while personalizing a movement, especially with the innocent face of a child, is usually PR gold, Greta's ascendancy to the forefront of environmental activism could end up being a major negative to the movement – and the environment.

Just how inspiring or even persuasive you find Greta's speeches and overall activism likely depends on where you stand on the political spectrum. There are plenty of politicians and regular voters claiming to be inspired by her words and passion. There are also lots of observers expressing general alarm at what they see as an indoctrinated child being coerced by adults to make their political arguments with her youth as a shield from any criticism.

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Her story signals a clear change in environmental movement tactics, and just how much more divisive and ineffective that change is likely to be.

Greta, and the adults guiding her, are seeking to shift almost all the focus from personal responsibility to governments and big corporations to enact environmental reform. Their argument is that individual people can't do much to save the world from climate change disaster when energy companies and governments focused mostly on economic growth don't care enough to make the big changes.

The adult version of that argument emerged earlier this month when Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren basically mocked personal conservation efforts. Warren told a climate town hall audience and later tweeted that the fossil fuel industry wants the public to discuss issues like plastic straws, lightbulbs, and cheeseburgers so they can continue to get away with producing most of the emissions blamed for climate change.

The funny thing about all of this is the free market is already doing these things based on the same capitalist incentives Greta and so many other activists are blaming for environmental disaster. Natural gas is cheaper and produces 50% fewer emissions than coal, nuclear power has been modernized and made much safer in recent decades while producing no emissions. For-profit entities like a company called Carbon Engineering are working on machines that literally suck carbon emissions out of the atmosphere.

Each of these innovations has enjoyed some level of government support here and there, but raw capitalistic profit motives are the primary driver. Warren and those like her are failing to see that millions more Americans who use their consumer spending powers to reduce their carbon footprint will send corporate America chasing after those dollars in a much faster and more effective way than government fiat.

It's not just die-hard capitalists or environmental skeptics who are pushing back on this focus away from personal responsibility. In a remarkable interview on PBS last week, author Jonathan Safran Foer spoke out against Warren's comments and pointed out that those who say they believe in the dire effects of climate change would do more than protest if they really believed it. That point is the premise of Foer's new book, "We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast."

Based on all the politically partisan slogans and signs we saw at the climate protests over the past few days, are we sure the top motivation is the environment and not politics? If the activists protesting right now could get the most serious climate change threats eliminated, but without politically defeating President Trump and Republicans and/or putting the big oil companies out of business in the process, would they still be interested in the cause?

The shift from the "Think Globally, Act Locally," environmental philosophy of the 1980s and 1990s makes that question fair game. When we move from encouraging people to change their personal practices to something like Warren's mocking of that very idea, it guts the very soul of any movement for effective change.

Previous generations of environmental activists knew this. By focusing on what people could do in their own personal lives to cut down on pollution, they presided over an environmental movement that used to be much more bipartisan in America.

This new focus on making environmentalism an angrier protest movement threatens to make the effort to protect the planet just another wedge issue that politicians often use to motivate their base of voters. Similar wedge issues like abortion and gun control have long shifted become tribal controversies with little chance of progress and compromise.

Greta Thunberg is angry. Lots of people are angry. But anger without doing something other than protesting and making speeches won't protect the environment or do much else other than produce more anger.

Jake Novak is a political and economic analyst at Jake Novak News and former CNBC TV producer. You can follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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