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How are political leaders and celebrities exploiting climate activists?

Environmental activist Greta Thunberg has criticised leaders and celebrities for using her image for their own self-gain. “People just want to stand next to me and other climate activists”, says Thunberg, “they can post it on social media, and it makes them look good, it makes them seem like they care.”

With over 10 million Instagram followers and 4 million Twitter followers, Thunberg has become a symbol of the younger generation’s climate consciousness. However, she is unfortunately not only being seen as an inspirational enactor of change – she is also being viewed by politicians and influencers as a means through which to elevate their own status.

As part of a current series for Swedish radio, Thunberg discussed feeling “used” by influential figures, even describing a queue of leaders waiting to take a selfie with her, following her speech at the UN Climate Summit in September 2019. 

Environmental activist Greta Thunberg has criticised leaders and celebrities for using her image for their own self-gain

It was revealed that Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, was amongst those leaders waiting in line for a photo opportunity. Yet Merkel’s actions following the Summit were widely labelled by climate activists as lacklustre – she proposed an end to coal mining in Germany by 2038. Such an unambitious timeframe is far from in harmony with Thunberg’s sense of urgency regarding the climate crisis.

In her powerfully emotional speech, Thunberg lambasted political leaders for their “empty words” and “betrayal” of young people. Rather than reflect upon her words, politicians decided to form a queue for a photo opportunity. This is a stark reminder that those in power are still failing to recognise the severity of the climate crisis. Indeed, Thunberg reflects that “it seemed as if they had forgotten for a moment to be ashamed that their generation had let future generations down.”

Thunberg initially started striking from school every Friday, sitting outside the Swedish parliament to protest the inaction of world leaders in combatting the climate crisis. This brought her worldwide media attention and turned ‘School Strikes for Climate’ into a global movement. 

In her powerfully emotional speech, Thunberg lambasted political leaders for their “empty words” and “betrayal” of young people

However, it would appear that many leaders were not ready to take heed of her message. When the movement first started to gain traction in the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister at the time, Theresa May, criticised the schoolchildren who participated in strikes. Downing Street stated: “it is important to emphasise that disruption increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time”. The former Prime Minister has also stated that the United Kingdom “can be truly proud of our record in tackling climate change”, reflecting a complete disregard for the sense of anger and frustration expressed by climate activists.

Political leaders have consistently overlooked and undermined Thunberg’s movement when it suited them, particularly using the young age of protesters as an excuse to ignore the issue. Yet they leap at the opportunity for a photo with the activist… These double standards reflect that people in power are exploiting the movement and the person behind it, purely for personal gain.

Whilst climate change awareness has soared in recent years and played a more significant role in politics, the speed at which combative action is being taken simply isn’t comparable to the rate at which the planet is being destroyed.

Political leaders have consistently overlooked and undermined Thunberg’s movement when it suited them

Indeed, Thunberg writes that her book, ‘No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference’, is a “cry for help… To all the influencers who stand up for everything except the climate and the environment. To all the political parties that pretend to take the climate question seriously… To all of you who choose to look the other way.”

With the influence of social media ever-increasing, performative activism is becoming a concerningly widespread issue – and one from which political leaders and celebrities are far from exempt. It has become trendy to care about environmental justice. Yet viewing the movement as merely a trend to be seen supporting for personal gain is arguably even more damaging than not supporting it at all.

It is no secret that the lifestyles of the wealthy and privileged are contributing disproportionately to the climate crisis. Now that it has become a trend to support climate activists, many celebrities are keen to join in. Yet all too often, they are wishing to be seen as an activist, whilst refusing to actually reconsider the impact of their own indulgent lifestyles.

Those wishing to be seen participating in climate strikes, without really considering the impact of their own actions are nothing short of hypocritical

Last year, Dame Emma Thompson came under fire for flying 5,400 miles from Los Angeles to London to take part in an Extinction Rebellion protest. The actress and multimillionaire claimed she wanted to be amongst the demonstrators arrested by the police. She wanted to be seen protesting. Yet the value of her participation in the strike was without doubt outweighed by the damaging effect of her flight on the environment.

Those wishing to be seen participating in climate strikes, without really considering the impact of their own actions are nothing short of hypocritical. Equally are those attempting to use Greta Thunberg as a selfie opportunity, to give the false impression of actively supporting the climate movement. 

Any leader or influencer can pretend to care about the climate crisis, but without making immediate and ambitious changes, their actions are merely performative. 

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