How to Match the Passion in This Face of Climate Change

What can we read in this famously expressive face?

When Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg appeared before the 2019 United Nations climate action summit in New York, her intention was to hold world leaders accountable for the future of the planet.

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” Thunberg told the assembly, making her case, in a speech described as “emotionally charged.” The sixteen-year-old Thunberg accused the assembly of ignoring the science behind the climate crisis. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth—how dare you!”

What Thunberg did not intend is the facial expression that would go viral and become the meme for the movement, at least in this moment. This face:

Because facial micro-expressions proceed naturally from the limbic centers of the brain, in everyone, often without their knowledge. They are notoriously difficult to produce by intention; even the best of performers (liars, say, and actors) are likely to leak minute emotional truths through an intentional obfuscation. And there is no way to prevent them from occurring.

What do you see in this face? I see an emotional array encompassing Anger, Disgust, Contempt—which nineteenth century naturalist Charles Darwin might catalogue thus:

1. Lowered brow + Raised upper lid + Tightened lower lid + Tightened lip (Anger)

2. Nose wrinkled + Lip corner depressed +Lower lip depressed (Disgust)

3. Lip corner down-pulled, a trace on one side + Dimpler, a trace on one side (Contempt)

In the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), codified in 1978 by Paul Ekman (now an essential tool of law enforcement, facial AI, psychologists and animators), this combination of mini-muscle movements might be reduced to:


AU4 + AU5 + AU7 + AU23


AU9 + AU15 + AU16


AU R12A + AU R14A

But I think I also see, if I'm not mistaken, a shadow of

AU 1 + AU 2 + AU 4 + AU 5 + AU 7 + AU 20 + AU 26 (Fear)


AU 1 + AU 4 + AU 15 (Sadness)

How do you pick up on the message Greta is laying down? What does the face of Greta Thunberg say to you? And how can we match that passion?