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How Greta Thunberg became a climate activism leader

How Greta Thunberg became a climate activism leader

From school strikes to global conferences, Greta Thunberg continues to be an incredibly courageous climate activist, campaigning for a generation let down by its parents. In this article from 2020, Stephen Rodrick looks at how she became a climate activism leader 

Greta Thunberg: How a Swedish teenager armed with a homemade sign ignited a crusade and became the leader of a movement. 

A matter of life and death 

Greta Thunberg doing a speech in Sweden Credit: Wikimedia Commons 

It is Valentine’s Day in Greta Thunberg’s hometown of Stockholm. A few hundred kids mill about, with a smattering of adults. If there weren't signs reading “Our Earth, We Only Have One,” the protest could be mistaken for a field trip to the ABBA museum. But where is Greta?

I find a scrum of reporters interviewing a child in a purple puffer jacket, pink mittens, and a knit hat. It takes me a minute to realize that it’s Greta. She is 17, but could pass for 12. I can’t quite square the fiery speaker with the micro teen in front of me. She seems in need of protection. 

Of course, this is emphatically wrong. Greta Thunberg has Asperger’s, which, she says, gives her pinpoint focus on climate minutiae while parrying and discarding even the smallest attempt at flattery.

We stand near the Swedish Parliament House, where Thunberg started her Skolstrejk för klimatet, School Strike for Climate, in August 2018.

Back then, it was just Greta, a sign, and a lunch of bean pasta. Then it was two people, and then a dozen, and then an international movement. I mention the bravery of her speeches, but she waves me away. She wants to talk about the loss of will among the olds.

“It seems like the people in power have given up,” says Thunberg, taking her hat off and pushing back her hair.

“They say it’s too hard—it’s too much of a challenge. But that’s what we are doing here. We have not given up be- cause this is a matter of life and death for countless people.”

Our house is on fire

Credit: Guardian News 

It was my second encounter with Greta in three weeks. In January, before the COVID forced Greta to move her Friday protests online, she was in Davos, Switzerland, for the annual conference of the World Economic Forum, where billionaires and politicians talk about solving the world’s problems without making their lives any harder.

Thunberg had appeared last year and made her now iconic “Our house is on fire” speech, in which she declared the climate crisis to be the mortal threat to our planet.

“Either we choose to go on as a civilisation or we don’t,” said Thunberg with cold precision. “That is as black or white as it gets. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival.”

"There are no grey areas when it comes to survival"

The speech made Thunberg the unlikely and reluctant hero of the climate crisis. She crossed the ocean in a sailboat—she doesn’t fly for environmental reasons—to speak before the United Nations.

She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Donald Trump called the honour "so ridiculous" and suggested that she go to the movies and chill out. 

In Davos, the illuminati prattled on about planting a trillion trees. This did not placate Greta. She was in no mood for flattery and nonsense. When asked in a panel discussion how she dealt with the haters, Greta didn’t even try to answer diplomatically.

“I would like to say something that I think people need to know more than how I deal with haters,” she answered, before launching into details from a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

She mentioned that if we are to have even a 67 per cent chance of limiting the average global temperature rise to under 1.5 degrees celcius, the point where we risk catastrophic changes to the climate, we have less than 420 gigatons of carbon dioxide that we can emit. Thunsberg stated that, at the current rate, we have eight years to change everything.

Thunberg’s face was controlled fury. The Davos one-percenters clapped. It has become a disconcerting pattern for Thunberg appearances that would be repeated at the European Commission: Greta tells the adults they are fools and their plans are lame and shortsighted. They still applaud her.

A little girl shall lead them 

Children protesting climate change with banners and placards Credit: Engelsk 1 - NDLA 

The phrase "A little child shall lead them" has come to mind more than
once,” Al Gore tells me in Davos, before sharing his favourite Greta moment.

It was at the UN Summit last fall. "She said to the assembled world leader, "You say you understand the science, but I don't believe you do. Because if you did and then you continue to act as you do, that would mean you're evil. And I don't believe that." 

Gore shook his head in wonderment. “There have been other times in human history when the moment a morally-based social movement reached the tipping point was the moment when the younger generation made it their own. Here we are.”

But in Stockholm, the world of presidential taunts and former vice presidents slathering praise seems far away. Outside of the Parliament building, Greta tells me she doesn’t worry about her safety despite Trump and others speaking cruelly about her on social media. Later in February, she would march in Bristol, England, and be met by social media posts sug- gesting she deserved to be sexually assaulted.

"It's just the people with ten accounts who sit and write annonymously on Twitter and so on," Greta says. "It's nothing you can take seriously." Still all is not rotten. America has come up with the Green New Deal. That seems like a beacon of hope, right? Nope. 

"If you look at the graphs to stay below the 1.5 degree Celsius global average temperature and you read the Green New Deal, you see that it doesn’t add up,” says Thunberg with some impatience.

“If we are to be in line with the carbon dioxide budget, we need to focus on doing things now instead of making commitments like 10, or 20, 30 years from now. Adds Thunberg in a tone that suggests the slightest of praise, “At least it has got people to start talk- ing about the climate crisis more.”

It’s time to march. The children’s crusade forms into a regimented mob. Greta moves to the front and holds a Skolstrejk för klimatet banner with some other teens. The taller kids lift it too high, and all you can see is Greta’s winter hat and her grey eyes. That’s enough. Al Gore was right. A child leads us.

Greta's family 

Greta Thunberg speaking with a microphone CCredit: Andy Bosselman 

Technically Greta Thunberg's childhood continues until early 2021, when she turns eighteen. But she hasn't been a kid for some time. She is one of two daughters of Malena Ernman, and opera-singer-turned-Eurovision-contestant, and Svante Thunberg, an actor. 

According to the family's book, Our House Is On Fire, the bohemian clan has endured a scroll of psychological disorders be- ginning with Malena, who suffered from bulimia and still deals with ADHD. Greta’s younger sister, Beata, was diagnosed with OCD and ADHD, and has an acute noise sensitivity.

Greta battled her own life-threatening demons. When she was 11, she stopped eating and rarely spoke to anyone outside of her family for months. Sometimes she would come home after being bullied at school and either spend hours petting her dogs or crying. She lost 20 pounds.

According to Malena, Greta fell silent after seeing a film in school depicting floating armies of plastic infesting our oceans. Other students were horrified, but quickly returned to their iPhones. Not Greta. She obsessed over the climate’s demise.

“I felt very alone that I was the only one who seemed to be worried about this,” Greta tells me in Stockholm. She read all she could and sometimes went online and battled with climate-change deniers. She eventually wrote an essay on the climate crisis for a Swedish newspaper.

Eco-activists contacted her, and Greta mentioned the inspiration she took from the school strikes after the Parkland, Florida, mass shooting, and suggested a climate version. The activists showed little interest. Greta didn’t care and slowly broke out of her cocoon.

“I thought what the Parkland students did was so brave,” says Thunberg. “Of course, it was not the only thing that got me out of that feeling. I did it because I was tired of sitting and waiting". 

So in August 2018, Greta and her father bicycled down to the Swedish Parliament. She propped up the first Skolstrejk för klimatet sign, which she’d made from scrap wood. Greta also wrote up an information sheet with climate data and a hint of the defiant humour that eventually led her to make her Twitter profile read "A teenager working on her anger management problem," after Trump had told her to chill out. 

Her biography was simple: "Because you grown-ups don't give a damn about my future, neither do I. My name is Greta, I am in ninth grade, and I am going on strike from school for the climate." 

"Because you grown-ups don't give a damn about my future, neither do I"

Her dad left. She posted a couple of images to Instagram. It was passed on. Then a reporter noticed. Within two months, there were hundreds of fellow travelers, and the news spread through Scandinavia to Europe and on to America. Within a year, climate student strikes attracted tens of thousands.

The Greta Age

It is not a coincidence that Greta’s ascent happened in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump. It became obvious after the Paris climate talks implosion that 30 years of rhetoric and meetings had created very little except more talk. And then you had the natural disasters. California ould not stop burning. Floods ravaged Europe. The dawn of 2020 brought images of scorched earth in Australia.

The irony of the Greta Age is that we now have options, but refuse to take them. Some clean-energy technology had evolved to a point where old arguments that fossil fuels remain the cheapest way to create energy are obviously nonsense. 

What remains is the power and influence of the energy conglomerate superpowers to maintain the status quo. No politician has the courage to face them down. By 2018, it became even clearer that politicians could not be trusted. We were on our own. 

And that's when Greta came along. 

Thunberg's perceived psychological weakness became her superpower. Her flat, affectless, blunt voice cut through all the gobbledygook. She put it in simple human language: We are losing our planet.

Unlike many activists before her, she is not political. She is not interested in reforming the process. Her voice is unabashedly and explicitly moral—“How dare you.”

Thunberg and her fellow protesters head toward Medborgarplatsen in central Stockholm. The kids chant, “What do we want? Climate justice! When? Now!”

At the square, Greta takes the stage. “I have been on the road and visited numerous places and met people from all over the globe,” she says. “I can say that it looks nearly the same everywhere I have been: The climate crisis is ignored by people in charge, despite the science being crystal clear. We don’t want to hear one more politician say that this is important but afterward do nothing to change it.”

She pauses, and her face goes grim. “It shouldn’t be up to us children and teenagers to make people wake up around the world. The ones in charge should be ashamed.”

"It shouldn’t be up to us children and teenagers to make people wake up around the world. The ones in charge should be ashamed"

Greta keeps moving. This week it is Stockholm. Next Friday is Hamburg. It’s a debilitating schedule since she doesn’t fly. Greta says it won’t go on forever. And she’s right. Within a few weeks, the world would shut down for the coronavirus, with Greta and her father both falling ill with what they suspected was Covid-19.

Besides, she recently finished her gap year, which she took before moving on to the final stage of secondary school. “I really hope that we can solve this thing now because I want to get back to studying,” says Thunberg. I can’t tell if she is joking or is having a rare moment of optimism.

Still, she is so small, and the world is so big. I wonder how she continues forward as the world pays lip service and not much else.

For the first time, Thunberg softens. “I’m very weak in a sense,” she says quietly. “I’m very tiny and I am very emotional, and that is not something people usually associate with strength.

I think weakness, in a way, can be also needed because we don’t have to be the loudest, we don’t have to take up the most amount of space, and we don’t have to earn the most money. “We just need to ...”

Greta’s voice trails off as if she is lost in thought or searching for the right word. Then, she looks up, locks eyes, and smiles for the first time. “We need to care about each other more.”

Banner credit: Engelsk 1—NDLA

This piece was originally published by Rolling Stone on March 26, 2020 

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