For inspiring and amplifying political demands for urgent climate action reflecting scientific facts.
Greta Thunberg is a young climate activist from Sweden. She emerged as the most powerful voice of a 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 her peers to also raise their voices and demand immediate climate action.
In August 2018, 15-year-old Thunberg saw with despair how politicians lacked strategies to combat climate change. Knowing that the lives of present and future generations depend on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, Thunberg decided to raise her voice. She went on a “school strike for climate” outside the Swedish Parliament, and the movement #FridaysForFuture was born.
Millions of people – young and old – have taken to the streets since. Thunberg 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 to stop climate change.
Many people before Thunberg had tried to convey the urgency of immediate climate action. No one has been more successful. Thunberg has managed to get the climate crisis not only on the cover pages of newspapers but also on top of people’s minds.
Urgent climate action is needed
Under the 2016 Paris agreement, countries agreed to pursue efforts to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. According to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), man-made emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) need to fall globally by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching “net zero” around 2050.
Growing up against the backdrop of an undeclared climate emergency, Thunberg grasped the causes and effects of climate change at an early age. “We know – and we can do something about it” was the headline of the article that won 15-year-old Thunberg the first prize in a writing competition about climate change held by the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in early 2018.
Dismayed by the dramatically widening gap between the urgency to act and the indifference of politicians around the world, she soon found a way to demand climate action that inspired a global movement. Driven by her scientific understanding of the climate crisis and the insufficient response of politics and society to the problem, Thunberg took it upon herself to promote action against climate change.
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 för klimatet” (School strike for the climate).
Fridays For Future
People took notice of Thunberg’s school strike. National and international media reported about her protest. Young activists joined her outside the Swedish Parliament or organised school strikes elsewhere. Thunberg decided to continue her strike beyond the Swedish elections. “I cannot vote,” she said. “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.”
Inspired by her example, students around the globe went on school strikes for the climate each Friday. Under the name “Fridays for Future,” these protests developed into a decentralised global movement with the power to mobilise millions of people. 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. 2014 Right Livelihood Laureate Bill McKibben said, “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.”
Promoting scientific facts
Thunberg uses the platform that global media attention provides to amplify the messages of climate science. She has called for rapid and far-reaching changes to reach the targets outlined by IPCC.
Thunberg was speaking for a new generation of concerned citizens when she issued a call to action to French parliamentarians in July 2019. “You don’t have to listen to us,” she said. “But you have to listen to science. And that is all we ask, to unite behind the science.”
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.
Prominent scientists and environmentalists applaud Thunberg for taking science seriously. “Adults are focused on the economy while the biosphere is going up in flames,” said 2009 Right Livelihood Laureate David Suzuki. “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.”
Speaking truth to power
Thunberg is a remarkably effective communicator, who calmly and concisely lays out her case, doing it without compromise and in an entirely well-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,” she said. “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, she also embarked on a two-week sailing trip across the Atlantic that took her to New York to participate in the UN Climate Action Summit 2019. She decided to take a year off from school to be part of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 25) that was supposed to be held in Santiago, Chile but was later moved to Madrid, Spain.
Intergenerational climate action
The determination and resourcefulness of young climate strikers have inspired many others to join. 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,” said 2015 Right Livelihood Laureate Sheila Watt Cloutier, an environmental campaigner and Inuit activist from Canada. “Greta Thunberg brings a dimension of urgency to the climate debate that had been absent.”
Aside from climate activism, Thunberg has also raised awareness of Asperger’s syndrome and has worked to fight the 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, she has noted. “I have Asperger’s syndrome, and to me, almost everything is black or white,” she said. “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 presidents and other powerful politicians go after her, compounded by comments from climate change deniers. However, she remains unfazed by the torrent of hatred and defamation directed towards her saying, “Given the right circumstances, being different is a superpower.”