Should Greta Thunberg's climate change message be taught to elementary school students?

The Swedish activist Greta Thunberg speaks in Piazza Castello during the Friday for future in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Alberto Gandolfo/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

What’s happening

Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg has become a household name for her relentless efforts to campaign for stronger action against global warming. The 16-year-old has brought her message for bold change across the world, attracting large rallies in every city where she speaks. Her action is inspiring others of all ages to do what they can in their communities. But some are critical of her as the face of the movement and the messages she’s trying to get across.

Why there’s debate

Some feel that Thunberg is too young to be a crusader for such an enormous issue as climate change, and are critical that someone who hasn’t even finished high school has taken on such a call to action. One mother was concerned when her eight-year-old daughter came home from a school presentation on climate change, which featured a speech by Thunberg, along with a countdown carbon clock that counts down from eight years — the estimated amount of time it will take to emit enough carbon to warm the world by 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change. Lejla Blazevic told the National Post that her daughter Joylaea came home terrified that the world was going to end in that short time span. “They were terrified with the information,” she told the outlet. 

Charles Pascal is a professor of human development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He says that how we talk to kids about climate change has to be well thought out. And while the subject can be terrifying, ignoring it will lead to larger problems. 

“Kids are going to hear from many sources so it’s best not to avoid it,” he tells Yahoo Canada. “The best thing to do is be proactive with children, starting from home. We need more parents and educators to model the good things that can be done that can ensure a high quality environment today and tomorrow.” 

What’s next

After spending much of the year travelling by boat and train around the world to speak at climate change protests and marches, Thunberg is back in Sweden. It doesn’t look like she’s slowing down either. On Friday, she attended a climate strike outside Swedish parliament. She told Swedish news agency TT that she hopes to inspire more people to take action. 

“Perhaps it also means that the word climate activist is no longer seen as a belligerent word and that more people are praised,” she said.

Perspectives

Pros:

She’s an inspiration

“Ms. Thunberg saw plainly that most of us were content with avoiding reality, condemning her generation and those after it to a doomed planet. So she chose to act, and in doing so she gave the movement a face and a future. When millions of children and young people around the world joined her call to take to the streets for a week of global climate action at the end of September, it was a sight to behold.” - Darren Aronofsky, The New York Times

Her message is important for everyone

“So there’s nothing childish about 16-year-old Thunberg’s campaign, except perhaps for the way some have used it to create a distracting game of generational warfare.” - Faye Flam, Bloomberg

She is an effective communicator 

“As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I was inspired by her ability to state facts that most of us have had difficulty acknowledging and to express feelings that many of us have suppressed.”  - Ray Hearey, San Francisco Chronicle 

Cons:

Thunberg’s age is a gimmick

“Normally Ms. Thunberg would be unqualified to debate in a democratic forum. Since a 16-year-old is not a legally responsible adult, she cannot be robustly criticized and, even leaving aside her self-description as autistic, Ms. Thunberg is a complicated adolescent. Intellectually, she is precocious and subtle. She reasons like a well-read but dogmatic student radical in her 20s. Physically, she is diminutive and fresh-faced, comes off as younger than her years, and frequently refers to herself as a “child” — about the last thing the average 16-year-old would ever do.” - Christopher Caldwell, The New York Times

Her age should not disqualify her from criticism 

“Some of the criticism of Thunberg, such as Trump’s trolling, has been petty and some has been downright offensive, such as a Fox News guest’s description of Thunberg as a “mentally ill Swedish child.” But giving Thunberg a blanket exception to criticism because she’s “only a kid” is just as patronizing as dismissing her arguments because of her youth.” - Michael McGough, Miami Herald 

She’s become a false idol

“Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, tours the world like an atheistic St. Joan of Arc, high priestess of the evangelizing religion of climatism, transmitting her Revelation.” - Conrad Black, National Post