Greta Thunberg FRSGS (born January 2003) is a Swedish environmental activist who is credited with raising global awareness of the risks posed by climate change, and with holding politicians to account for their lack of action on the climate crisis.
In August 2018, at 15 years of age, Thunberg took time off school to demonstrate outside the Swedish parliament, holding up a sign calling for stronger climate action. Soon, other students engaged in similar protests in their own communities. Together they organized a school climate strike movement, under the name Fridays for Future. After Thunberg addressed the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference, student strikes took place every week somewhere in the world. In 2019, there were at least two coordinated multi-city protests involving over one million pupils each.
Thunberg is known for her blunt, matter-of-fact speaking manner, both in public and to political leaders and assemblies, in which she urges immediate action to address what she describes as the “climate crisis”. At home, Thunberg persuaded her parents to adopt several lifestyle choices to reduce their own carbon footprint, including giving up air travel and not eating meat.
In May 2019, Thunberg was featured on the cover of Time magazine, which named her a “next generation leader” and noted that many see her as a role model. Thunberg and the school strike movement were also featured in a 30-minute Vice documentary titled Make the World Greta Again. Some media have described her impact on the world stage as the “Greta Thunberg effect”.
Greta Thunberg was born in 2003. Her mother, Malena Ernman, is a Swedish opera singer, and her father is actor Svante Thunberg. Her grandfather is actor and director Olof Thunberg.
Thunberg says she first heard about climate change in 2011, when she was 8 years old, and could not understand why so little was being done about it. Three years later she became depressed and lethargic, stopped talking and eating, and was eventually diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), and selective mutism. While acknowledging that her diagnosis “has limited me before”, she does not view her autism as an illness and has instead called it her “superpower”.
For about two years, Thunberg challenged her parents to lower the family’s carbon footprint by becoming vegan and giving up flying, which in part meant her mother had to give up her international career as an opera singer. Thunberg credits her parents’ eventual response and lifestyle changes with giving her hope and belief that she could make a difference. The family story is recounted in the 2018 book Scenes from the Heart.
In the fall of 2018, Thunberg began the school climate strikes and public speeches by which she has become an internationally recognized climate activist. Her father does not like her missing school, but said: “[We] respect that she wants to make a stand. She can either sit at home and be really unhappy, or protest, and be happy”.Thunberg says her teachers are divided in their views about her missing class to make her point. She says: “As people they think what I am doing is good, but as teachers they say I should stop.”
Thunberg published a collection of her climate action speeches, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, in May 2019 with the earnings being donated to charity. In one of her first speeches demanding climate action, Thunberg described the selective mutism aspect of her condition as meaning she only speaks when necessary, and said “now is one of those moments”. In 2019, Thunberg also contributed a voiceover for a release of “The 1975”, the theme song of an English band by the same name. Thunberg finishes by urging: “So, everyone out there, it is now time for civil disobedience. It is time to rebel.” Proceeds will go to Extinction Rebellion at Thunberg’s request.
In August 2019, Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic Ocean from Plymouth, UK, to New York, US, in a 60 ft racing yacht equipped with solar panels and underwater turbines. The trip was announced as a carbon neutral transatlantic crossing serving as a demonstration of Thunberg’s declared beliefs of the importance of reducing emissions.
The voyage lasted 15 days, from 14 to 28 August 2019. While in the Americas, Thunberg will be attending the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City and the COP 25 climate change conference in Santiago, Chile.
School strike for climate
In an interview with Amy Goodman from Democracy Now!, Thunberg said she first got the idea of a climate strike after school shootings in the United States in February 2018 led to several youths refusing to go back to school. These teen activists at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida went on to organize the March for Our Lives in support of greater gun control.
Then in May 2018, Thunberg won a climate change essay competition held by Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. In part she wrote that, “I want to feel safe. How can I feel safe when I know we are in the greatest crisis in human history?” The paper published her article after which she was contacted by Bo Thorén from Fossil Free Dalsland, a group interested in doing something about climate change. Thunberg attended a few of their meetings, and at one of them, Thoren also suggested that school children could strike for climate change. Thunberg tried to persuade other young people to get involved but “no one was really interested” so eventually, she decided to go ahead with the strike by herself.
On 20 August 2018, Thunberg, who had just started ninth grade, decided to not attend school until the 2018 Swedish general election on 9 September after the heat waves and wildfires during Sweden’s hottest summer in 262 years. Her demands were that the Swedish government reduce carbon emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement, and she protested by sitting outside the Riksdag every day for three weeks during school hours with the sign Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for the climate). She also handed out leaflets that stated: “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.”
Thunberg posted her original strike photo on Instagram and Twitter and other social media accounts quickly took up her cause. According to Ingmar Rentzhog, founder of a Swedish climate-focused social media company, We Don’t Have Time (WDHT), her strike began attracting public attention after he turned up with a freelance photographer and then posted Thunberg’s photograph on his Facebook page and Instagram account. He also made a video in English that he posted on the company’s YouTube channel that had almost 88,000 views. A representative of the Finnish bank, Nordea, quoted one of Thunberg’s tweets to more than 200,000 followers. Thunberg’s social media profile attracted local reporters whose stories earned international coverage in little more than a week.
After the general elections, Thunberg continued to strike only on Fridays. She inspired school students across the globe to take part in student strikes. As of December 2018, more than 20,000 students had held strikes in at least 270 cities.
After October 2018, Thunberg’s activism evolved from solitary protesting to taking part in demonstrations throughout Europe; making several high-profile public speeches; and mobilising her growing number of followers on social media platforms. By March 2019 she was still staging her regular protests outside the Swedish parliament every Friday, where other students now occasionally join her. Her activism has not interfered with her schoolwork, but she has had less spare time.
In February 2019, 224 academics signed an open letter of support stating they were inspired by the actions of Thunberg and the striking school children in making their voices heard. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres also endorsed the school strikes initiated by Thunberg, admitting that “My generation has failed to respond properly to the dramatic challenge of climate change. This is deeply felt by young people. No wonder they are angry.”
In June 2019, Thunberg spoke by video link with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who had submitted the Green New Deal to the U.S. House of Representatives in February 2019, which calls for the United States to achieve “net-zero” greenhouse gases within a decade. They discussed how it feels when their views are not taken seriously because they are young, and what tactics really work.
Speaking at an event in New Zealand in May 2019, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said his generation was “not winning the battle against climate change” and that it’s up to youth to “rescue the planet”.
When Thunberg began her protest outside the Swedish Parliament in 2018 at age 15, she had two simple messages – a sign which said “school strike for the climate” and leaflets she handed out which said: “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.” As her protest gained momentum, she was invited to gives speeches at a variety of forums which enabled her to expand on her concerns. So far, she has espoused four interwoven themes.
- The first is that the crisis caused by global warming is so serious that humanity is facing an existential crisis, “that will most likely lead to the end of our civilization as we know it.”
- The second is that she holds the current generation of adults responsible, with statements such as “You are stealing our future”. She is especially concerned about the impact the climate crisis will have on young people like her. Speaking at Parliament in London she said: “You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to.”
- Thunberg’s third key message is that we need to wake up and change because very little is being done to solve the problem. She says the situation is so dire, we should all be panicking.
- Her fourth point is that politicians and decision makers need to listen to the scientists pointing out in 2019 that “according to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), we are less than 12 years away from not being able to undo our mistakes.”
Thunberg uses graphic analogies to highlight her concerns and speaks bluntly to business and political leaders, often scolding them for their lack of action. For instance, she told a panel of prominent business and political leaders at Davos: “Some people, some companies, some decision makers in particular have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.” She went on to say: “I want you to act as if the house was on fire — because it is”. In London in October 2018, she said: “We’re facing an immediate unprecedented crisis that has never been treated as a crisis and our leaders are all acting like children.”
She also points out that the strategies adopted by various Governments to limit global warming to 1.5 °C as part of the Paris Agreement are insufficient and the greenhouse gas emissions curve needs to start declining steeply no later than 2020. In January 2019, she told the UK parliament that Britain needs to stop talking in terms of “lowering” emissions and start thinking in terms of eliminating them. In February 2019, at a conference of the European Economic and Social Committee, she said that the EU must reduce their CO
2 emissions by 80% by 2030, double the 40% goal set in Paris.
In a statement she originally posted on her Facebook page, Thunberg acknowledges that she is not a climate scientist: she is merely a messenger who is repeating what scientists have been communicating to the public for decades, so far without much success. She says if everyone listened to the scientists and acknowledged the facts, “then we (students) could all go back to school”. She returned to this theme on her trip to New York on the carbon-neutral yacht. Emblazoned on the yacht’s sail in capital letters were the words “UNITE BEHIND THE SCIENCE”. In one of her first statements when she arrived she had a similar message for Donald Trump, admonishing him to “listen to the science”.
Honors and awards
Before starting her climate strike, Thunberg was one of the winners of Svenska Dagbladet‘s debate article writing competition on the climate for young people in May 2018.
In November, 2018, about three months into her school climate strike, Thunberg was nominated for the Children’s Climate Prize, which is awarded by the Swedish electricity company Telge Energi. However, Thunberg declined to accept the award because many of the finalists would have to fly to Stockholm for the ceremony and a required meeting with one another.
Later that year, Thunberg was awarded the Fryshuset scholarship of the Young Role Model of the Year,and Time magazine named Thunberg one of the world’s 25 most influential teenagers of 2018.
On the occasion of International Women’s Day Thunberg was proclaimed the most important woman of the year in Sweden in 2019. The award was based on a survey by the institute Inizio on behalf of the newspaper Aftonbladet. On 31 March 2019, she received the German Goldene Kamera Special Climate Protection award. On 1 April 2019, the Prix Liberté from France’s region Normandy, which she received in Caen on 21 July that year. On 12 April 2019, she shared the Norwegian Fritt Ords Prize, which celebrates freedom of speech, with the Nature and Youth organization. The conferring organization, Fritt Ord noted their determined committed activism even in the face of pervasive online and media harassment. Thunberg donated her share of the prize money to a lawsuit which seeks to halt Norwegian oil exploration in the Arctic.
On 13 March 2019, two deputies of the Swedish parliament and three deputies of the Norwegian parliament nominated Thunberg as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. The nominating politicians explained their decision by arguing that global warming will be the cause of “wars, conflict and refugees” if nothing is done to halt it. Thunberg responded that she was “honoured and very grateful” for the nomination. If Thunberg receives the Prize later this year, she will become the youngest person ever to receive it.
In April 2019, Time magazine named Thunberg as one of the 100 most influential people of 2019. In the same month, the Chilean-based organization, Fundación Milarepa para el Diálogo con Asia, headed by Mario Aguilar of the University of St Andrews, announced that Thunberg had been selected as the recipient of the organization’s Laudato Si’ Prize.
In May 2019, artist Jody Thomas painted a 50-foot-high (15 m) mural of Thunberg on a wall in Bristol. It portrays the bottom half of her face as if under rising sea water.
On 7 June 2019, Amnesty International gave her their most prestigious award, the Ambassador of Conscience Award, for her leadership in the climate movement. Thunberg said the prize equally belongs to everyone who has taken part in the Fridays for Future Movement in school strike for climate. Thunberg was awarded a doctor honoris causa (honorary degree) by the University of Mons.
On 12 July 2019, she was awarded the Geddes Environment Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, that automatically granted her its Honorary Fellowship.
Thunberg was one of fifteen women selected to appear on the cover of the September 2019 issue of British Vogue, by guest editor Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. In May 2019, Vice released a 30-minute documentary, Make the World Greta Again. It features interviews with a number of youth protest leaders in Europe. That month, Thunberg also featured on the cover of Time magazine where she was described as a role model, and one of the “next generation leaders”.
“Greta Thunberg effect”
Thunberg has inspired a number of her school-aged peers in what has been described as the “Greta Thunberg effect”. In response to her outspoken stance, various politicians have also acknowledged the need to focus on climate change. Britain’s secretary for the environment, Michael Gove, said: “When I listened to you, I felt great admiration, but also responsibility and guilt. I am of your parents’ generation, and I recognise that we haven’t done nearly enough to address climate change and the broader environmental crisis that we helped to create.” Labour politician Ed Miliband, who was responsible for introducing the Climate Change Act 2008, said: “You have woken us up. We thank you. All the young people who have gone on strike have held up a mirror to our society … you have taught us all a really important lesson. You have stood out from the crowd.” In June 2019, a YouGov poll in Britain found that public concern about the environment had soared to record levels in the UK since Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion had “pierced the bubble of denial”.
In August 2019, a doubling in the number of children’s books being published which address the climate crisis was reported, with a similar increase in the sales of such books—all aimed at empowering young people to save the planet. Publishers attribute this to the “Greta Thunberg effect”.
Inspired by Thunberg, wealthy philanthropists and investors from the United States have donated almost half a million pounds to support Extinction Rebellion and school strike groups to establish the Climate Emergency Fund.Trevor Neilson, one of the philanthropists, said the three founders would be contacting friends among the global mega-rich to donate “a hundred times” more in the weeks and months ahead.
In February 2019, Thunberg shared a stage with the then President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, where he outlined “In the next financial period from 2021 to 2027, every fourth euro spent within the EU budget will go towards action to mitigate climate change”. Climate issues also played a significant role in European elections in May 2019 as Green parties nearly doubled their vote to finish second on 21%, boosting their MEP numbers to a projected 71. Many of the gains came from northern European countries where young people have taken to the streets inspired by Thunberg. The result gives the Greens a chance of becoming ‘kingmakers’ in the new European parliament.
In June 2019, Swedish Railways (SJ) reported that the number of Swedes taking the train for domestic journeys had risen by 8% more than the previous year, reflecting growing public concern about the impact of flying on CO
2 emissions that is highlighted by Thunberg’s refusal to fly to international conferences. Being embarrassed or ashamed to take a plane because of its environmental impact has been described on social media as ‘Flygskam’ or “Shame of flying”, along with the hashtag #jagstannarpåmarken, which translates as #istayontheground.
Criticism and response
Ad hominem attacks
By August 2019, Scientific American was reporting that Thunberg’s detractors have “launched personal attacks”, “bash (her) autism”, and “increasingly rely on ad hominem attacks to blunt her influence.” Swedish opinion writer Paulina Neuding invoked mental health issues to question the idea that Thunberg should be leading climate change activism.
Writing in The Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty said that columnists including Brendan O’Neill, Toby Young, the blog Guido Fawkes, as well as Helen Dale and Rod Liddle at The Spectator and The Sunday Times had been making “ugly personal attacks” on Thunberg. As part of its climate change denial, Germany’s Alternative for Germany party has attacked Thunberg “in fairly vicious ways”, according to Jakob Guhl, a researcher for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
Thunberg has also been criticised by the Australian climate-change denier Andrew Bolt after Thunberg announced she would travel to the United States in a carbon-zero yacht. Bolt said she had a cult following, calling her “freakishly influential” for a “girl so young and with so many mental disorders”. Former UKIP funder Arron Banks was criticised for joking on Twitter about the potential of her encountering an accident on her journey.
Response to ad hominem attacks
Banks’ comments outraged a number of MPs (Member of Parliament), celebrities and academics. Prof Tanja Bueltmann, founder of EU Citizens’ Champion, said Banks had “invoked the drowning of a child” for his own amusement, and noted that most of those attacking Thunberg “are white middle-aged men from the right of the political spectrum”. Writing in The Guardian, Gaby Hinsliff, said Thunberg has become “the new front in the Brexit culture war” arguing that the outrage generated by personal attacks on Thunberg by Brexiteers “gives them the welcome oxygen of publicity”. British philosopher Julian Baggini said ‘thuggish’ personal criticisms of Thunberg are indicative of “a moral and intellectual bankruptcy”.
Essayist Steve Silberman, writing in Vox, points out that being on the autism spectrum enables Thunberg to be fearless in her rhetoric. In an interview with Suyin Haynes in Time magazine, she addressed the criticism she has received online saying: “It’s quite hilarious when the only thing people can do is mock you, or talk about your appearance or personality, as it means they have no argument or nothing else to say.”
Criticism of Thunberg’s campaign
In an opinion column, Christopher Caldwell has claimed that Thunberg’s simplistic, straightforward approach to climate change will bring climate protesters into conflict with the complexities of decision-making in western democracies. The French philosopher Raphaël Enthoven claims that many people “buy virtue” with their support for Thunberg but don’t actually do anything to help.
In July 2019, Agence France-Presse reported that OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) secretary-general Mohammed Barkindo “complained of what he called ‘unscientific’ attacks on the oil industry by climate change campaigners, calling them ‘perhaps the greatest threat to our industry going forward'”, and said he was apparently referring “to the recent wave of school strikes inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s ‘Fridays for Future’ movement”.Thunberg and other climate activists responded by calling his remarks a badge of honour.
Misuse of her name
In late 2018, Ingmar Rentzhog, who claims to be one of the first to publicize Thunberg’s climate strike, asked her to become an unpaid youth advisor to his climate startup company. He then used her name and image without her knowledge or permission to raise millions for a WDHT for-profit subsidiary, We Don’t Have Time AB, of which Rentzhog is the chief executive officer. Thunberg received no money from the company. She terminated her volunteer advisor role with WDHT once she realised they were making money from her name, stating she “is not part of any organization… am absolutely independent… [and] do what I do completely for free.”
Thunberg participated in the Rise for Climate demonstration outside the European Parliament in Brussels. In London in October 2018, she addressed the ‘Declaration of Rebellion’ organized by Extinction Rebellion opposite the Houses of Parliament. She said: “We’re facing an immediate unprecedented crisis that has never been treated as a crisis and our leaders are all acting like children. We need to wake up and change everything”.
On 24 November 2018, she spoke at TEDxStockholm. She spoke about realizing, when she was eight years old, that climate change existed and wondering why it was not headline news on every channel, as if there was a world war going on. She said she did not go to school to become a climate scientist, as some suggested, because the science was done and only denial, ignorance, and inaction remained. Speculating that her children and grandchildren would ask her why they had not taken action in 2018 when there was still time, she concluded with “we can’t change the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed.”
Thunberg addressed the COP24 United Nations climate change summit on 4 December 2018, and also spoke before the plenary assembly on 12 December 2018. During the summit, she also participated in a panel talk together with representatives of the We Don’t Have Time foundation, in which she talked about how the school strike began.
On 23 January 2019, Thunberg arrived in Davos after a 32-hour train journey, in contrast to the many delegates who arrived by up to 1,500 individual private jet flights,to continue her climate campaign at the World Economic Forum. She told a Davos panel “Some people, some companies, some decision makers in particular have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.”
Later in the week, she warned the global leaders that “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire—because it is”. She wrote in an article for The Guardian in January 2019: “According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), we are less than 12 years away from not being able to undo our mistakes. In that time, unprecedented changes in all aspects of society need to have taken place, including a reduction of our CO2 emissions by at least 50%”.
European Economic and Social Committee
On 21 February 2019, she spoke at a conference of the European Economic and Social Committee and to European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, where she said that to limit global warming to less than the two degrees C goal established at the Paris Agreement, the EU must reduce their CO2 emissions by 80% by 2030, double the 40% goal set in Paris. “If we fail to do so” she said, “all that will remain of our political leaders’ legacy will be the greatest failure of human history.” Later, she joined 7,500 Belgian students in a climate protest in Brussels.
In the weekend 29–31 March 2019, Thunberg visited Berlin. She spoke in front of some 25,000 people near the Brandenburg Gate on Friday, where she argued that “We live in a strange world where children must sacrifice their own education in order to protest against the destruction of their future. Where the people who have contributed the least to this crisis are the ones who are going to be affected the most.” After the speech, Thunberg and fellow climate activist Luisa Neubauer visited the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and met with scientists there. On Saturday, Thunberg received the ‘Golden Camera’ Special Award on Germany’s annual film and television award show. In her acceptance speech at the gala, Thunberg urged celebrities everywhere to use their influence and do their fair share of climate activism to help her.
At an April 2019 meeting at the European Parliament in Strasbourg with MEPs and EU officials, she chided those present “for three emergency Brexit summits and no emergency summit regarding the breakdown of the climate and the environment”. Climate change discussions have not been dominant at EU summits because other issues have taken precedence. She said the world is facing its “sixth mass extinction” and said: “We have not treated this crisis as a crisis; we see it as another problem that needs to be fixed. But it is so much more than that. It’s an existential crisis, more important than anything else.”
Austrian World Summit R20
In May 2019, Thunberg met with Arnold Schwarzenegger, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, and Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen at the launch of a conference organised by Schwarzenegger to speed up progress toward the Paris Agreement.Quoting the most recent IPCC report she said: “If we haven’t made the changes required by approximately the year 2030, we will probably set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control. Then we will pass a point of no return which will be catastrophic.” 17,000 people attended the event from 30 different countries.
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