Propaganda tool or real 16-year-old?

By Heidi Stevens - Chicago Tribune

A question for the Dinesh D’Souzas of the world, who accuse 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg of being used as a propaganda tool by leftist grown-ups: Have you met 16-year-olds? They don’t do anything grown-ups tell them to do.

D’Souza wrote a tweet recently comparing Thunberg and her signature braids to images used by Nazis to propagate anti-semitism. “Children — notably Nordic white girls with braids and red cheeks — were often used in Nazi propaganda,” he wrote. “An old Goebbels technique!” (Joseph Goebbels was Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda in the ’30s and ’40s.)

Comparing a child to a fascist tool may be a new low even for far-right commentator D’Souza, but he’s not alone in his skepticism of Thunberg, the Swedish high school student credited with raising awareness around the globe about climate change. Politicians and pundits who would prefer to ignore the science she’s spreading often write her off as a mouthpiece for adults.

She’s anything but.

Thunberg is the driving force behind last the recent global climate strike, which students from 163 countries on all seven continents are estimated to have taken part.

She spoke at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York, where a coalition of at least 60 countries were expected to announce plans to reduce planet-warming emissions that are behind extreme heat waves, record numbers of forest fires, flooding and other weather extremes.

“This is all wrong,” Thunberg told the countries gathered. “I shouldn’t be up here. I should be in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you come to us young people for hope. How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

Adults who underestimate the passion and the knowledge and the fortitude of young people are following an old playbook.

Today’s teenagers know we have handed them a mess. A crumbling planet. Endless mass shootings. Gaping wealth inequity. Skyrocketing education costs that threaten their collective financial future.

They know because we’ve also handed them devices to read about it all and talk about it all and organize in the face of it all.

They also know we’ve shown no urgency in our attempts to solve these problems, leaving the problems to fester and grow as we die off and they inherit the earth.

So they’re taking matters into their own hands. That’s not propaganda. That’s action.

“The best science, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, tells us that any temperature rise above 1.5 degrees will lead to major and irreversible damage to the ecosystems that support us,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said ahead of the summit. “Science tells us that on our current path, we face at least 3-degrees Celsius of global heating by the end of the century. … This is not a climate talk summit. We have had enough talk. This is not a climate negotiation summit. You don’t negotiate with nature. This is a climate action summit.”

Thunberg is hoping to get a reluctant United States on board. In an address to Congress last week, she invoked our past glory.

“Americans have indeed made great sacrifices to overcome terrible odds before,” she said. “Think of the brave soldiers that rushed ashore in that first wave on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Think of Martin Luther King and the 600 other civil rights leaders who risked everything to march from Selma to Montgomery. Think of President John F. Kennedy announcing in 1962 that America would ‘choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’”

She knows her subject, and she knows her audience.

Her critics, I suppose, would prefer she fill her time with more conventional trappings of youth. They can’t imagine this climate stuff is her true passion. They can’t imagine she’s this well-spoken, this self-assured, this knowledgeable on her own.

I can’t imagine what world they’re living in. Because in this one, we’ve got big problems. And young people are done waiting around for someone else to solve them.

By Heidi Stevens

Chicago Tribune

Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Reach her at or on Twitter @heidistevens13.

Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Reach her at or on Twitter @heidistevens13.