Age discrimination

When I was a precocious Young Conservative, people were most willing to tell me they disagreed with me and I thrived on it. But how much of a challenge does Greta Thunberg have from her classmates or teachers?


In some ways I identify with Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl whose earnest pronouncements about climate change have caused a media sensation. I remember so well when I was her age and I had strong political opinions. My concern was winning the Cold War—I was arrested at Moscow Airport for smuggling in leaflets stuffed down my socks, detained for 24 hours and then deported. As a Young Conservative, I attended meetings and conferences where I would impatiently question government ministers about their lack of progress.

Precocious political utterances have the advantage of novelty and thus have a better chance of catching the eye of the media. I spotted that and had some modest success—although nothing like the impact Greta has achieved. On the other hand, there is the difficulty in “being taken seriously”. I suffered little age discrimination simply because people assumed I was older. I was never a teenager apart from in a literal sense—I went straight from being 11 to about 26.

My greatest memory is of arguing. People were most willing to tell me they disagreed with me and I thrived on it. Teachers at my comprehensive school were very interested in discussing my letters to the local paper demanding that their employer, the Inner London Education Authority, be abolished. CND was a great fashion at the time—many pupils and quite a few teachers wore badges. My dissent provoked astonishment and discussion.

How much of a challenge does Greta have from her classmates or teachers? She certainly didn’t get one from the MPs she met in Westminster recently. Yet much of what she said was either contentious or factually wrong. She mentioned being influenced by a film showing a polar bear starving due to climate change. Not only has the polar bear population been increasing, but the specific claims in the National Geographic video she referred to were false. Local sea ice had not retreated early that year. No other starving bears were seen. The bear’s condition was probably due to a form of cancer and was certainly unrelated to climate change. National Geographic issued an apology. Then Greta declared the “active current support” for the UK shale gas fracking industry “is beyond absurd.” But in the US the switch to shale has resulted in a significant reduction of CO2 emissions in energy production.

One way of insulting teenagers expressing concerns about political issues is to tell them to shut up and go away. It is far more damaging and patronising to nod along to everything they say and pretend to agree.

A better approach is to challenge errors. The biggest compliment we can pay to teenagers is to consider them up to vigorous and honest debate.