Greta Thunberg is a Swedish environmental activist. She rose to prominence in 2018, when aged 15. she protested climate change outside the Swedish Parliament. Her school strike quickly spread worldwide making her a prominent spokesperson for environmental causes and global warming in particular. Thunberg has travelled across the world (avoiding aeroplanes) to speak to leading political figures. She states she is not affiliated to any political movement, but argues we need to take urgent action to reverse an imminent environmental disaster.
“Our house is on fire, I am here to say our house is on fire. According to the IPCC we are less than 12 years away from not being able to undo our mistakes.” (16 April 2019)
Early life and activism
Great Thunberg was born on 3 January 2003. Her mother is a Swedish opera singer and her father an actor. Thunberg became aware of the threat of global warming from the age of eight, and couldn’t understand why so little was being done about it.
From a feeling of helplessness Thunberg became depressed and often stopped talking – a condition known as ‘selective mutism’. She was also diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Children with Asperger’s lack social communication and can end up with repetitive patterns of speech and behaviour. It is often considered a mild form of autism and overlaps with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Thunberg says she doesn’t enjoy chit chat and for many years at school was very quiet and shy. But, her personality has been, in many ways a blessing for her role as social activist speaking unpalatable truths.
Thunberg says that she sees things in black and white – and in particular the clarity of real danger facing the planet. She said that the only thing that helped her to overcome her inner turmoil and depression was to protest and speak about climate change and environmental issues. Thunberg has said that she can’t let things go like other people, but she feels the inner drive to keep speaking about climate change, no matter how awkward or difficult it proves to be. Initially, the target of her activism was her parents. Her father remembered how she was very persistent with innumerable arguments, data and graphs. He remembers it got to a point where he said: “Over the years, I ran out of arguments,” Her parents also were happy to see that her activism was a way out of her depression. Greta remembers that having the power to persuade her parents gave her confidence she could do something with her life.
“That’s when I kind of realised I could make a difference. And how I got out of that depression was that I thought: it is just a waste of time feeling this way because I can do so much good with my life. I am trying to do that still now.”
In May 2018, when she was 15, she won an essay writing competition on the environment held by a Swedish newspaper. This led to her attending meetings with an environmental group Fossil Free Dalsland, who were committed to taking action against climate change. Thunberg decided her contribution could be to lead a school strike to raise awareness. She later said that she got the idea for a school strike from the example of US students who refused to return to school after another fatal shooting at Parkland, Florida earlier in the year.
Initially, none of her school friends wished to join her, so she decided to go ahead with the strike on her own on the 20 August. That summer, Sweden had experienced heatwaves and wildfires so the issue was fairly prominent, but had been largely ignored by the main political parties in the national election. Thunberg stated she would not return to school until after the Swedish General Election on 9 September. She demanded the Swedish government commit to reducing carbon emission to the levels agreed by the Paris Agreement of 2016. Initially, she cut a lone figure on the cobblestones with a hand-painted banner. Her parents tried to dissuade her and passersby expressed bemusement.
After the elections, she went on strike every Friday travelling to the Swedish Parliament to protest a lack of action against climate change. Despite taking one day off a week for protests, she caught up her homework on other days. According to her father, she remained in the top 5 of her class. Her schoolwork combined with activism, such as writing speeches means she often works 12-15 hour days. Her protest soon spread on social media to other school children of her age. It also received substantial media coverage. Quite quickly the school strikes spread across the world and made front page headlines.
“Many people say that Sweden is just a small country and it doesn’t matter what we do. But I’ve learned that you are never too small to make a difference and if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to. ” (25 Jan 2019)
The school strikes have divided opinion across the world. Supporters have argued that given the imminent danger facing the planet, it is reasonable to take a radical stance. The UN secretary General Antonio Guterres said:
“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.”
Others argue it encourages truancy and does nothing to ameliorate the situation.
Personal choices and the environment
Thunberg believes that it is important everyone makes choices which help to look after the environment. She is vegan because avoiding meat and dairy can make a significant contribution to reducing harmful emissions and carbon footprint. She also pressured her parents to become vegan and made them feel guilty by saying they were damaging the future prospects of her generation. She has also vowed not to take aeroplanes as they are a significant contributor to global warming. This has raised the prevalence of ”flight shame’. The idea we should be shamed into not flying but take more environmentally friendly forms of transport.
Thunberg has spoken at high profile events across Europe. This included speaking at Davos – the World Economic Forum on 23 January 2019. She arrived by train, whereas many delegates arrived by private jet. She was characteristically blunt and to the point, arguing that many delegates had been prioritising increasing personal wealth rather than considering the welfare of the planet and future generations.
“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.” (Davos 23 January 2019)
She has also spoken a the European Parliament and Austrian World Summit.
In June 2019, she announced she would travel to the United Nations climate summits at the United Nations in New York. However, she would not fly, but travel in a high-speed racing yacht, equipped with solar panels and underwater turbines which generate zero carbon emissions. She then plans to take the train with her father to another UN climate conference in Chile. She is taking a sabbatical from school to spend a year campaigning against environmental destruction.
In July 2019, she made her musical debut with the English rock group The 1975. She recorded a long voice over on their track “Time to Rebel’ from their new album saying the time for civil disobedience was here. Proceeds from the track will go to the protest movement “Extinction Rebellion”
“We have to acknowledge that the older generations have failed. All political movements in their present form have failed. But homo sapiens have not yet failed. Yes, we are failing, but there is still time to turn everything around.”
In 2019, Thunberg has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by deputies from the Swedish parliament. Time magazine has named Thunberg as one of the 100 most influential people of the year.
Criticism from opponents
Her activism has incurred the wrath of those who feel threatened by her activism. With criticism and personal attacks from political parties which engage in climate denial such as the US Republican party and the German AFd. Responding to online criticism of her appearance, and her Aspergers, she responds.
“I expected when I started that if this is going to become big, then there will be a lot of hate. It’s a positive sign. I think that must be because they see us as a threat. That means that something has changed in the debate, and we are making a difference.” (Guardian)
Increasingly Greta Thunberg has become a proxy in political battles. She is emblematic of a radical alternative to the current mainstream orthodoxy, as a result, she has been criticised by political commentators who disagree with the idea of activism, they see as left-wing and progressive. President Trump, in particular, has made personal attacks on Thunberg, especially after she was awarded Time Person of the Year in 2019. Trump tweeted
“So ridiculous. Greta must work on her anger management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! “
Democratic Presidential hopeful Joe Biden defended Greta saying
“The Greta effect”
This is a term used to describe the impact on environmental activism, especially amongst young people. Her high profile has inspired many thousands of young people to take similar actions in protecting the environment. When visiting Bristol in England 2020, an estimated 25,000 people came to take part in the protest.
Greta has also had a phenomenal rise to international fame. From a lone outsider, to one of the most prominent international activists in the world, she has been asked how she deals with the fame. She replies:
“Sometimes I feel like it’s not happening because it’s like two completely different worlds. Here I am just a quiet girl, and there I am very famous,”
Thunberg is keen to maintain complete independence from other groups and not financially profit from her activism. She doesn’t accept payment for her speeches. When she found out a climate company “We Don’t have Time AB”, were using her name to make money, she cut herself off from the organisation. She also points out she is not a climate scientist but is merely a spokesperson for the science that is already in the public domain.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Greta Thunberg Biography”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net, published 29 July 2019. Last updated 5 March 2020.
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Quotes by Greta Thunberg
“Or maybe you are simply not mature enough to tell it like it is. Because even that burden you leave to us children. We become the bad guys who have to tell people these uncomfortable things, because no one else wants to or dares to. And just for quoting and acting on these numbers, these scientific facts, we receive unimaginable amounts of hate and threats.” (23 July 2019)
There is no middle ground when it comes to the climate and ecological emergency. Of course you could argue that we should go for a more risky pathway, such as the alternative of 580 gigatons of CO2 from january 1st 2018, which gives us a 50/50 percent chance of limiting the global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees. That amount of carbon dioxide will run out in about 12 years of current business as usual. But why should we do that, why should we accept taking that risk, leaving the future living conditions for humankind to a 50/50 flip of a coin.” (23 July 2019)
“And I believe that the biggest danger is not our inaction. The real danger is when companies and politicians are making it look like real action is happening, when in fact almost nothing is being done, apart from clever accounting and creative PR.”(16 April 2019)
“Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope, 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 if you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire, because it is.” (16 April 2019)
“We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground and we need to focus on equity. And if solutions within this system are so impossible to find then maybe we should change the system itself. We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again. We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time. We have come here to let you know that change is coming whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people!”
“You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the Living Planet. Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity with a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.” (25 Jan 2019)
Speaking to Jean-Claude Juncker of EU
“Most politicians do not want to talk to us. Okay, we do not want to talk to them either. We want you to talk to the scientists, to listen to them, because we repeat what they have been saying for decades.”
“I overthink. Some people can just let things go, but I can’t, especially if there’s something that worries me or makes me sad. I remember when I was younger, and in school, our teachers showed us films of plastic in the ocean, starving polar bears and so on. I cried through all the movies. My classmates were concerned when they watched the film, but when it stopped, they started thinking about other things. I couldn’t do that. Those pictures were stuck in my head.” (Guardian)
“When I grow up, I want to be able to look back and say that I did everything I could,” she says. “I think that more people should feel like that.”
“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,” (source)