OPN Greta Thunberg-1570624460309
Climate change environmental activist Greta Thunberg joins Red Cloud Indian School student and activist Tokata Iron Eyes at a youth panel in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, United States, on October 6, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

Political leaders around the globe have celebrated the 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg — but can they handle her as she and her supporters turn more radical? The protests launched in big cities worldwide by the environmental campaign group Extinction Rebellion are a first test.

Extinction Rebellion, like Thunberg, wants governments to treat climate change as an emergency and to take urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The group blocks traffic at cities’ busiest intersections. In Berlin on Tuesday, police broke up their day-long occupation of a central square, Potsdamer Platz, but hundreds of protesters continued to hold another area, around the city’s Victory Column. Throughout Europe and in Sydney, Australia, hundreds of protesters have been arrested for disrupting traffic.

Thunberg supports the radical action; on Tuesday, she retweeted Extinction Rebellion’s call on “rebels” to “stay strong.”

In London, where more than 300 arrests took place, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was highly unsympathetic toward the protesters — and dismissive of Thunberg. Speaking at the launch of a Margaret Thatcher biography, he said:

Thunberg may be personally fine with her growing status as a polarising figure. But polarisation tends to turn nasty very fast.

- Leonid Bershidsky

I hope that when we go out from this place tonight and we are waylaid by importunate nose-ringed climate change protesters we remind them that [Thatcher] was also right about greenhouse gases. And she took it seriously long before Greta Thunberg. And the best thing possible for the education of the denizens of the heaving hemp-smelling bivouacs that now litter Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park, the best thing would be for them to stop blocking the traffic and buy a copy of Charles’ magnificent book so that they can learn about a true feminist, green and revolutionary who changed the world for the better.

Thatcher, who had a chemistry degree, was indeed an early supporter of climate science. But it’s more important that Johnson has added his voice to a virtual chorus of leaders who appear to have had enough of Thunberg since her angry speech at the United Nations last month, with “how dare you” as a refrain.

At the milder end of the reaction spectrum, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has disagreed with Thunberg about the urgency of radical climate action, saying technological advances would give humanity some extra time. French President Emmanuel Macron criticised Thunberg for “radical positions” that, he said, would only “antagonise” our societies, and said the environmentally aware governments of France and Germany aren’t the ones she should be attacking.

Gives as good as she gets

At the harsher end, US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have been mocking and condescending. In contemptuous acknowledgement, Thunberg changed her Twitter profile. “A very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future,” it read, repeating the language of Trump’s sarcastic tweet. And after Putin described her as a clueless victim of adult manipulation, the bio temporarily changed to “a kind but poorly informed teenager.”

Thunberg clearly is capable of giving as good as she gets. The question is, however, whether her combativeness helps or hurts her cause. At some point in recent weeks, she appears to have crossed the line between eliciting sympathy and emanating menace. Many national leaders see it as their job to do as much for the environment as is politically feasible and economically reasonable; they don’t take kindly to anyone who won’t give them high marks for effort.

There’s a clear line, too, between the Fridays for Future school strikes Thunberg started and Extinction Rebellion. Cutting school for the climate may have struck some parents as wrong, but it was easy to sympathise with children speaking up for their future. Street blockages by adult activists are a public nuisance that leave most people cold. That’s why police, who didn’t disrupt the Fridays for Future demonstrations, are breaking up these protests.

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Thunberg may be personally fine with her growing status as a polarising figure. But polarisation tends to turn nasty very fast. In Rome, someone hanged Thunberg’s effigy off a bridge, horrifying the mayor and other Italian officials. That goes far beyond disagreeing with the concept of climate change as an emergency.

Youthful idealism is often inflexible, and it’s not really about getting results. Thunberg has, at times, seemed different from the typical youthful rebel: She has carefully kept to the scientific consensus in her public utterances, and she’s emphasised working toward goals set out in a political document, the Paris agreement on climate. That discipline has helped her get her message out as effectively as few activists have ever done.

A little more acknowledgement that sympathetic politicians are at least trying to do something right, and a little less support for radicals, would perhaps disappoint some of Thunberg’s more hot-headed supporters. That, however, is likely the way to keep her message politically relevant and to get moderate votes for Green parties, which are most likely to advance the climate agenda. Otherwise, activism in support of Thunberg’s message could degenerate into the incoherence of antiglobalist protests, which have been loud and disruptive, but haven’t led to any meaningful change.

— Bloomberg

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist.