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Rhetorical Criticism on Greta Thunberg’s Speech at the U.N Climate Action Summit

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2070 words Published: 12th Nov 2020

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The biggest threat humans are being faced with today is climate change and its detrimental life threatening effects. In order to address the urgency of a plan to reduces the effects if global warming and climate change, a summit is held where advocates and leaders advocate for a change. The United Nations Climate Summit conference is held every year to address the urgency for action towards rapid climate change. The summit calls to action world leaders and governmental officials to address a global climate emergency. This paper analyzes Greta Thunberg’s climate activist speech given at the U.N Climate summit calling on world leaders for action.


Most recently I heard a comment that resonated in my head which left me pondering. In a conversation among friends on how many children we would like to conceive, one of them mentioned she would not want to have a child because she feels that in the direction environmental catastrophes produced by global warming are going she felt that conceiving a child is cruel and morally irresponsible. With rapid changes to our planet caused by human destruction, more millennials are sustaining from having children in fears of exposing future generations to a toxic earth. The New York Times article “Don’t Let Climate Change Stop You from Becoming a Parent” claims that “Yes, you should have children. And you should raise them to use their talents for the planets good”(Olmstead, 2019). With the rise of attention on climate change issues, young activist are stepping up to fill that position to “use their talents for the planets good”. Most recently, at the UN Climate Action Summit (2019) in New York, Greta Thunberg’s speech depicts the central issue of climate change action. Thunberg uses personal stories and research in climate change to make the audience believe in her credibility. These appeals to logos, anaphora combined with an accusatory tone, creates an effective call for action to high officials but along her speech Thunberg fails to connect the urgency for a call to action towards citizens.


This year the UN climate action summit was held at the United Nations headquarters in New York on September 23, 2019. As stated on the UN website, the summit “brings together governments, the private sector, civil society, local authorities and other international organizations to develop ambitious solutions in six areas: a global transition to renewable energy; sustainable and resilient infrastructures and cities; sustainable agriculture and management of forests and oceans; resilience and adaptation to climate impacts; and alignment of public and private finance with a net zero economy”(United Nations, 2019). There have been several findings that prove the effects of global warming over time such as research in which soil and temperature were measured over time to prove changes occurred. Such findings were that “ soil has an important impact in relation to climate change. Changes in soil temperature associated with climate warming could result in variation of terrain and hydrologic conditions, alteration of the distribution and growth rate of vegetation…and increased emission of CO2 from the soil to the atmosphere posing significant consequences locally and globally (Zhan, Xia, Zhan & Wang, 1).” Even though changes are occurring at a rapidly fast rate Josh Hanrahan and Jason Shafer claim that “while mitigation is essential to lessen the extent of these wide-ranging impacts, this issue is not a priority for most Americans. Many do not understand that humans are causing climate change (1209).”Greta Thunberg, 16 year old climate activist addressed a speech calling on world leaders for action.

Altogether, these nine concepts will formulate a rhetorical analysis on the rhetorical artifact.


Climate activist, Greta Thunberg in her speech uses several rhetorical tools to emphasize a call to action towards climate change. In her speech she calls upon the social truth of the effects of climate change. She mentions “people are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing”(National Public radio, 2019). She calls upon these truths to bring attention to climate change and its disastrous effects. As a young 16 year old, age is a factor that determines how the audience takes in her speech. Body rhetoric plays a role on whether the audience will take her seriously or not. In this case, her particular audience includes government officials, local authorities, civil society, and international organizations. The setting of her speech is at a reputable summit therefore, her age can be a determining factor on how theses world leaders take in her overall message. Before Thunberg begins to make statements towards climate change, she uses appeals to pathos. She starts off with “This is wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back at school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you come to us young people for hope”(National Public Radio, 2019). Thunberg’s use of pathos in emphasizing a point that as a 16 year old her main responsibility and priority should be at school but instead she is in front of her audience at that moment. Her purpose was to bring about a guilt feeling from her audience. She begins her speech with emotionally charged words that it makes the audience view her in a sympathetic way. Another form of persuasion that we see Thunberg use is Logos. In order to make herself credible to her audience she includes statistics and logic in her speech such as “The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control”(National Public Radio, 2019). Before she incorporates logos in her speech, she sets a foundation to the impacts of climate change by stating “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction”( National Public Radio, 2019). Stating that we are in the brink of a mass extinction is a claim of fact that brings urgency towards action of what will occur in the near future. Similar to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Thunberg uses Anaphora with the repeated use of “How dare you” several times throughout her speech. As she reputedly says “how dare you” Thunberg says it in an aggressive tone to bring a feeling of shame towards the audience. It almost makes the audience uncomfortable to hear “how dare you” through her speech due to her manner of saying in in an accusatory way blaming the audience for lack of  action towards the issue. Towards mid-way of her speech she mentions “You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe”(National Public radio, 2019). Through those words she is showing optimism and revealing to the audience that she still has hopes for action regarding civic engagement from world leaders with the power to create change. Towards the end of her speech she uses the metaphor of “The world is waking up”(National Public Radio, 2019) to emphasize that change is happing soon. With the use of her metaphor of the world waking up we can infer that big changes are coming, possibly destructive and irreversible ones. It’s a warning to her audience to act soon.


Thunberg successfully makes across to her audience the state of urgency regarding climate change. In many instances she makes remarks such as “how dare you look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough”(National Public Radio, 2019)from her commentary we can assume that those who are not doing enough are in a high position where they have the ability to act more towards climate change but don’t.  Thunberg also mentions “How dare you pretend this can be solves with just ‘business as usual’ and some technical solutions?”(National Public Radio, 2019). Through the context and clues she is providing we can assume the audience to who she is referring to are those involved with business, economics and decision making. Although, Thunberg does not directly state that a policy should be enacted regarding climate change we can infer she is calling for politic members and world leaders to start taking action towards climate change a priority. Thunberg’s speech effectively promotes social justice through civic engagement because even though her speech was towards world leaders, she is representing young teens and their involvement in activism. Before closing off her speech, she mentions that “the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you”(National Public Radio, 2019). Thunberg isn’t just giving the speech on behalf of herself, she is giving it on behalf of the youth setting an example that they need to be heard. She is speaking on behalf of those who “have to live with the consequences”(National Public Radio, 2019). Yet her speech fails to call to action the youth and citizens. She points out “we will never forgive you” towards the end but as she is attacking officials she fails to call out citizens for failing to acknowledge climate change. In a research study measuring the influence of gender and age on attitudes toward climate change found that “ different age groups exhibit different attitude dispositions toward ecological issue…age is a dominant determinant of environmentally concerned attitudes. Older population were found to be concerned about the environment than younger ones (Sunday & Monday, 9834).” Representing the youth, Thunberg failed to mention an urgency of a call for action towards youth.


Greta Thunberg shows us that when truly passionate about something, we can achieve great things. She started with spending her days outside her school calling for action on global warming which lead to many other students to campaign for immediate action. Today she is internationally recognized, her perseverance for a greater cause brings hope for more people to join the movement and call for immediate change. The speech she delivered at the UN climate action summit depicts the central issue of climate change action. Though her use of personal stories and research in climate change to make the audience believe in her credibility. Appeals to logos, anaphora combined with an accusatory tone, she creates an effective call for action towards governmental officials but fails to encourage the youth to act now towards climate change.


  • Erhabor Sunday, I., & Femi Monday, I.(2017). Influence of Gender and Age on Attitudes toward Climate change: A survey of a Nigerian University Students’ Population. Gender & Behaviour, 15(4), 9831-9846.
  • Hanrahan, J., & Shafar, J.(2019). Improving Climate Change Literacy and Promoting Outreach in an Undergraduate Atmospheric Sciences Program. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 100(7), 1209-1214.
  • National Public Radio. (2019, September 23). Transcript: Greta Thunberg's Speech at The U.N. Climate Action Summit. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/09/23/763452863/transcript-greta-thunbergs-speech-at-the-u-n-climate-action-summit.
  • Olmstead, G. (2019, September 19). Don't Let Climate Change Stop You from Becoming a Parent. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/19/opinion/children-climate-change.html.
  • United Nations Climate Change- Summit 2019. (n.d). Retrieved from https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/.
  • Zhan, M., Xia, L., Zhan, L.,& Wang, Y.(2019). Recognition of Changes in Air and Soil Temperatures at a Station Typical of China’s Subtropical Monsoon Region(1961-2018). Advances in Meteorology, 1-9. 


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