Greta Thunberg (Sweden)

...for inspiring and amplifying political demands for urgent climate action reflecting scientific facts

Greta Thunberg is a teenage climate activist from Sweden. She is the powerful voice of a young generation that will have to bear the consequences of today’s political failure to stop climate change. Her resolve to not put up with the looming climate disaster has inspired millions of peers to also raise their voices and demand immediate climate action.

In August 2018, with the Swedish Parliamentary election only weeks away, 15-year old Greta Thunberg saw with despair how politicians lacked strategies to combat climate change – if they even cared at all about the issue. Knowing that the life of present and future generations depend on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, Thunberg took matters in her own hands. She went on “school strike for climate” outside the Swedish Parliament.

The initiative was picked up widely both online and in the media, and young activists joined Thunberg outside the Parliament building. Others organised school strikes elsewhere. The movement #FridaysForFuture was born and millions of people – young and old – have taken to the streets since.

Driven by her scientific understanding of the climate crisis and the insufficient response of politics and society to the problem, it became Thunberg’s mission to promote action against climate change. She personifies the notion that everyone has the power to create change. Her example has inspired and empowered people from all walks of life to demand political action.

Thunberg continues to tirelessly convey her message: acknowledge the facts, realise the urgency of the climate crisis and act accordingly. She speaks at high-level conferences, meets world leaders, and gives guidance to a growing global movement.

Many people before Thunberg have tried to convey the urgency of immediate climate action. No one has been more successful. Her uncompromising way to speak truth to power resonates with the public. Greta Thunberg has managed to get the climate crisis not only on the cover page of newspapers but also on top of people’s minds.

Ole von Uexkull, Executive Director of the Right Livelihood Foundation, commented:

With the Award to Greta Thunberg, we honour one of the most effective civil society leaders of our time and celebrate the power of every human being to make a difference.

Long biography

The Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was born on 3 January 2003 in Stockholm. Growing up in times of an undeclared climate emergency, Thunberg had the urge to grasp the causes and effects of climate change at an early age. Worried about the dramatically widening gap between the urgency to act and the indifference of politicians around the world, she found a way to demand climate action that inspired a global movement.

“We know – and we can do something about it”

“We know – and we can do something about it” – that was the headline of the article, that won 15-year-old Thunberg the first prize in a writing competition about climate change initiated by the Swedish newspaper “Svenska Dagbladet” in early 2018. Thunberg didn’t leave it at writing about what worried her. In the run-up to Swedish national elections in August 2018, she started a sit-in outside the parliament in Stockholm, handing out factsheets about the climate crisis to passers-by and holding up a self-painted sign with the words “Skolstrejk förklimatet” [School strike for the climate].  She made it known that she and the young generation had a stake in the election outcome because they were the ones who had to live with the consequences of unhindered climate change.

People took notice. National and international media reported about her protest. Thunberg decided to continue her strike beyond the Swedish elections:  “I cannot vote. So this is my way to get my voice heard. Every Friday, I miss classes to sit outside my country’s parliament. I will continue to do so until leaders come into line with the Paris agreement.”

“Unite behind the science”

Thunberg uses the platform that global media attention provides her to amplify the messages of climate science. Under the 2016 Paris agreement, countries agreed to pursue efforts to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. In line with recommendations from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body for assessing the science related to climate change, Thunberg calls for rapid and far-reaching changes to reach this goal. She promotes the IPCC’s target: global human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) need to fall by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching “net zero” around 2050.

Eminent scientists and prominent environmentalists applaud Thunberg for taking the science seriously. 2009 Right Livelihood Laureate David Suzuki says: “Adults are focused on the economy while the biosphere is going up in flames. Thunberg has not gotten bogged down by trying to justify the target with economic reasons. Instead, she has focused on the need to reduce emissions above all economic and political “realities” that are the reasons nothing has been done so far.”

Thunberg was speaking for a new generation of concerned activists when she issued a call to action to French parliamentarians in July 2019: “You don’t have to listen to us. But you have to listen to science. And that is all we ask, to unite behind the science.”

Speaking truth to power

Greta Thunberg is a remarkably effective communicator, who calmly and concisely lays out her case, without compromise, but in an entirely reasoned way. The simplicity and truthfulness of her statements cut through the misinformation and political confusion in the climate debate.

When she was invited to speak at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 24) in Katowice, Poland in December 2018, Thunberg’s outspokenness resonated with the participants. “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.”

She has been invited to many high-level conferences and meetings since. In January 2019, Thunberg took a 32-hour train ride to Davos to address the world’s most powerful business and state leaders at the World Economic Forum. In August 2019, Thunberg embarked on a two-week sailing trip across the Atlantic that brought her to New York to participate in the UN Climate Action Summit 2019 in September. She decided to take a year off school to be part of the Santiago Climate Change Conference (COP 25) in Chile on December 2019.

Fridays for Future

Greta Thunberg is the instigator of the worldwide ‘Fridays for Climate’ student protests. These have spread to dozens of countries and seen millions of people taking to the streets, calling for urgent action on climate change. Greta Thunberg has inspired countless young people around the globe to stand up for their future. In many countries, students followed her example, skipped lessons on Fridays and went on school strikes for the climate. Under the name “Fridays for Future”, these protests developed into a decentralised global movement that has the power to mobilise millions of young people to demonstrate outside parliaments and city halls. Greta Thunberg has captured the imagination of young people and empowered them to see that they can change political outcomes. She has opened the door through which climate activists and advocates can finally reach governments that were refusing to listen to them.

Environmentalists laud Thunberg for reinvigorating the urgency of the global climate movement. Bill McKibben, the American 2014 Right Livelihood Laureate, pays tribute to her achievements so far: “Greta Thunberg has been the most catalytic voice yet in the climate fight, and managed to rally much of the world’s youth, in precisely the right spirit.”

Intergenerational climate action

The determination and resourcefulness of the young climate strikers have inspired many others to join in. When the first international climate strike was organised in March 2019, around 2 million people in 135 countries around the globe joined the demonstrations. The appeal of the movement reaches across generations. “I believe Thunberg has put the climate crisis issue on the map more than most of us have been able to do in decades,” says Sheila Watt Cloutier, Inuit activist from Canada, environmental campaigner and Right Livelihood Award Laureate 2015. “Greta Thunberg brings a dimension of urgency to the climate debate that had been absent,” she says and continues: “This is the message I have been trying to convey for almost two decades…that the issue is not just about wildlife or the ice…but about our children and grandchildren…She is that child, that grandchild.”

“Being different is a superpower”

Aside from climate activism, Thunberg is also helping raise awareness of Asperger syndrome and fight stigma around mental health issues in general. She was diagnosed with Asperger’s, a mild form of autism, at the age of 11. The condition impacts her outlook on the world, says Thunberg: “I have Asperger’s syndrome, and to me, almost everything is black or white. (…) There are no grey areas when it comes to survival. Either we go on as a civilisation, or we don’t. We have to change.”

While millions of supporters back Thunberg, she also faces hate speech on social media where climate change deniers and trolls go after her. She is unfazed by the torrent of hatred and defamation directed towards her and says: “Given the right circumstances, being different is a superpower.”

Greta Thunberg, 2019 Right Livelihood Award Laureate


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