Greta Thunberg is a 18-year-old climate activist and student. What began as a school strike outside of the Swedish parliament, ended up igniting a global climate movement calling for immediate action to prevent environmental disasters.
Thunberg’s school strike spread in Sweden and around the world, inspiring a youth-led global climate strike movement, Fridays for the FutureThe group urged reductions in carbon emissions. Her speeches at major political gatherings, including the World Economic Forum, the British Parliament, the U.S. Congress and, most recently, the United Nations climate summit known as COP26, have castigated leaders for failing future generations with their “fairy tales of eternal economic growth.” Or, as she said in one speech, “How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”
Thunberg credits her Asperger’s syndrome, which is considered part of the autism spectrum, for her truth-telling and focus as a climate activist. She lives in Stockholm.
The final document was able to even reduce the blah blah blah. This is a huge achievement if you think about it. Of course it’s a step forward that, instead of coming back every five years, they’re doing it every year now. But still, that doesn’t mean anything unless that actually leads to increased ambition and if they actually fulfill those ambitions.
What do you mean when you say, “watering down the blah, blah, blah”?
As we all know, or as we might know, the so-called “f-word” was included for the first time in this document: fossil fuel. It makes you wonder about what they have been doing for the past decades, and not mentioning fossil fuels. This is a problem that, in a large, very significant way, is caused by fossilfuels. And instead of “phasing out” [coal, the document’s language became] “phasing down.” So, yeah, that is one very clear example.
Another question that was up in the air was the one about finance for loss and/or damage and the Green Climate Fund. They failed to reach an agreement on this question. The money that has already been promised, the bare minimum that the so-called global north have promised that they will deliver, they failed to come to any conclusions, and it’s been postponed once again.
What positives might have been derived from COP26’s activities?
One of the positives is that it shows that, under the current circumstances, within current systems, we won’t be able to solve the climate crisis unless there is massive pressure from the outside. Without a massive increase in awareness and people demanding change, these conferences will not produce anything. These events provide a huge opportunity to mobilize people to focus on the big climate crisis once again and to highlight the fact that not enough is being achieved.
I recently read that we have a record number of greenhouse gas emissions at the current rate. 11 years until 1.5 degrees Celsius is reached [the Paris agreement’s aspirational temperature threshold for heading off the worst impacts of climate change]. How do you get people focused on this?
There are many numbers that can include many things. But it’s just the principle that we need to understand: that we have a very limited time, that we are using up the carbon dioxide budget right now — no matter which carbon dioxide budget you go for — and that cannot be undone in the future. We may be able create new technologies and scale them up to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but that doesn’t mean that you can undo the damage.
We must also understand that 1.5 is not a safe limit. Already, as it is now — 1.1 or 1.2 — people are already suffering. Numerous people are already suffering the consequences of the climate crisis, and they have been doing this for a while. This is not a problem for the future. This is happening right now. It’s already happening — it has been happening for a long time — and many people have been bearing witness to this and trying to tell this, but they have been ignored.
You’ve been very successful in getting energy and attention on this issue over the last few years. Can you speak about how you first became aware of the climate crisis, and then being motivated to act?
There’s a big difference between the first time I heard about the climate crisis and when I actually understood its consequences. I may have heard about it in school when I was 7 or 8. They teach the ground principles: the greenhouse effect, and it’s being amplified by us since we humans emit CO2 and so on. But then I read up on it more and more because it didn’t seem real that they’d explain it as a very big problem — but it wasn’t treated like one. It was kind of a long process because there’s a lot to read and a lot to understand. Based on what I read, I concluded that this was very, very serious.[My actions] started small at home, like turning off the lamps when I wasn’t in the room and cutting down meat consumption and so on. Then I did more: I stopped flying and stopped buying new items. I became vegetarian, and vegan. I tried to sign petitions and join marches. But that didn’t have an effect.
Have you ever felt like your actions were moving to a larger scale than your personal?
I recall that I was on a conference call with young people who care deeply about the environment. We were trying out different ideas and planning to organize a march. I thought, Okay, it could be.. And then I presented my idea of school striking, and they weren’t very keen on the idea. They didn’t think it was going to have an impact. They were like, “We can eat some cookies and drink coffee and tea and make it a pleasant event for young people to educate themselves about the climate crisis.” And I was like, “No, you clearly haven’t understood the climate crisis. This is an emergency. This is not only supposed to be nice, this actually has to be something important.” And I think we who have the privilege and the opportunity to actually do something should go put ourselves out there. I ended the call. Well, it was a Zoom call, so I just pressed “Leave Meeting” — so it wasn’t as dramatic as it would have been otherwise. But I hung-up and decided to continue doing it by myself.
And that’s when you were 15, right?
Yeah. I just thought that someone must do something. I need to do something more because this isn’t leading to anything. So I decided to strike at school. Many others followed my lead. And then, we became an international movement.
But before that, when did you feel the weight of an emergency?
It was only cognitive dissonance I noticed with everyone around me. My parents, my friends, and everyone I knew. They were like, “Oh, what are your interests?” And I said, “I’m interested in the climate because it’s an emergency.” They’re like, “Oh, that’s fun.” And I was like, “You clearly don’t get this.” Because everyone said, “I care about climate change. I think it’s very important.” And then they don’t do anything. And that got to me because I’m autistic, and I don’t like when people say one thing and then do another thing. I must live by my values. Like, I remember one time I was talking to my dad, and he said, “I want to buy a new car. This SUV looks really nice.” And I was like, “But you said you cared about the climate.” He was like, “I do, but you can still do both.” And I was like, “No, you cannot.” And I got really upset.
You’ve quipped that if more people had autism or Asperger’s maybe we would do better in focusing on the climate crisis and not continuing to justify the trade-offs in our own minds.
This is not to say that autism should be romanticized or advocated for. Autism can hold you back if it is not treated properly. But there are certain elements that make you autistic that I believe more people should have. For example, us not having as much cognitive dissonance and being able to focus on facts, it’s a good thing. It’s also possible to focus on an emergency and treat it as such.
It feels like many today — neurotypical people, people in general — are so focused on following the stream, doing like everyone else, because they don’t want to stand out. They don’t want to be uncomfortable. They don’t want to cause any problems. They just want everyone to be the same. And I think that’s very harmful in an emergency where we are social animals. We’re herd animals. In an emergency, someone needs to say that we’re heading towards the cliff. And everyone is just following, saying like, “Well, no one else is turning around, so I won’t either.” That could be very dangerous.
Do you believe that one of the reasons you were so successful right away was because it was shocking to hear this young girl speak out against adults who claimed to be the experts?
Well, there have been many, many young people — many people — who have been speaking out on this. I’m not the only one who has gained attention on this. Many people have listened. And I’m very privileged to come from a part of the world where I have the opportunity to use my voice and to be listened to. We get to the point. We don’t care for the blah, blah, blah, so to speak. We say exactly what we want. We don’t mind being uncomfortable. We don’t mind being unpopular. We are. Laughed at and ridiculed and hated on and sent threats — and that’s not something that should be romanticized in any way. Many are still going because they know what they are doing is right. It’s just the idea of: We don’t care about our reputation; we care more about the planet.
There are many people who are interested in climate change, but they take a more diplomatic approach to the issue, knowing that compromises are necessary to get things done. Do you ever worry that the “blah, blah, blah,” or more combative rhetoric, makes their job harder when they’re trying to do the right thing, just from a more temperate position?
You can choose to take 20 seconds from a 10-minute speech, which is what the media does often, and look at those 20 seconds. It may appear that we have undemocratic views or that we are very populist. This is false. I get that some people may think this way, and that they frame it that manner.
Of course we need compromises. However, we must also recognize that the laws and principles of physics are not to be compromised. If we are here [gestures]We need to be there [gestures again]To have, say, safe living conditions. They are talking about moving [just a tiny bit]If so, I would rather say no. Yes, it’s better than nothing, but we have to zoom out and understand that we’re not going to get there if we pretend that this is enough.
Strategically, do you ever feel the need to change your tack these days, to say, “Okay, this is what people might expect me to say now, and so here’s a new way to shock people out of their complacency”?
At the speech I gave in the U.N. General Assembly, I said, “How dare I?!” Of course, I said many other things, but that was what people took out of it. And me being angry and emotional, shouting at world leaders. And then I thought this. Okay, now I have people’s attention, I will only speak facts. So in the speech [in Madrid]At COP25, I spoke mainly about facts and numbers after that because so much attention was given to that. People watched it, and it felt that no one understood a single word I said. Because sometimes the news is just that I’m making a speech rather than what I have to say — very, very often. So that’s a way of trying to, I don’t know, surprise, if that’s the right word.
Are you inspired by any of these world leaders, by President Biden
If you call him a leader — I mean, it’s strange that people think of Joe Biden as a leader for the climate when you see what his administration is doing. The U.S. is actually expanding its fossil fuel infrastructure. Why is this happening? It shouldn’t be on teenagers and activists who just want to go school to raise awareness and inform people that we are in an emergency.
People ask us, “What do you want?” “What do you want politicians to do?” And we say, first of all, we have to actually understand what is the emergency. We are trying to find a solution of a crisis that we don’t understand. For example, in Sweden, we ignore — we don’t even count or include more than two-thirds of our actual emissions. How can we solve the crisis if we don’t even consider two-thirds of it. So it’s all about the narrative. It’s all about, what are we actually trying to solve? It’s not. ThisEmergency, or is it? This emergency?
You have become a hero among young people, but you were bullied as an infant and socially isolated. It must be sort of complicated now that young people who previously didn’t support you or give you the time of day are putting you on a pedestal.
Yes, I was afraid about other young people when school struck my first year. It was quite strange to have other young people with me. Because I didn’t know how they would react and how they would think.
What can you tell bullying young people?
You are not the only one who is experiencing it. There are many, many others who are experiencing this same thing — many more than you think — beneath the surface. It shouldn’t be this way. Children can be very mean. Being strange can be a good thing. I think most people in the climate movement are a bit strange — very much including myself. And that is a good thing because, if you’re not different, you are not able to envision another future, another world. We need people who can think outside of the box. It is important to celebrate being different.
Do you see a connection in empathy for one another on a small level and empathy for the global community of climate change and climate justice?
Yes. We don’t have any binding agreements to ensure that there is a safe future. Therefore, we need to have morals and empathy. We have that as all we have. Some people say that we shouldn’t use guilt or this sense of morality. That is not true. Therefore, we must use it. And we have to make sure that we don’t lose that connection. We have to realize that we’re in it for the long run and that we need to take care of each other.
How did you deal with the negative criticisms and positive adulation from the world leaders on Twitter?
I don’t know. I didn’t think too much about it. I thought: I’m doing what is right, and as long as I’m doing what’s right, what I think is right, it doesn’t matter what others think. It is, however, a fact. Was a huge shift from never talking to anyone whatsoever — in those days, I only spoke to my parents and my teacher and my sister. It was a huge shift to be able to speak more or less to the entire world. I don’t think anyone in the world could have expected anything like that, no matter who you are or what you do. It just blew up completely in a way that is very hard to understand if you haven’t experienced it yourself. I think the fact that I was so completely different from before helped me stay grounded and not let go of what others were saying, positively or negatively.
Can you get to the place in your mind where you say, Okay, it’s 30 years hence, and we were successful? What does that look and feel like? What do you then get to be your focus in your life?
I have no idea. I try to not think about it too much. I prefer to do what I can now and make a difference in the future, rather than worrying about the future. This will be taken care of, however it may look. It doesn’t matter what happens, the consequences will be worse if we ignore it.
What do you do when your mind is racing?
I take short breaks. Like, this is my life all day, every day, but that doesn’t mean I cannot focus on other things. I can focus on multiple things. For example, school. Although now we’re actually talking about the climate. So I can’t get away there, either!
So does the teacher just turn it over to you: “Greta …”?[Laughs.] We’re in climate role play. We’re going to represent different countries, and then we’re going to reenact a climate conference, make speeches and be delegates, try to come up with a resolution. And I’m going to be Saudi Arabia.
I’m going to block everything. Yeah, I’m going to make sure that they don’t come up with a resolution.
Do you feel more hopeful now than you did when you first sat in front the Swedish parliament with your family? [“SKOLSTREJK FOR KLIMATET”] sign?
I don’t know. In one sense, we’re in a much worse place than we were then because the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are higher and the global emissions are still rising at almost record speed. We have wasted years of blah.
On another note, we have seen the power of people when we come together. And I’ve met so many people who give me very much hope and just the possibility that we can actually change things. It is possible to treat a crisis as a crisis. So I think I’m more hopeful now.
What can we learn from this pandemic about how people can treat a crisis like it is?
I believe many people realize how important science really is. We saw that if we wanted to find a vaccine, it was possible in a matter of minutes. This just goes to show that if you really want something, and focus on it, then you can achieve almost anything.
Right now, what’s holding us back is that we lack that political will. We don’t prioritize the climate today. We don’t want to reduce emissions. Our goal is not to reduce emissions. [as it is] today. And, of course, you can ask, “Can’t we have both?” But the uncomfortable truth is that we have left it too late for that. Or, the world leaders have made it too late. Our societies need to be fundamentally changed immediately. It would have been much easier if it had been started 30 years earlier. But now it’s a different situation.
But it also showed how quickly social norms change. This is something I believe we can all learn from. It would have been completely unacceptable if I had reached out and shaken hands during the worst phase of the pandemic. However, this was done just before the pandemic. It changed, basically overnight, people’s mindsets. It’s amazing the possibilities.
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor for the magazine. This interview has been edited.