By Catherine Happer
Researchers working in the field of climate change communications have, for many years, been confronted with what is sometimes referred to as the ‘persistent conundrum’ (Moser and Dilling 2007) that in spite of widespread recognition of the seriousness of climate change, there has not been any sustained public demand for action. As the science increasingly consolidated, and outright denialism waned, it remained broadly the same: people care about climate change, but compared with issues such as immigration and the economy they don’t care that much. It hasn’t been a powerful electoral issue, and protests have been unremarkable and unremarked upon.
In the last few months however we’re finally seeing the kind of concerted mobilisation around the issue that has been so mystifyingly absent in the West. And it’s been led by someone the Daily Mail has described as ‘the world’s unlikeliest strike leader’: Greta Thunberg,‘a 16-year-old pig-tailed Swedish schoolgirl’ who began her own school climate strike and has inspired more than a million people across the globe to follow her. Since 1989 the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child has made real progress in challenging the public perception of children as ‘passive’ and asserting them as competent and independent holders of rights. However, the media discourse around the global climate strike and Thunberg’s ‘unlikeliness’ has betrayed the continuing power of a set of historic constructions of ‘the child’ and ‘childhood’ which strip children of social and political agency and which here serve the rightwing agenda on climate.
In this, the discussion around Greta and the strikers resonates with the public discourse around youth and media, which is founded on perceptions of childhood that society continues to hold dear however misaligned with the contemporary experience they may be. These ideas emerged in the period of Enlightenment, in part due to Rousseau’s re-visioning of the child as good and pure, as yet untouched by society – ‘the child’ here is defined by its essential innocence located in a world of play, a corollary of which is that children should be kept from the adult world which may corrupt that essence (James et al 1998). All emerging forms of media from novels to social media have to different degrees been implicated in attacks on ‘childhood’, often used more generally as a signifier for the state of society. In spite of decades of scholarship from experts such as Sonia Livingstone and David Buckingham which shows the very sophisticated media literacy many children possess, the public perception remains that children are especially vulnerable to corruption by media in all forms and that they are somehow inadequate in processing information.
In many ways Thunberg offers a gift to those wishing to draw on these discourses by her choice (we have to assume) to wear her hair in pigtails, which along with scraped knees, epitomise childhood in the West. They are referenced in almost every report about her – symbolic of her unreadiness for the task. In the mainstream media, this is accompanied by a resistance to use the word ‘strike’. Instead she and her co-strikers are ‘skipping school’, ‘truanting’ or ‘bunking off’ with their ‘home made signs’ in a consistent relocation of the action to the playground and out of the political arena. In The Telegraph, free schools champion, Toby Young, commented: ‘calling this a strike is ridiculous. What are they going to do? Down pencils?’ while the Spectator suggested the children would be better off ‘picking up litter, which would really do something for the environment’, at once trivialising the action and emphasising children’s lack of social agency. The media discourse was also echoed by members of the government who expressed concerns about ‘wasting lesson time’ (to which, Thunberg without hesitation, tweeted back: That may well be the case. But then again, political leaders have wasted 30 years of inaction. And that is slightly worse).
At the root of these arguments remain these age old constructions about the corrupted child, not fully in charge of their own decision-making. An opinion piece in The Telegraph generously offered support ‘providing these pint-sized protestors know what, exactly, they are shouting about’. In Oxford, a headteacher who insisted pupils could only strike if they answered a set of questions on the environment was also widely applauded. Children taken in by this ‘crude propaganda is an argument for raising the voting age to 21, not lowering it to 16’ (one of the strikers demands) argued the Spectator.
Moving to the extremes of the rightwing, the language becomes ever more ideological. Delingpole in Breitbart argues:
‘their frontal lobes have yet to form: they are irrational and impulsive [ ] they have very limited experience of the real world (nor of its responsibilities) and what little they do know about it is largely dependent on what they’ve been fed by their teachers’.
Children here are not fully developed social beings, and outside of the world of rational decision-making. They are not just ‘wrongheaded’ but also potentially ‘dangerous’ in the face of a corrupted force, in this case, the climate science which rightwing groups such as the Koch brothers have spent billions trying to delegitimise. These arguments perhaps not surprisingly gain real traction on social media where everything is amplified both in sentiment and tone.
The Brexit process may serve as a very good reminder of just how rational and deliberative adult society in the West currently is. But not only have the children led by Greta outplayed the adults with their wit and insight in response to these accusations – they are on strike because they have done their homework- but there is a clear rationality in their embracing of the climate cause. Research has shown that one of the main reasons for disengagement is climate’s perceived remoteness and this is as much about temporality as geography (Leiserowitz et al., 2012). For children who are positioned as ‘becoming’ people, whose significance lies in the future, what would make more sense than taking on guardianship of the issue which is going to impact our future more than any other?
James, A., Jenks, C. and Prout, A. (1998) Theorizing Childhood, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Leiserowitz A, Maibach E, Roser-Renouf C, et al. (2012) Climategate, public opinion, and the loss of trust. Working Paper. American Behavioral Scientist. Available at: http://environment.yale.edu/climate-communication/article/climategate-public-opinion-and-the-loss-of-trust
Moser S. C and Dilling L. (2007) Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Catherine Happer is a Lecturer in Sociology, member of the Glasgow University Media Group and co-chair of Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA) Scotland. Her research interests include media and communications, social change, and public engagement on climate change. Her doctoral research examined the social construction of childhood and its relation to media engagement. She is co-author of Communicating Climate Change and Energy Security: New Methods in Understanding Audiences (Routledge, 2013) and co-editor of Trump’s Media War (Palgrave, 2018).
This post was first published in April 2019.