The demographics of climate breakdown are stark. Not just the obvious north-south divide where those in parts of the world already facing the daily reality of climate crisis aren’t afforded the bougie luxury of “scepticism”, but the awful process of an inter-generational legacy handed down by a society unwilling to face the truth.
The unlikely figure of Greta Thunberg has through quiet integrity inspired her School Strike movement to morph and gain momentum. Now, the news that the strikes are spreading to Britain has provoked a cacophony of protest from the climate science denial network.
Characters like Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail, Ross Clark and Andrew Montford in the Spectator and others have taken to their media pulpits to bully, smear and attack Thunberg, a child, and try and undermine people like seventeen year-old Anna Taylor.
Rather than ask what it's like growing up in a world that's failing your generation so badly, or to congratulate these young people showing the sort of courage and leadership conspicuous by its absence in most political circles, these commentators have gone on the attack.
Seemingly incapable of recognising the irony of an agent of disinformation moaning about spin, Montford writes:
“Swedish journalist Henrik Alexandersson has claimed that Thunberg’s much-touted speech to the Katowice summit was actually delivered to an almost empty hall – perhaps unsurprising given that she was speaking near the end of the day. Yet it was hard to tell this from the film of her speech – which went viral – which only showed close-ups of her face, a shot of the stage and a brief sequence of an apparently appreciative crowd.”
“Nevertheless, it was this apparently inauspicious event that propelled Thunberg to worldwide fame.”
Then – ignoring the fact he is talking about a child – he continues: “The Thunberg phenomenon began as the unlikely story of a young girl with strong views falling unsuspecting into the limelight. Her strange garb and piercing gaze added to the mystique.”
“But now, the ‘Wizard of Oz’ outfits and the pigtails look to be less odd and more calculated: the careful packaging of a product so that it gets noticed rather than an unusual penchant for 1950s fashion. What we have seen is surely an example of marketing genius rather than a miraculous stroke of luck.”
Setting aside for a moment the ethics of attacking a child, we can note a heightened state of alert among the climate denying networks as the reality of the IPCC report lands in the public consciousness.
Ross Clark, in the same publication, talks of the “pig-tailed 16-year-old Greta Thunberg – the Sound of Music extra who made a speech at Davos last month” before declaring:
“I know what I would do if I were a headteacher: schedule a science test for Friday, which obliges pupils to sift through the evidence in a balanced way and requires them to consider the economic consequences of efforts to cut carbon emissions, so that they understand the complexity of the issues.”
“If pupils want to snub it in order to go chanting on the streets, fine, but if they do it should be made clear to them that they should not expect to be offered a place in the sixth form, because they will have failed to demonstrate an aptitude for education.”
To de-code that for those of us not subsumed in this level of denial, it translates as saying ‘succumb to my economic ideology or get chucked out of school’.
There are echoes of Donald Trump Jnr’s speech in El Paso Texas this week where he said: ‘”I love seeing some young conservatives because I know it's not easy. Keep up that fight. Bring it to your schools. You don't have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers that are trying to sell you in socialism from birth.”
Such messages are no doubt music to the ears of the “educational charity” the Institute of Economic Affairs, which sends its materials to schools while also lobbying for a hard Brexit on the side (and getting censured by the Charity Commission for doing so in the process).
If Clark and Montford are coalescing at the climate denial network’s newspoint, the Spectator, Richard Littlejohn is losing it over at the Daily Mail.
He writes: “on Friday a mass walk-out by thousands of children is scheduled to take place in 40 towns and cities, including Cardiff, Glasgow, Exeter and Brighton. The strike is modelled on similar demonstrations elsewhere in Europe.”
“They are being egged on by the usual Rag, Tag and Bobtail army of self-styled, middle-class ‘green’ militants, including the 51-year-old son of Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren, who once burned £5 million worth of punk memorabilia during a protest about … actually, who cares what it was about? He’s so pretty, oh, so pretty, vay-cant!”
Not content with targeting a child with pigtails, Littlejohn is going for that classic middle-England bug-bear: anyone that dares indulge in an ‘alternative’ lifestyle.
Littlejohn offers a sort of sub-genre for a generation of people who are terminally confused by climate realities. He rails:
“Other ‘activists’ urging pupils to strike include a former turtle conservationist and 57-year-old fanatical Remain supporter, who is planning to set up soup kitchens to feed the starving after Brexit.”
“In other words, the same kind of lunatics who delight in bringing airports to a standstill with sit-down protests and shutting London bridges during rush hour.”
Ah yes, Extinction Rebellion - a new campaign group that has drawn incredible levels of ire from these circles in record quick time – better lump them in with this for good measure. He continues:
“You’d expect these headbangers to be all in favour of brainwashing schoolkids and encouraging them to strike. What you might not expect is to find the National Association of Head Teachers supporting the action.”
And the unions! Full house. Despite the fact that the NAHT has categorically stated that it does not support students leaving school to go to the protests.
But it’s not over:
“You can’t blame the kids for teachers filling their heads with politically motivated drivel. I’m sure most of them would welcome any excuse to skip lessons for a few hours, especially if it can be dressed up as saving the polar bears.”
“But, in plain English, what this boils down to is adults encouraging impressionable children, some as young as nine, to play truant. And if parents can be punished for taking children out of school, then why can’t those we entrust to act in loco parentis? Maybe the courts could sequester the funds of the NAHT to pay a £60 penalty for each and every pupil who joins the walk-out. They did it to the print unions during the Wapping dispute.”
That’s right, Richard. Make the unions pay! Wait, what were we talking about again?
Apart from the bizarre prose and seemingly slipping grasp on reality, these articles also share one thing in common: At no point do they address any substantial facts around the ecological crisis we now face. Not once.
The splenetic outbursts of the climate science denial networks are depressingly predictable.
But the response is not ubiquitous. Writing in the Scotsman Joyce McMillan notes:
“Two things, though, now represent a waste of time that we absolutely cannot afford. One is the deliberate breaking of international and inter-cultural solidarity at a moment when we can only succeed if we act together, as a species, to save our biological home; destructive processes like Britain’s confused and reactionary Brexit, or the defiant election of climate-change deniers like Donald Trump and new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, represent rebellions against reality that fritter away precious years in childish and vicious political distractions.”
“And the other is the burned-out neoliberal ideology which suggests that strong government is a bad thing, and that it should stand back and let markets do their work. If one thing is clear, it’s that markets in their present form are not capable either of taking the long global view climate action requires, or of initiating the rapid and decisive change of economic model that will be necessary, if we are to leave the age of carbon behind in the next decade or two.”
“Because if there is one thing we seem about to learn again, in the age of climate crisis, it’s that politics is anything but a game; and that those who seek to weaken our systems of government now, at national, international or global level, are not only risking the lives of billions, but also playing roulette with the future of life itself, on what is still our miraculous blue planet.”
And there have been other supportive voices in the media. In the Times, Alice Thomson writes:
“School pupils striking over climate change are part of a generation that’s determined, articulate and well informed.”
And over at Buzzfeed News Zahra Hirji and Pascale Mueller write: “A huge student protest movement led almost exclusively by teenage girls and young women is sweeping Europe, and it's on the brink of breaking through in the US.”
So, is there a gendered element to the climate debate? In this instance, the gender-divide within the media between supportive and critical voices is stark – as well as simply observing who it is taking a stand on the ground.
If anyone were tempted to dismiss the actions of these girls and women as a sideshow, it's worth remembering that in Leuven, Belgium’s eighth-largest city, there were 12,000 people on the streets in one of many actions organised by the climate strike activists across the country. And at a climate march last weekend in Brussels in - say it quietly lest Littljohn explode - Brussels drew more than 100,000 people.
One of the country’s environment ministers even resigned this week after falsely claiming intelligence services had told her the protests were a plot against her.
Leadership is coming at last: it’s coming from girls and women and children, it’s coming from Europe, and it’s coming fast. The old guard are left spluttering in these kids’ wake, and are looking increasingly like a parody of themselves in the process.
Mike Small is the Founder and Editor of Bella Caledonia. He was DeSmog UK's Deputy Editor from March to December 2018, and continues to contribute to the publication.
Image: Avaaz/Flickr CC0. Updated 14/02/19: A sentence clarifying the NAHT's position was added.