Greta Thunberg has been in the global public eye for nearly two years now for her bold acts of climate activism and enthralling speeches given before world leaders. That means it has also been nearly two years since conservatives and climate change deniers have taken to attacking Thunberg, claiming that she is unqualified to speak on the topic and a for-profit protester who is somehow cashing in on the scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is real. Thunberg has been undeterred — continuing her activism and even getting a nomination for the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize and becoming the youngest person ever to be named Time magazine's Person of the Year — so conservatives have decided that if they can't beat her, they'll just copy the formula instead.
This week's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which will be headlined by President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, will also feature the main stage debut of Naomi Seibt, a 19-year-old German activist who has been branded as the "anti-Greta." Seibt shares a lot of similarities with Thunberg, from her appearance to the fact that she is a young person with a radical message related to climate change. But while Thunberg believes that it is the greatest crisis facing humanity and inaction could doom future generations to a barely inhabitable earth, Seibt views climate change as little more than an overdramatized hoax. She is on the record calling climate consciousness “a despicably anti-human ideology,” and has claimed "climate change science really isn’t science at all.”
The rise of Seibt, who has been presented as a YouTube influencer and personality, has seemingly come out of nowhere — but her newfound prominence is anything but authentic. It has been spurred onward by far-right groups across the world who have been looking for their own youthful spokesperson to push their messages.
According to The Guardian, Seibt first gained attention for essays published in Philosophia Perennis, a far-right German blog that pushes "anti-Islamisation" and anti-immigrant rhetoric. She was first published on the site in 2017, at the age of 16 — and an editor's note on the piece acknowledges that her mother has also been published on the blog. Shortly after her work was published, she was named in a Facebook post as a youth member of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and a speaker at one of the party's events. The AfD is a small but notable political party in Germany because of its extreme, far-right positions including a hardline anti-immigration stance, opposition of same-sex marriage, and climate change skepticism. While Seibt has reportedly denied having membership in the party, the ties are hard to ignore. Seibt's mother, a lawyer, has represented politicians from AfD in court, according to The Guardian. Even her first YouTube video, uploaded in May 2019, contains a connection to the AfD, as it shows Seibt reading a poem submitted for a competition organized by the AfD.
It was after that first video was uploaded that Seibt apparently caught the attention of other right-wing ideologists outside of Germany — particularly the U.S.-based conservative activist think tank the Heartland Institute. First started in the 1980s, the Heartland Institute has been one of the leading voices in science skepticism of all kinds throughout its existence. In the 1990s, it worked closely with tobacco company Phillip Morris to cast doubt on the risks of secondhand smoke and fight against anti-smoking ordinances and laws being passed across the United States. In the 2000s, the think tank shifted its focus to climate change and became one of the most prominent pushers of climate skepticism — most famously producing a list of hundreds of scientists who opposed the consensus that human-made greenhouse gas emissions were the leading cause of climate change. (A number of scientists later said their views were misrepresented and they were misled into signing onto the cause, but the Heartland Institute refused to remove their names from the list.) For more than a decade now, the group has also hosted International Conferences on Climate Change that gather climate skeptics to speak — often juxtaposing the events to major climate conferences.
It was at one of these events last year where Seibt made her debut as a prominent climate denier. While Greta Thunberg was giving her moving speech at the United Nations' COP25 summit in Madrid, Seibt was a just few miles away serving as the headlining speaker for the Heartland Institute's own event, undermining everything taking place across the city. The Heartland Institute isn't just pushing Seibt at its speaking events, though — it has essentially turned her into a paid spokesperson for the think tank's anti-climate change beliefs. According to an undercover investigation conducted by German broadcaster ZDF and investigative publication Correctiv, Heartland Institute is paying Seibt specifically to create and spread climate denialism rhetoric designed to appeal to young people in the U.S. and Germany. According to The Guardian, Seibt has admitted to accepting payments of €1,900 (about $2,000) monthly from Heartland Institute to create content for them. She has taken that money and produced videos in which she proclaims, "The world is not ending because of climate change. In fact, 12 years from now we will still be around, casually taking photos on our iPhone 18s" and warns "We are currently being force-fed a very dystopian agenda of climate alarmism that tells us that we as humans are destroying the planet.”
Now, with CPAC 2020 approaching, Seibt will likely have her biggest audience yet, thanks to a push from the Heartland Institute. CPAC has become a prominent stage for climate denialism, thanks in no small part to President Donald Trump, who has used the annual conference to reject science at every turn. Last year he used his keynote speaking spot to mock the Green New Deal and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This year, he'll likely make similar, nonsensical proclamations about climate change, as he is so often wont to do. But he will also likely promote Seibt to his millions of followers on social media, elevating her voice well beyond its current reach — which amounts to about 55,000 subscribers on YouTube and the small crowds that attend the anti-climate conferences that she has spoken to.
The rise of Seibt represents everything that conservatives like to use to try to discredit Thunberg. While it would be cynical to suggest that her views are not her own, it's also impossible to ignore that her mother has touted similar views and is associated with a political party that has promoted Seibt — a mirror to the complaint conservatives often levy against Thunberg, claiming she is just a puppet for her parents' world view. While they criticize elevating a teenager to speak as if she is an expert, they have now found their own. Some suggest that Thunberg is cashing in on climate change, but Seibt is actively pocketing cash from an interest group to spout her views. Seibt is all of the things that conservatives claim are inauthentic about Thunberg, but they are willing to give her a prominent speaker role at their biggest annual convention, simply because she is saying the things that they want to hear.