Climate change deniers struggle to attack scientists that stay out of the public eye or the abstract notion of climate change. They can target Greta, a physical embodiment of the climate change movement and keep the discussion centred on her instead of the policy and science of climate change.
In putting herself at the forefront of the movement, she provides right-wing commentators and climate deniers with a physical human to attack and undermine. This allows them to control the debate and pull the narrative away from the science and keep it squarely focused on her.
As long as Greta is the face of the climate crisis, climate change deniers can keep the narrative away from the science. We only have to look at media coverage in the wake of her speech at the UN Climate Change summit. Commentators and journalists ploughed into intricate discussion of her mannerisms, her family, her background, her hair, her eating habits, her preferred modes of transport, and her immovable gaze. Discussion around the policies and science of climate change was noticeably absent. As soon as a social movement builds up a leader, it creates a distraction. It creates a bullseye on which opponents can focus the discussion, detracting from the mission and keeping the underlying concerns out of the public eye. The protestors in Hong Kong have adopted the “be like water” mantra. They are everywhere and nowhere. They are a faceless blob navigating the city, causing unparalleled disruption and keeping the public focus transfixed on their five demands. The climate change movement might benefit from adopting a similar approach. By keeping leaders like Greta from emerging, they can keep the narrative focused on the objectives.
There are two reasons why Greta’s leadership of the youth climate movement is not a distraction, but a positive mobilising force. One stems from her message, and the other from the nature of global protest movements. Firstly, in Greta’s message, she explicitly refrains from endorsing any political ideology or policy initiative. Her entire message is basically, “don’t listen to me, I’m a kid, read what the scientists are saying.” During her congressional testimony in the US, she deferred to the IPCC special report on global warming. “I do not want you to listen to me,” she said, “I want you to listen to the science.” This deference to science makes Greta’s role as a leader of the climate crisis as unobtrusive as possible. Rather than a guiding force, she is a spotlight, drawing attention to the best available united science. It is true that critics and commentators will focus on mundane details like her appearance and mannerisms to detract from her message, but this is not a result of her being a distractive presence in the movement. It is a result of a concerted effort of climate change deniers to keep the attention on anything but the available science. The second reason why Greta’s emergence as the face of the climate crisis is not a distraction but a driving force for the movement comes from the nature of social movements. The Hong Kong protests have been successful in building a movement without leaders. However, this was not to keep the focus maintained on their demands and to avoid distraction. It was to keep the authorities from rounding up the leaders and imprisoning them, thus leaving the movement fractured and disjointed. In fact, the movement’s lack of a figurehead or public-facing figure is now holding it back. The movement has no narrative or arcing story. The protests themselves are not a story. For a movement to be successful and sustain attention, it needs someone to verbalize the struggle and to hold the international media’s attention. Without a leader to tell a story, the movement becomes nothing more than a wishlist of demands; media attention fades and, ultimately, change remains beyond the movement’s reach.  Greta is able to give the youth movement a narrative. Her calls of “this is all wrong,” and “I should be in school,” give the protests context and a narrative. This narrative draws more people to the movement and holds the world’s attention. It prevents the context being drowned out by the noise of the protests. The news cycle is fleeting. Protests can only sustain attention if there are developments. Without Greta as a face, the school strikes would have faded from the front pages as soon as they started. With Greta, the movement has a face that can sustain global attention. Her exploits like sailing across the Atlantic in a yacht, speaking at Davos and staring down Donald Trump all provide opportunities to put the cause back on the front pages and renew the conversation around climate change. In this sense, far from a distraction, Greta is part of the reason why the movement enjoys sustained coverage.
[P1] Once a movement has a leader, they become the focal point. [P2] This takes the attention away from the cause or in this case, the science. [P3] Therefore, Greta is a distraction from the core issue of our warming planet.
[Rejecting P2] It doesn't take the attention away, it sustains it. [Rejecting P3] Greta is not a distraction but a beacon to attract attention to the movement and sustain momentum.