Greta Thunberg is playing an inside/outside game at COP26

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GLASGOW, Scotland — At this year's United Nations Climate Change Conference, few world leaders and celebrities are commanding more attention than 18-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

Though not officially invited to attend the conference, Thunberg was mobbed by fans when she arrived by train in Glasgow.

"I think that many people might be scared that if they invite too many radical young people, then that might make them look bad," she told the BBC.

Perhaps the most recognizable face of all the world's climate activists, Thunberg took part in a demonstration Monday on the banks of the River Clyde, just outside the convention hall.

"Inside COP, they are just politicians and people in power pretending to take our future seriously, pretending to take the present seriously of the people who are being affected already today by the climate crisis," she told reporters and fans. "Change is not going to come from in there."

"No more blah, blah, blah, no more whatever the f*** they are doing inside there," she concluded.

Greta Thunberg speaks into a microphone while standing alongside climate activists wearing coats, hats and face masks.
Greta Thunberg alongside fellow climate activists during a demonstration at Festival Park, Glasgow, on Monday. (Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images)

Yet Thunberg herself, along with Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate, had already been inside the convention hall when she spoke those words. The two young climate activists, who are both affiliated with the youth movement Fridays for Future, were photographed speaking with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

On Tuesday, Thunberg was scheduled to return to the venue for a meeting with U.N. Secretary General António Guterres. Other speakers from the previous day's rally could be spotted inside the conference on Tuesday.

The fact is that Thunberg's opinions matter to many world leaders. Her platform and fearless criticism make her a force in the global climate movement, and most delegates at COP26 share her concerns that the world is not moving quickly enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2019, Thunberg was typically blunt when she addressed Guterres, dozens of world leaders and company executives at the U.N.'s Climate Action Summit.

"You are failing us," she told her audience. "But 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."

It's the message that has been echoed by delegates from developing nations in Glasgow.

"This crisis isn't being treated like a crisis. That has to change here in Glasgow," Sonam Wangdi, secretary of the National Environment Commission for the Royal Government of Bhutan, who serves as chairman of the group Least Developed Countries, said in a statement.

Weeks before this year's conference, Thunberg said she would theoretically be open to meeting with world leaders such as President Biden.

"I guess that will depend on the situation," she said. "I don’t see why these people want to meet with me, but yeah."

Yet in September, she mocked Biden's Build Back Better plan, saying it amounted to too little, too late.

"As we move out of the pandemic, many are talking about using this as an opportunity for a green sustainable recovery, whatever that means," Thunberg said. “And world leaders are talking about 'building back better,' promising green investments and setting vague and distant climate targets in order to say that they are taking climate action."

Thunberg has also leveled criticism at Biden's climate envoy, John Kerry, over his statements on the need for new inventions to meet emissions targets.

But at COP26, Biden and Kerry have sought to mobilize the world to move faster to keep global temperatures from rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, rallying nations on climate financing for the developing world, protecting forests and the oceans, and signing on to pledges to slash methane emissions. While Thunberg's criticisms of the pair have some merit, the U.S. has sought to restore its role as a world leader on climate change, and its efforts at COP26 stand in stark contrast to the relative lack of initiative being put forth by nations like China.

Yet while Thunberg may not have found herself on the official list of delegates at this year's conference, her role as an agitator has seen her work up the crowd outside the venue, while lobbying support from the dignitaries inside, whether they like it or not.


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