Greta Thunberg: How one teenager became the voice of the planet
When adults wouldn't listen, Greta Thunberg started to strike. Now millions of school children around the world follow her. Thunberg's generation is our best chance of saving the world.
When Greta Thunberg first downloaded Instagram in June 2018, the Swedish schoolgirl used the app to post pictures of herself posing with her rescue dog, Roxy. There was Roxy in the snow, Roxy at sunset, even Roxy at an open-air theatre. It was an ordinary 15-year-old girl’s Instagram in many ways, though there were hints – a photo of homegrown tomatoes, multiple shots of fields and lakes – that Thunberg was passionate about the natural world. Indeed, just a month before, she had won a climate change essay competition run by Swedish daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. “I want to feel safe,” she wrote. “How can I feel safe when I know we are in the greatest crisis in human history?”
At the age of 12, Thunberg gave up meat and stopped taking flights, in order to lessen her impact on the climate. In her early teens she became depressed and spent time off school, partly because of her fears about global warming. Then, in the summer of 2018, she became distressed again when heatwaves and wildfires spread across Sweden.
On August 20, 2018, Thunberg posted a picture of herself sitting outside Sweden’s parliament building, the Riksdag. “We children don’t usually do what you grown-ups tell us to do. We do as you do. And since you don’t give a shit about my future. I don’t give a shit either,” she captioned an image of herself in leopard print trousers and a blue hoodie, sat on the ground in Stockholm, a stray cigarette butt resting on the cobbles at her feet. Two-thirds of the frame was filled by a handmade cardboard sign reading, "Skolstrejk för klimatet”.
Thunberg’s plan was to skip school until the Swedish general election on September 9, 2018, in protest against the government’s inaction on climate change. “I was going to sit there and gain media attention on the climate crisis so that people would start talking about it, but then afterwards I thought: why should I stop now?” she says. While Thunberg returned to school for four days of the week after the election, she continued to strike every Friday. And so, #FridaysForFuture was born.
When Thunberg, disturbed after Sweden’s warmest summer, began striking, she initially asked her classmates to join her protest. Her immediate peers refused. However, like any self-respecting member of Generation Z, Thunberg cross-posted her original strike photo on both Instagram and Twitter.
Almost instantly, other social media accounts amplified her cause. According to Thunberg, one of her earliest high-profile supporters was Ingmar Rentzhog, a Swedish entrepreneur and environmentalist who arrived at her strike after it was covered by local journalists. He posted pictures of Thunberg on Facebook and Twitter, allowing her cause to spread further. (Thunberg is reported to have cut ties with Rentzhog after allegedly using her name to crowdfund for his company.) Sasja Beslik, head of Group Sustainable Finance at the Finnish bank Nordea, quote-tweeted Thunberg’s post to more than 200,000 followers. Three days later, on August 23, Thunberg tweeted another picture, excitedly writing that “almost 35 people!” had joined her strike.
“I heard of Greta’s school strike on the afternoon of the first day,” says Mayson Persson, a non-binary trans 15-year-old from Stockholm who goes by they/them pronouns. Persson is politically engaged as a member of RFSL Ungdom, a Swedish youth organisation for LBGTQ+ rights. They say, they saw Thunberg’s post on Instagram after it was amplified by high-profile youth activists.
“The next day, just after 8am, I was there at her side,” Persson says. “I have, for a few years, had an interest in the climate and have chosen to not travel by airplane or eat meat in order to lessen my impact on the climate. I joined Greta because youths are strong but we are even stronger together.” At lunchtime, a handful more people joined the strike.
“Social media can be very effective in creating movements,” says Thurnberg. “In the beginning, that is how I first got attention. That is when journalists started coming.” Thunberg quickly attracted local reporters, going on to earn international coverage in just over a week.
On October 8, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a dire statement: a failure to limit the increase in global average temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it said, was likely to result in fires, floods and famines. “We don’t fall over a cliff at 1.5°C or by the year 2030,” says Jim Skea, an IPCC co-chair. He explains that while the media ran headlines about 12 years to save the planet, the report itself said 1.5°C warming would be hit between 2030 and 2052. The IPCC found that at 1.5°C warming, crop yields and livestock would be affected by rising temperatures, leading to food insecurity and poverty. “The IPCC is not an advocacy organisation, so it doesn’t say yes or no to a particular level of warming,” Skea says. “We can identify the implications, but we don’t actually advocate for it.”
Regardless, immediate action was needed to prevent an irreversible climate catastrophe, but while the scientists couched their findings in “ifs”, “buts” and “maybes”, one 16-year-old girl didn’t hold back. On October 20, Thunberg addressed 10,000 people gathered in Finland for a climate change prevention march in Helsinki organised by Greenpeace, WWF, and Helsinki University’s student union. On November 24, she gave a TEDxStockholm talk. By then, children in other countries had begun striking as well, using the #FridaysForFuture hashtag to spread their cause. On April 13, 2019, Thunberg posted a picture of Leah, a 14-year-old Ugandan student who skipped school and held up a sign demanding: “#ClimateAction Now!!!”.
In December 2018, Thunberg addressed the United Nations climate change summit, telling world leaders that they were “not mature enough to tell it like is”. This talk became her first real viral video – more than 9.8 million people watched her speech when it was uploaded on the Facebook page for Brut UK, “a video content publisher covering social justice”. On January 22, 2019, she told delegates at the World Economic Forum in Davos that they should be panicking. “Our house is on fire,” she said. “You say nothing in life is black or white. But that is a lie. A very dangerous lie. Either we prevent 1.5°C of warming or we don’t. Either we avoid setting off that irreversible chain reaction beyond human control or we don’t.”
On Friday, March 15, 2019, more than a million students took part in 2,000 protests in 125 countries, from Albania and Kyrgyzstan to Peru, Thailand and Zambia, in the first Global Climate Strike for Future. In seven months, Thunberg had become a social media celebrity with 1.1m Instagram followers and 400,000 Twitter followers – and the global figurehead for climate action.
On a crisp Friday morning in April 2019, Thunberg sits again outside the Riksdag, wrapped in a large, scuffed purple duffle coat, a cream woollen hat atop her now signature pigtails, and her hands – in mismatched black and grey gloves – resting on her lap. It is her 33rd week of striking. “It is hard to realise how fast it has all spread around to so many people,” she says. “I am so busy now I don’t really have time to sit down and think through what is actually happening.”
Social media was crucial for Greta’s journey because she is, she says, a natural introvert. “Without social media I don’t think it would have worked,” she says. “I just sat down on a school strike. Now I reach millions of people.” Although she has mobilised millions of children around the world, she rarely chats with the kids at her own school. “They do not talk to me that often but that is good because then I am in a free zone where I don’t have to deal with all the attention,” she says. A few years ago, she was diagnosed with selective mutism, an anxiety disorder characterised by an inability to speak in certain situations. “It is hard sometimes to always be at the centre of attention,” she says, “but when you talk about me you also have to talk about the climate.”
In person, Thunberg’s speaking style is identical to that she uses to address the world’s most powerful men: she is straightforward, unemotional, eloquent. She was diagnosed with Asperger’s four years ago, and regards her diagnosis as a “superpower” when it comes to speaking candidly about the climate. The only question that gives her pause – she thinks for five seconds before answering – is: “Do you ever feel like a celebrity?”
“I do not see myself as a celebrity or an icon or things like that… I have not really done anything,” she says. Less than six minutes later, an elderly man in a black anorak kneels down next to Thunberg to say that he has stopped flying, clutching her hand in his. Moments afterwards, two middle-aged women shake her hand and ask for a selfie, a tall Indian man requests a hug (she stoically complies), and a tourist holds out his notebook for an autograph. She writes her name in small, neat, thick black letters at the top of the page and then draws a love heart. When asked if this happens often, she simply says: “Yes”.
Yet, while the tourist couples around Thunberg want selfies, the Swedish schoolchildren gathered nearby want change. Four small children, perhaps between eight and ten, approach Thunberg to chat about their concerns, one clutching four bright orange Post-its full of notes, another waving a poster that says: “Marine life in plastic is not fantastic”. A large group of primary school age later arrive at the strike to rapturous applause; on neon green poster paper one child has written: “Stop global warming” and glued on three memes. In one, a starving polar bear asks: “There’s no such thing as climate change? Oh, good.”
Malin, a 16-year-old from Stockholm sporting devil horns, a blue rain jacket and walking boots, has come to strike with her friend Astrid, 18, for the third Friday in a row. “Greta has been such a leader, and it feels safe to express what I want when someone goes before me,” she says. Nearby, Ester, also 16, is the only student from her school to strike. “I think a lot of it comes from a lack of information,” she says.
“At school we’re taught about climate change and they say ‘this might happen’. I think we need to start making it clear we need to act now. It’s not a hypothetical universe that this is happening to, it’s happening here, and it’s going to affect us, everyone.”
The youngest protester is a five-year-old boy in a raincoat and blue hat who has written a message on A4 paper in a handful of different coloured felt-tip pens. His mother, who wishes to remain anonymous, travelled four hours by train to see Thunberg, and translates his sign. “Don’t cut any trees down, just two a week.” Clutching a jar of honey made by her own bees that she intends to give to Thunberg, the mother calls the teenager “very inspiring”. The crowd in the square comes and goes, but it is clear Thunberg has galvanised people from five to 50
“What do we want?” the protesting children spontaneously begin to chant. “To save the climate.” When do they want it? “Now! Now! Now!”
Greta Thunberg is far from the only child activist calling attention to the climate crisis, nor is she by any means the first. Jamie Margolin is the 17-year-old founder of Zero Hour, a youth-led climate movement established in the US in 2017. Margolin says when she first became an activist at the age of 14 in her home town of Seattle, it was “really, really” difficult to get anyone to pay attention.
“Climate change was barely in the news ever and I felt so alone,” says Margolin, who was motivated to start her movement after smog from over 20 Canadian wildfires blew over to her home city of Seattle, giving her “two weeks of headaches”.
“I’ve had this overwhelming sense of dread ever since I was really little,” Margolin says over Skype from school, while her peers shout, chat and play in the background. Like Thunberg, she can speak at length about the climate – her passion not betrayed by any audible emotion, but by the depth of her knowledge. “Whenever I saw something about climate change on TV, I would just not look at it because it was so scary,” she goes on. “I remember going to the beach in Seattle and the sign said, ‘Don’t feed the seals, don’t feed the otters’. But I never saw any seals or otters.”
Margolin joined local environmental organisations and, alongside other youth activists, sued the state of Washington to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (The case was ultimately dismissed.) “Environmental activism wasn’t like some little extracurricular, it was a full-time job outside of school,” she says now. “With other youth in my state, I was doing the unglamorous, gruelling work of building a movement, and no one was listening.”
Zero Hour aims to “centre the voices of diverse youth in the conversation around climate justice”. Rebecca Raby, a professor of child studies at Canada's Brock University, researches youth activism, and says that minority voices often struggle to gain media attention. Margolin, who is Hispanic, readily acknowledges that she built her movement “on the shoulders” of those who came before her, including the indigenous youth activists who resisted the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock in 2016. She also acknowledges that Thunberg – who sent her a message on Twitter asking to work with Zero Hour in October 2018 – built upon her work.
“Right now there’s this international climate movement that people are seeing, but the community organising for this has been happening for centuries,” Margolin says. “Even if we don’t directly get the credit or funding or whatever, it’s still amazing to see this movement grow. To be one of the first dominoes to knock this whole thing down is really amazing.”
There are a handful of reasons why Thunberg became the figurehead who mobilised the world’s children. The media impact of the “12 years to save the planet” figure touted in the press just two months after she started striking was, says Skea, “unprecedented” for the IPCC. Thunberg arguably also had pre-existing social capital – her mother is opera singer Malena Ernman, and she retweeted Thunberg’s original strike photo to over 40,000 followers.
“I followed her mum so that’s where I saw Greta’s first tweet,” says 18-year-old Nora Axelsson Håkanson, who speaks on children’s rights for the Swedish Feminist Initiative party, and joined Thunberg on her second day of striking. “Many people stopped by to tell us that they’d seen the post on Twitter or Facebook and support us,” she says of the early strike. “It all exploded and went viral just over the night.”
Yet beyond Thunberg’s social capital, there are other cultural reasons why adults listened to the solitary schoolgirl. Raby says that while there are many historical examples of youth movements, young people are now mobilising in more significant numbers and across more widespread geographies. The academic says it’s not the case that children are becoming more engaged — the real change is that adults have started paying attention.
“Young people’s views have often been marginalised based on arguments that they don’t know what they are talking about. Recent issues that young people have mobilised about all directly link to their lives and experience,” Raby explains. She adds that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed in the 1990s by Canada, the UK, India and New Zealand among others, means there are more top-down youth initiatives than ever before.
In 2018, one movement in particular inspired children to mobilise in greater numbers than ever before. On Valentine’s Day, a gunman killed 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Student survivors immediately demanded stricter gun control throughout the US, holding their first rally just three days after the tragedy. Rapidly, a handful of students became household names – Emma González and David Hogg, among others, ultimately led more than 1.2m protesters on the March for Our Lives in Washington, on March 24, 2018. Thunberg cites these marchers as one of the original inspirations for her strike. Hogg and González are now social media celebrities, with a combined total of over 2.5m followers. As teens, they aptly used memes and hashtags to make their movement go viral.
“Social media has played a significant role in recent activism,” says Raby. “While in the past young people and other more marginalised groups had to rely on established news media to publicise their concerns and events, now young people can communicate with each other and with adults directly.”
When it comes to the environment, the children are (what’s left of) the future. Kehkashan Basu is the now 18-year-old founder of the Green Hope Foundation, a member of the World Future Council, and a former co-ordinator of the United Nations Environment Programme. “My first climate action was planting a tree on my eighth birthday, using my gift money. Since that day, I have organised over 15,000 tree plantings across multiple countries,” she says.
At the age of eight, Basu became an activist when she saw a picture on television of a dead bird with “its belly full of plastic”. “Numb” at the thought of the bird’s “agony”, she organised a “no plastic” campaign in her neighbourhood. At 12, she started the Green Hope Foundation in her home city of Dubai. “What began as a dream with a handful of friends back in 2012 is now a global social enterprise with over 1,000 members working at ground level in 12 countries,” she says. The young people in the foundation clean beaches, plant trees, conserve habitats, and give speeches and presentations about global warming.
Basu has since moved from Dubai to Canada, a country with its own famous young environmental activist. At a First Nations meeting in 2016, the then 12-year-old Autumn Peltier confronted Justin Trudeau about his pipeline projects. “I am very unhappy with the choices you’ve made,” she told the Canadian prime minister, referring in part to his approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which could see 980km of pipe pump oil through vulnerable habitats, risking spills in bodies of water such as the Strait of Juan de Fuca, on the British Columbia coast.
“I think when the message comes from youth it has a bigger impact, because we are the future generation, the future leaders,” Peltier, now 14, says. Peltier comes from Wiikwemkoong, a First Nation on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, and says her people have nicknamed her a “water warrior” because of her advocacy. In March 2018, she told the United Nations general assembly to “warrior up” and stop polluting the world’s water.
“People my age are starting to notice how adults are treating the planet,” she says. “There’s a lot of kids that are worrying about our planet and our future, and we’re all just standing up now.”
On April 21, 2019 – after two straight days of train travel – Greta Thunberg came to London. A long queue of people snaked down Euston Road the next day as children and adults alike waited to hear her speak at her first public event in England. Just over a week earlier, the Youth Strike for Climate UK brought traffic to a halt in London. Children waving meme-emblazoned placards chanted outside Downing Street: “Theresa May, hear us say, climate change is here to stay!”
Two days later, Thunberg addressed MPs in the UK parliament, a microphone clipped to her pink-and-black check shirt, her voice and her plaits as unwavering as ever. “I know many of you don’t want to listen to us – you say we are just children,” she said. Two months earlier, Theresa May scolded school strikers for wasting teachers’ time and urged them to return to class. “I assure you we will go back to school the moment you start listening to science and give us a future. Is that really too much to ask?” Earlier that day, Thunberg met leading Westminster politicians, including Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable and Caroline Lucas. A symbolic empty seat was left out for Theresa May. "It was incredibly inspiring to meet Greta and in particular to hear her speak the truth to politicians about the scale and urgency of the climate crisis," says Lucas. "Politicians who fail to respond will be judged by history far less kindly than those striking or taking to the streets over the climate emergency."
It is clear that children’s climate activism is already putting pressure on world leaders to change. In February 2019, striking students in Belgium forced an environment minister to resign after she claimed the protests were a “set up” by adults. In the same month, California senator Dianne Feinstein was criticised for her failure to engage with child activists who were rallying for the Green New Deal.
“When adults say we need to go back to school I feel like they don’t understand the message that we are trying to send,” says Anuna De Wever, the de facto leader of the school strike movement in Belgium. “It’s a message of urgency. Of the fact that we are facing an existential crisis. We literally won’t have a future if we don’t act now. We are the last generation to actually be able to save this world.”
Are there limitations to movements run on social media, where followers and subscribers click "Like" to soothe their own guilt? “It feels like if someone steps behind me then their conscience is clear,” says Thunberg. “If all the people who followed me on social media did something then the world would look very different.” What about limitations to movements run by kids?
“There’s this weird thing where people will pit you as an inspiration, but then they don’t actually do anything about it,” says Zero Hour’s Margolin. “World leaders will be like ‘Oh, you guys are going to change the world’. It’s like, actually, we’re just kids telling you to stop messing up.”
Thunberg readily concurs. “I have spoken to many politicians who ask me ‘What do you think about this?’, and it’s just insane,” she says. “We are not doing this because we have solutions and we want to be the ones in power, we are just messengers. We are just children and we cannot solve this. We cannot wait for us to grow up and become the ones in charge because by then it will be too late.” In her speech to the UK parliament, she was not optimistic, noting that despite the strikers' accomplishments, the greenhouse-gas emission curve was still rising.
Yet despite the naysayers, many other politicians and powerful people already back the #FridaysForFuture strikers. Angela Merkel says she welcomes the protesters, while Norwegian Socialist Left MP Freddy André Øvstegård nominated Thunberg for the Nobel Peace Prize. “We need to recognise this new movement and enhance the momentum for change,” he says now. “She deserves the prize.”
Scientists, too, back the youth activists – in March 2019, more than 12,000 of them signed a letter in support of the youth protests. “She and her colleagues have great moral authority – they’ll have to live with these changes all their lives,” says climate scholar Bill McKibben. “They can call on the rest of us to act, and they have. And I think many people will choose to answer.”
Whether that is true remains to be seen, but Thunberg is cautiously optimistic. When asked why so many people are blind to the realities of the climate crisis, her answer is simple. “I do not think they are evil,” she says. “I just think that they are not informed.”
Thunberg is part of a long history of child activists – in 1990, TIMEran an article about “ecokids”, a “new generation” of environmentally active schoolchildren. Thunberg is not naive about her place in this narrative, and understands newer and fresher faces may replace her as the media’s favourite young activist. “I am not going to be this interesting for long,” she says. “This attention is soon going to fade out, but I just hope that the attention sticks to the movement.”
Before Thunberg inspired one million school students to protest about climate inaction on March 15, 2019, she wanted to be an astronaut. Or an actor. Or a singer, scientist, farmer, policewoman, politician or doctor. “It is so hard to find something and decide what I want because I want to do so much,” she says. “But I realised that if you don’t care about the climate then the other things won’t matter in the future.”
Thunberg is neither hopeful nor pessimistic about the future of our planet – she is firmly grounded in the present, trying to change what she can now. “I have just decided that I will do this even if there is no hope. Not having hope is not an excuse for not doing something,” she says. “Everyone says different things. Some say we are already screwed and some say we still have time.” Her message, as always, is calm and clear. “I just hope that this movement will continue and we do something about the climate – because that is the only thing that matters.”