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Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks into a bullhorn whiles surrounded by other student environmental advocates.
Teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg delivers brief remarks surrounded by other student environmental advocates during a strike to demand action on climate change outside the White House on September 13, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Climate activist Greta Thunberg used her superpower of shaming adults on Senate Democrats

“I know you’re trying, but just not hard enough.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

In a packed room on Capitol Hill Tuesday afternoon, Senate Democrats were fawning over a group of youth climate activists, showering them with praise. “We need your leadership. Young people are the army,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), a co-author of the Green New Deal resolution, told them. “You put a spotlight on this issue in a way there has never been before.”

But Greta Thunberg, the most famous activist of them all, wasn’t having any of it.

“Please save your praise, we don’t want it,” said Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swede who has become the most recognizable and influential face of the youth climate movement. “Don’t invite us here to tell us how inspiring we are without doing anything about it. We don’t want to be invited to these kinds of meetings because, honestly, they don’t lead to anything.”

Thunberg, who has made a habit of reprimanding adults in power on their climate complacency, has learned that the frustration, impatience, and fear of young people for the catastrophic future is a powerful tool. And she used it on Democratic members of the Senate Climate Change Task Force.

At one point, Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) told the assembled activists — which also included members of Fridays for Future, Zero Hour, and US Youth Climate Strike — they’d soon have the opportunity to seek office themselves, bringing more concrete change. Again, Thunberg wasn’t impressed.

Environmental activist Kallan Benson from the group Friday for Futures gives a speech along with other environmental activists on Capitol Hill, on September 17, 2019.
Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images

“We don’t want to become politicians, we don’t want to run for office,” she said. “We want you to unite behind the science. I’m sorry, I know you’re probably trying very hard, and this is not personally to any one of you but generally to everyone. I know you’re trying, but just not hard enough.”

Asked what their timetable was for passing climate legislation, the senators didn’t have many answers. Of course, as Markey told Thunberg and others, Democrats don’t have a lot of say right now because they don’t have a majority in the US Senate and don’t control the White House. And President Donald Trump is a climate denier who is trying to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement.

The meeting ultimately revealed a riveting dynamic playing out right now in climate politics: With their hands tied by Republicans in power, the adults are looking to youth activists to create pressure. Meanwhile, the youth are saying to everyone in power, you need to do much, much more at every level of government.

Thunberg has pressured European politicians successfully. Can she do the same thing here?

If putting extreme pressure on politicians is the modus operandi of the youth climate movement, Greta Thunberg is a master of it.

Thunberg’s superpower appears to be shaming adults. The teenager’s direct, stern rhetoric in the US Senate Tuesday is similar to what she’s told politicians in Europe. Thunberg, who has Asperger’s, has calmly been excoriating the most powerful people in Europe, in settings ranging from British Parliament to the UN Climate Change COP24 Conference to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.
Greta Thunberg attends a Senate Climate Change Task Force meeting on Capitol Hill, on September 17, 2019.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

“Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful; I want you to panic,” Thunberg said during her January speech in Davos. “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act, I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire, because it is.”

She has gotten results in Europe as well, as New York magazine’s David Wallace-Wells wrote:

In February, the president of the European Commission committed to spending fully a quarter of the E.U. budget on climate mitigation over seven years, following a meeting with her. And shortly after she visited the British Parliament, its Conservative majority voted to declare a climate emergency, then promised it would zero out on its carbon emissions by 2050 (and this amid the long, consuming drama of Brexit).

Now, Thunberg is trying to do the same thing in the US, during a complicated time for the country on climate. On the one hand, President Trump announced he would pull the country out of the Paris climate agreement shortly after taking office, and his administration has gone about replacing former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan with one that will cause US carbon emissions to rise.

At the same time, youth are infusing the climate movement in the US (and beyond) with more energy than it’s had in decades. Activists from Sunrise are putting new pressure on Democrats to pass sweeping climate change legislation if they can take back the Senate and White House in 2020. This Friday, thousands of young people across the globe will walk out of their jobs and schools to bring attention to climate change and call on politicians to act.

A young person holds a sign over their head that reads, “DNCowards.”
Members of the Sunrise Movement hubs from across New York state gathered for a rally outside of New York’s DNC headquarters on August 13, 2019.
Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Thunberg, who will lead the Global Climate Strikes on September 20 and 27, arrived in New York in late August, after making the trek across the ocean on a zero-emissions sailboat as a way to forgo air travel. She’s on Capitol Hill on Tuesday and Wednesday to meet with politicians including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and will give a speech in front of Congress on Wednesday.

She’s being joined by her American counterparts in youth climate activism. Groups like the Sunrise Movement are growing in prominence and becoming a force to be reckoned with in American politics. Through protests and direct action, Sunrise is trying to force the hand of US politicians on climate. With Trump in the White House, they’re pinning their hopes on the 2020 presidential elections.

As Sen. Ed Markey told Thunberg, Democrats in Congress can’t currently take much meaningful action; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to oppose a Green New Deal, a resolution of principles to guide the US to carbon neutrality by 2030, turning the country into a global leader of renewable energy.

“We have to live with the fact we lost the election in 2016 to Donald Trump, that we don’t control the US Senate,” Markey said. “We have to flip the Senate, hold onto the House, and get rid of Donald Trump. In January 2021, you will see a cascade of legislation.”

If Thunberg’s visit was any indication, Markey and Senate Democrats will likely face intense questioning from activists on what that legislation will look like — and whether they have a specific plan for how to get it done.

Listen to Today, Explained

In just one week, she inspired global protests, mean-mugged President Trump, and chastised world leaders at the United Nations. David Wallace-Wells, editor at New York magazine, explains the rise of Greta Thunberg.

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