Sometimes a young woman comes along who makes us all sit up and take note, whether we want to or not. In recent years, Malala Yousafzai has bravely made the world aware of the issues facing girls who have to fight extremism for an education. Then US student Emma Gonzalez took the mantle; becoming the face of gun reform in America following the brutal murder of 17 of her school friends in a mass shooting last year. Now, 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg has added her name to the list.
Greta first made headlines last August. She abstained from school for 20 days in the run up to the Swedish general election to sit outside the country’s parliament building clutching a homemade sign that read: ‘Skolstrejk för klimatet’ or ‘School strike for the climate’.
At the same time, her Ted Talk gained momentum. Standing on stage in Stockholm in a blue hooded zip-up jumper and black jeans with her long brown hair plaited into her signature bunches, Greta could have been any teenager. Until she raised her steely gaze and spoke.
“When I was 11, I became ill,” she said. “I fell into depression, I stopped talking, and I stopped eating… Later on, I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, OCD and selective mutism. That basically means I only speak when I think it’s necessary – now is one of those moments.”
She added: “I think in many ways that we autistic are the normal ones, and the rest of the people are pretty strange… Especially when it comes to the sustainability crisis, where everyone keeps saying climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all, and yet they just carry on like before. I don’t understand that, because if the emissions have to stop, then we must stop the emissions. To me that 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.”
Greta went on to call on “rich countries” like Sweden to cut emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, face up to air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels, address mass animal extinction and take a stand against climate inequality faced by poorer countries.
Once the Swedish election was over, the teen continued her protest every Friday. This small act of defiance has since inspired more than one million young people in 112 countries to take to the streets to demand action on climate change. In the UK, her ‘Fridays For Future’ strikes formed part of ‘Extinction Rebellion’, 10 days of environmental protests that brought parts of London to a complete stand still. Protestors say they want the British government to “tell the truth” about the climate crisis, and address emissions before it’s too late. For her part, Greta has scorned politicians for paying lip service to climate change agreements: “We have not taken to the streets for you to take selfies with us, and tell us that you really admire what we do,” she said recently. “We children are doing this to wake the adults up.”
While some critics have accused Greta of exaggerating science, a UN report published last year by the world’s leading climate change scientists warned that we have just 12 years to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5C. Not doing so will increase the risk of extreme weather and climate poverty for millions of people.
The schoolgirl who cannot be silenced has now become a global symbol for environmental advocacy. She has met with Pope Francis, addressed the United Nations and the World Economic Forum in Davos (whom she urged to wake up and realise their “house is on fire”), appeared on the cover of Time magazine and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Her book, No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference, an anthology of her powerful speeches, is a bestseller, and she is one of the 15 “trailblazing change makers” Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex chose to cover British Vogue’s September issue.
Most recently, Greta has confirmed that she will attend the UN Climate Action summit in New York in September, sailing across the Atlantic by yacht. She refuses to fly because of the emissions air travel generates.
Greta believes there is still hope. “Yes, we are failing, but there is still time to turn everything around. We can still fix this,” she wrote in an impassioned piece for The Guardian earlier this year. “We still have everything in our own hands. But unless we recognise the overall failures of our current systems, we most probably don’t stand a chance.”
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