One in three Britons say they’ve been dishonest about their annual mileage, the number of journeys, and other motoring habits due to ‘climate guilt,’ according to recent research by ethical car recycling company Scrap Car Network. Increasingly, activists like Greta Thunberg are playing a part in cultivating that climate guilt, gradually changing public opinions of driving. 76% of affected drivers say their feelings have been affected by media, while 22% of them have specifically named her as an influence.
Today, she is spearheading a global movement urging action on climate change. But let’s be honest, she’s hardly the first public figure to highlight the increasing threat of climate change. So how is she succeeding in gaining such extraordinary momentum on this issue, where other activists have so often failed? Well, here are just four possible reasons!
1. Her language
In her opening address to European MEPs earlier this year, she introduced herself thus: “My name is Greta Thunberg, and I want you to panic.”
That simple phrase is a perfect encapsulation of the uniquely effective language Thunberg uses to get her message across. It stands in stark contrast to the traditional climate change speeches made by celebrities, which are weighed down by phrases like ‘moral imperatives’ and ‘drowned by the politics of greed.’ This kind of verbosity often alienates less educated listeners, and what’s more, speaking in grand terms of abstract, unnamed entities gives audiences an excuse to distance themselves from the issue. (‘Greedy people should change, then,’ they may think, ‘not me.’)
Thunberg communicates quite differently. She speaks directly to audiences, encouraging them to take personal responsibility. She’s publicly said that her Asperger’s syndrome strongly influences the way she communicates, allowing her to cut through the chaff and focus with clarity on the core issues. She always highlights the work ahead, rather than congratulating us on past milestones. Interestingly, she’s not even particularly optimistic about our future.
But she’s undeniably passionate. She uses short words and phrases, so her language is simple, urgent, and universal – so it’s clearly effective. “I want you to panic,” she says. Long after the speeches are forgotten, phrases like that tend to linger in your head.
2. Her (lack of) profession
Unlike many other activists, Thunberg had no professional life to speak of before 2018. Her work is not a side project, and she’s not using it to further any other platform. For example, skeptics see Leonardo DiCaprio’s activism as part of the ‘DiCaprio brand.’ In other words, he lacks genuine belief but is paying lip service to the cause to enhance his image as a celebrity. It doesn’t help that many other activists are also actors – Hollywood has famously liberal leanings, which means it tends to be an echo chamber, undercutting the message.
However, Thunberg doesn’t make her speeches while accepting unrelated awards. Everything she does is singularly focused on this one issue, and she’s vowed not to be associated with commercial interests. Her family maintains she’s never been paid for her work. This fearlessness, determination, and meteoric rise from obscurity makes her a powerful inspiration for others, making her relatable to a far wider audience.
3. Her lifestyle
Another reason many celebrities aren’t taken seriously is that their rich and powerful lifestyle is often directly at odds with the message they’re trying to communicate. An infamous recent example was Google Camp, which saw celebrities converge to Italy to discuss climate change. Unfortunately, they all did in private jets and boats, creating an 800-tonne carbon footprint. It’s another accusation that’s been leveled at DiCaprio, who frequently travels by private jet.
Meanwhile, Thunberg goes to great lengths to practice what she preaches. A staunch vegan, she recently eschewed flying to New York in favor of sailing there instead and undertakes most international travel by rail. She lives her values – another thing she attributes to her Asperger’s, which doesn’t allow for many shades of grey. This frugal lifestyle puts far more weight behind her words.
4. Her youth
Arguably one of her most powerful attributes is a large part of what got her noticed in the first place. Her eloquence and passion at such a relatively tender age have won her worldwide admiration from adults, but most importantly it also helps her to connect with her peers, who are increasingly more issue-oriented.
Essentially, as a young person on the global political stage, Thunberg is giving a voice to a demographic that often feels marginalized in a wider political conversation. Stay in school; young people are often told. Your time will come one day. But she rejects that narrative, making her an inspiration for everyone’s brothers, sisters, and children, who then advocate for change within their own families. And of course, their unrivaled mastery of social media is also a factor, helping to spread her message to new generations and audiences never like before – including millions of drivers.
The big question, of course, will climate guilt amongst drivers help inspire them to make any meaningful change, or will the small lies be enough to help them cope? For now, that remains to be seen.