The rise to fame of Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist, has been nothing short of extraordinary. Less than a year ago, she was an unknown schoolgirl from Sweden, albeit an unusual one: she is the daughter of a famous opera singer and an actor. Thunberg also has Asperger’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder and selective mutism. The latter, she says, ‘basically means I only speak when I think it's necessary’. ‘Now is one of those moments,’ she said in a Ted talk watched hundreds of thousands of times on the topic that first brought her into the public eye: her decision to stage a ‘school strike’ last August to draw attention to climate change. Thunberg’s profile has only grown since. Her appearance at the UN climate conference in Poland propelled her to international fame. Most recently she was in Davos. Her message to the billionaires at the World Economic Summit was stark: ‘I want you to panic’ about climate change.
Greta’s steely gaze and call to action has won her legions of fans online. She certainly makes for a good story: the sweet girl who is moved to climate action and ends up as an unlikely international celebrity.
However, her sudden appearance in the limelight has led to some pointed questions: is Greta’s celebrity status less to do with chance and more to do with a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign?
Doubts were first raised when the Swiss magazine Weltwoche published an article last month entitled 'We’re making a climate icon'. It revealed that Thunberg’s school strike had coincided neatly with the launch of a book about climate change written by her mother, Malena Ernman. Is this a coincidence? It looks less like one when you learn from the same article that the first publicity of Thunberg’s protest came via the social media of the book’s PR man, Ingmar Rentzhog, on the day of its launch. It seems that Rentzhog took a freelance photographer along to the school strike, later posting the pictures on his Facebook and video on his company's YouTube channel.
Meanwhile, Swedish journalist Henrik Alexandersson has claimed that Thunberg’s much-touted speech to the Katowice summit was actually delivered to an almost empty hall – perhaps unsurprising given that she was speaking near the end of the day. Yet it was hard to tell this from the film of her speech – which went viral – which only showed close-ups of her face, a shot of the stage and a brief sequence of an apparently appreciative crowd. Nevertheless, it was this apparently inauspicious event that propelled Thunberg to worldwide fame.
Further worrying details have also emerged. As well as working for Greta’s mother, Rentzhog had also recently launched a business called 'We Don’t Have Time', a sort of climate-focused PR agency. In October 2018, he invited Greta to join the company’s Youth Advisory Board and in the weeks that followed he used her image intensively ahead of the company’s share issue. This seems to have been very successful, bringing in something short of a million pounds. But whatever the figure, Greta has proved to be an extraordinarily lucrative asset for Mr Rentzhog, and the environmental press has been extraordinarily helpful too.
Greta and her family both deny being aware that she would be used in this way, and they have since cut ties with Rentzhog's organisation, but all these revelations have rather tarnished her image, no matter how sincere her views on climate change. The Thunberg phenomenon began as the unlikely story of a young girl with strong views falling unsuspecting into the limelight. Her strange garb and piercing gaze added to the mystique. But now, the 'Wizard of Oz' outfits and the pigtails look to be less odd and more calculated: the careful packaging of a product so that it gets noticed rather than an unusual penchant for 1950s fashion. What we have seen is surely an example of marketing genius rather than a miraculous stroke of luck.
Andrew Montford is the deputy director of the Global Warming Policy Forum