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The Greta, Trump & AOC Effects

A list member writes in response to my column yesterday about whether Greta Thunberg has made it safe to use science as a trump card again (I quote from it below, with permission):

To your question, “has she changed the rules?” The answer is no. But the rules have changed and she made us aware of that change.

Trump revealed a change too in the political sphere that those in both parties who were sophisticated and educated in their communications failed to perceive or foresee. I expect now to see more anti-climate figures arise in the same vein as Greta. Think of how AOC and “The Squad” shifted the platform of the Democratic party along with Warren and Sanders way left in order to counter the communication style of Trump.

When I was in high school in the late 1980s, I was made aware of the cancer-causing effects of second-hand smoke, probably by some study (in mice!) referenced on the nightly news.

Both of my parents smoked indoors—my dad several packs a day and my mom a pack. They were well aware of how bad cigarette smoking was to their own health, yet chose not to stop.

When I heard the study I remember angrily confronting them saying, “You are going to kill me if you don’t quit smoking.” The week after I confronted my parents, both my mom and dad quit smoking. My mom has never smoked again and cites my “making her feel guilty about killing me” as the reason she quit. My dad lasted about a year and then went back to smoking, but only outside when I wasn’t around.

Sometimes a “body” communicates a truth much better than data or the nuanced, civilized approaches advocated by Boykoff. It helps if that “body” is a child or a credible witness (like Greta or my teenage self). But even a credible witness to truth isn’t always necessary as long as that person can convey feelings and emotions which resonate with the listener (like Trump). Mass public opinion on the US’s involvement in Vietnam didn’t turn negative until this photograph was published of a burned child running down the street after a napalm attack. There are many more examples that you can think of too in modern times where a shocking photo moved the needle of public opinion significantly.

These “shocks to the system” delivered by people like Greta rarely move the needle for those on the extreme sides of a debate. They absolutely move the needle for everyone in the center.

This analysis rings far truer to me than anything else I’ve read on the Greta Effect — most of which has been dull climate hawk score-settling about why she annoys right-wing commentators so much. To situate the Greta Effect in the same context in which the Trump Effect (and the AOC Effect) can thrive…that’s genius.

The door having been opened by my list member, allow me to go through it: the Greta/Trump/AOC Effect(s) aren’t simply about conveying emotions that resonate with certain audiences, but providing those audiences with pathways to declare and confirm with others identities that they otherwise conceal. Greta, Trump and AOC liberate secret identities — often secret to the people who have them before the liberators appear.

What’s the secret identity that the Greta Effect liberates? Identification with one’s legacy. Yes, she and her colleagues are giving voice to younger generations to demand they be left with a workable world. But her real power is her confrontation of adults with their latent shame (in a world they might feel has already gone off the rails) about the world they might be leaving their descendants. Greta names and blames and thus concentrates and accelerates shame, in keeping with her role as child warrior/truth teller, Joan of Arc or the child in the street in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” (According to multiple accounts, she has shamed her parents into going vegan and her mother into no longer flying to her gigs as an opera singer.)

“The center” (those adults) are now free to recognize and identify with their own shame and begin to act on it, to confirm their identity as responsible antecedents. (As with my dinner guest from yesterday’s column, who is now driving to work only one day a week “because of Greta.”) Damien Pollard in The Conversation argues that even Thunberg’s voice — her reluctance to use it, as well as its youthful quality — heightens her impact as an oracle announcing emergency and chastising previous generations as responsible for that emergency.

In a weird way, the Greta Effect both validates and invalidates science communication:

  • Shame would be impossible without some prior understanding of culpability. That sense of culpability has been laid down by decades of communication about climate science — and decades of inaction on it.
  • But mere “science communication” was not nearly enough to take us over the line into sufficient action. (And it might not still be enough) It required the Greta Effect — an “embodied” avatar to activate our shame and identification with our legacy.

This analysis also explains why The Greta Effect is so infuriating to conservatives. It’s not simply that she’s the face of a new global populist movement for climate action; it’s that children talking back to parents, inducing shame about the future, is antithetical and deeply threatening to a hierarchical mindset.

And it means Greta Thunberg better hurry, because — at age 16 — the outsize authority she has rests on her remaining a child.