Sixteen-year-old school strike founder and Nobel peace prize nominee Greta Thunberg has become the latest target for far right operatives in Germany, according to an investigation published this week by Unearthed, the investigative news unit at Greenpeace UK, and the counter-extremist Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD).
Thunberg’s rise to prominence “has seen the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party ramp up its focus on climate change,” dramatically increasing its social media traffic on the terms “climate change” and “climate cult/religion” as well as Thunberg’s name, the organizations state. The investigation links AfD to established climate denial organizations like the European Institute for Climate and Energy (EIKE), the Heartland Institute and the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) in the United States, and fossil-affiliated funders like the Mercer Foundation.
The surge in digital communication coincided with a meeting earlier this week, hosted by AfD environment spokesperson Karsten Hilse, where “a clutch of controversial scientists and speakers [were] expected to launch an attack on mainstream climate science at an event in the heart of the German parliament.”
The AfD’s focus on Thunberg has been outright vicious, calling on her to get treatment for her “psychosis” and—without a trace of irony—comparing her to Nazi youth, Unearthed reports. (In her Twitter handle, Thunberg styles herself as a “16 year old climate activist with Asperger”, and she has told media that her condition—considered to be on the “high-functioning” end of the autism spectrum—gives her the ability to focus intently and see through obfuscation.) While the AfD has a history of climate denial, with Hilse provoking laughter in the Bundestag last year when he called it “heresy” to understand that human activity causes climate change, the nearly 800 mentions of Thunberg on the party’s Facebook page are something new.
Many of them suggest the climate movement is a cult, casting Thunberg as its leader.
“The emergence of Greta Thunberg as a public figure provided them with a welcome target to communicate their position in a way more appropriate to the dynamics of social media,” said ISD extremism researcher Jakob Guhl. “The fact that many mainstream politicians, in particular from the AfD’s key political opponent, the Greens, but also [Christian Social Union] candidates such as Manfred Weber, supported a 16-year-old female activist who was virtually unknown until a few months ago, allowed the party to present belief in climate change as irrational, hysteria, panic, cult-like, or even as a replacement religion. Attacking Greta, at times in fairly vicious ways, including mocking her for her autism, became a way to portray the AfD’s political opponents as irrational.”
But that hasn’t stopped public opinion in Germany from shifting to the Green Party, now running second behind Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, Unearthed notes.
“Climate change is a major concern among German voters ahead of the European elections,” said Greens spokesperson Lisa Badum. “A recent poll has shown that three out of four potential voters in Germany consider climate protection an important factor in their voting decision.”