Editorial: Stop killing the messenger

Photo by Maura O'Reily

On Aug. 28, Greta Thunberg, just 16 years old, set foot on New York City soil. Opting not to travel by plane in order to embody her message of limiting our reliance on fossil fuels, she sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in a zero-emissions yacht for a two-week-long voyage that reflected her commitment to climate change activism. 

Since her arrival in New York City, Thunberg has been taking the world by storm. This inspired an International Climate Strike last Friday, Sept. 20, leading over four million people around the globe to take to the streets and demand action against climate change. Her movement culminated in a passionate speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in NYC on Monday.

But while Thunberg has managed to spark outrage and activism, the criticism that has followed her carries echoes of the past — a past filled with institutions and those in power ridiculing climate change activists like Thunberg for being blunt in their rhetoric about how dire the state of the planet really is.

It happened to Rachel Carson, the environmentalist and author of Silent Spring, in 1962, when she opened our eyes to the harm of filling the planet with pesticides like DDT. 

Carson was taken seriously and her work was respected. But she was also vilified and humiliated by those threatened by her message. Former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson called her a “spinster” and noted that she was “probably a communist.” And an executive of the American Cyanamid Company warned that “if man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” 

So it’s no surprise that Thunberg was personally attacked as well. Following her fiery speech to world leaders, exclaiming that “we are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” President Donald Trump mocked her passion and her enthusiasm, sarcastically tweeting that “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” Michael Knowles, a guest speaker on Fox News, called her “a mentally ill Swedish child.”

With decades in between Carson and Thunberg, the tactic remains the same. It is easier to attack the messenger than to actually confront the message. But these attacks don’t change the message itself — or its paramount urgency.

The climate is changing, and in the words of Thunberg, “I am just a messenger, and yet I get all this hate. I am not saying anything new, I am just saying what scientists have repeatedly said for decades… since almost no one is doing anything, and our very future is at risk, we feel like we have to continue.”

This is an updated version of the article. An earlier version incorrectly noted that the International Climate Strikes were held on Saturday, Sept. 24, when the correct date is actually Friday, Sept. 20.

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