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From Greta Thunberg's speeches to stereotypes about climate activists

In two studies published in 2022, a group of researchers from the Center for Psychological Research and Social Intervention (CIS-Iscte) analyzed Greta Thunberg's speeches and the stereotypes associated with climate activists. The first study indicates that Thunberg's messages present a characterization of world leaders and young people that contrasts with the usual: leaders appear as cold and incompetent, and young people are valued as competent, making room for them to take more of a leading role in climate action. The second study suggests that there may be resistance factors to this openness, showing that older activists are seen as more trustworthy than younger activists, even though they convey precisely the same (radical) message. These studies fit into a line of CIS-Iscte research on activism and social change, which seeks to understand activists' discourses, the models of environmental citizenship they advocate, and what affects the more positive or negative evaluations they receive.


Worldwide surveys show that the vast majority of the population now regards climate change as a serious problem resulting from human action. Thus, the efforts of climate activists should be seen as positive. However, CIS-Iscte researcher Miriam Rosa explains, "environmental activists can be interpreted as hostile or eccentric, especially when it is considered that they try to force others to adopt their behaviors. This association between activism and extremism, with a negative connotation, is often reinforced in the media and can make people who even share many of their ideas unwilling to associate themselves with the label "activist."

A recent example of activism with high media visibility that has boosted the current youth climate movement is Greta Thunberg, whose speeches were analyzed by CIS-Iscte researchers Alice Fonseca, PhD student in psychology at Iscte, and Paula Castro, full professor of Psychology at Iscte. Their work focused on 25 Thunberg's speeches at global visibility events between 2018 and 2020. It analyzed the dichotomies of meaning that structure them, the activist's positions towards the presented dichotomies, the model of environmental citizenship that these positions define, and how their actors are represented.

The results indicate that Thunberg's discourses focus on the contrasts between action/inaction (condemning current policies as inaction and calling for action), knowledge/ignorance (calling for the recognition of scientific evidence), victims/perpetrators (condemning world leaders), and systemic change/maintenance (calling for change and participation of more actors in defining the course of this). In other words, the discourses recover meanings of the dominant discourse in current climate governance, in particular the centrality offered to science, but contest others, advocating a society less centered on individual environmental rights and choices and which values collective duties and greater participation.

Moreover, Thunberg's characterization of climate actors helps to question the credibility of some and to reinforce that of others. It was analyzed according to two dimensions - competence and warmth - defined by a social psychology model (SCModel), which indicates that they capture well how people describe others and are historically stable. The analysis reveals that Thunberg's discourses present leaders as cold (with low cordiality) and low competence (incapable of effective action). This result "contrasts with what is described in the literature, which shows that high-status people, such as leaders, are usually characterized as cold, yes, but competent," says P. Castro. As for young people, to whom the usual stereotype points more cordiality than competence, the activist highlights them in the speeches as competent and capable, not referring to cordiality.

This departure from the usual stereotypes is significant because, according to A. Fonseca, "the positive representation of youth in Thunberg's speeches has implications for the affirmation of young people as relevant political and climate actors, supporting the self-confidence of this group and opening space for their broader participation in the debate on climate change in national and international forums."

© 2019 Pascal Bernardon | Unsplash

However, there still seems to be a lot to be done for this characterization of young people to take hold. Based on this premise, Catarina Farinha, with a Master's degree from Iscte, and Miriam Rosa, analyze the role of age in evaluating environmental activists with a radical discourse, not only in competence and cordiality but also in a third dimension - that of trustworthiness. Miriam explains, "since young people tend to be seen as less competent and warmer, and activists tend to be seen as competent but not very warm (e.g., hostile)," the youth/activist conjunction would cause no anticipated differences between young and older activists on these two dimensions. However, the difference would arise in trustworthiness, an aspect that seems "important in shaping stereotypes and has been considered within the warmth dimension, but may be independent."

Thus, in an online experiment, some participants rated the characteristics of a young activist and others of an older activist, who both uttered precisely the same (radical) message. The data showed high and similar ratings on competence for both activists and lower and similar ratings on friendliness. However, reliability - while high - was lower for the younger activist. These results suggest that it is essential for younger activists to take extra care to make their honesty and sincerity visible, seeking to strengthen trustworthiness.

These studies underscore the importance of identifying and analyzing the various dimensions on which environmental activists can be evaluated to better understand what fosters resistance toward their messages. Hence, P. Castro and M. Rosa have prepared the last study, also experimental, to better clarify the contribution of each of these dimensions to the controversial image of activists, to their ability to influence action, and whether this contribution differs according to whether the message is more radical/moderate. Preliminary results suggest that if they are more moderate, activists have lower trustworthiness ratings and that the more they are perceived as cordial (the dimension on which they are penalized the most), the more they can influence.

In sum, these studies suggest that climate activists seem to receive paradoxical messages from society: being young, a social image of competence is essential to enter places of political influence, but they need to show that they are trustworthy; to do so, they cannot be (too) moderate, or they lose trustworthiness; at any age, it is good to be at least somewhat cordial, or they lose direct influence.

They also suggest that socially the possible origins of the asymmetry of trustworthiness between young and older people should be discussed - such as media representations of youth that may be focused, contrary to G. Thunberg's discourses, on behaviors of young people that may be associated with less trustworthiness, and neglect to publicize others that support reasons for more trustworthiness.

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