“You must unite behind the science. You must take action. You must do the impossible. Because giving up can never ever be an option.”
Spoken to the US Congress this past September, a diminutive sixteen-year-old girl has been leading a fierce battle against the world’s governing powers. Using every ounce of her strength, she has dedicated her life to spreading the message of climate change. Unless world leaders agree on transformative measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the global temperature rise will hit the perilous 1.5°C mark—a prospect that will lead to millions of climate change refugees, unprecedented droughts, famine, and global poverty.
We are already seeing the dangerous effects of climate change and sea-level rise. In California, wildfires now rage year-round. In Houston, there have been three “500-year” floods in the last three years. This is only a preview of things to come. For every minuscule increase in the world’s temperature, these catastrophes will only worsen. Climate activists have been shouting this message for years, but somehow, it was a teenage girl that finally got our leaders’ attention.
Greta Thunberg skipped school one Friday in August 2018. She stood alone outside the Swedish Parliament, holding the sign that would soon become her signature. Skolstrejk för klimatet: “School Strike for Climate,” painted in bold black letters.
In the 16 months since, she has sparred with countless heads of state, met the Pope, fist-bumped Barack Obama, and led more than 4 million people across all 7 continents (even Antarctica!) in a global climate strike – an event unprecedented in human history.
Thunberg’s characteristic child-like braids and petite frame make her formidable influence all the more astonishing. She has Asperger’s syndrome, which essentially means she doesn’t process or compartmentalize emotions the way most people do.
She speaks in pointed direct sentences, without fulfilling most people’s need to ease the tension. She is not easily flattered and is hyper focused. Her biting directness is the very thing that has transformed this young unassuming girl into a global celebrity. Thus, exemplified at September’s UN Climate Summit, “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say – we will never forgive you.”
The politics surrounding climate action are horribly complex. But the attention Greta has brought to the crisis has caused a massive attitude shift. She has encouraged people to utilize their eco-anxiety as a propeller for worldwide protest. Thousands of teenage activists have been leading their own strikes in her image. The ensuing demonstrations and her relentless tête-à-têtes with world leaders have forced many into submission, committing to new climate policies the world desperately needs.
Thunberg’s courage to speak truth to power is what has made her the voice of a generation. By illuminating a theoretical danger and partnering it with unadulterated outrage, Thunberg has become the leading voice behind the most important crisis that ever was.
Her global climate strike has become a catalyst for youth movements worldwide, whether it be the battle for democratic representation in Hong Kong or the student protests against rising poverty rates in Chile. Young Greta Thunberg put her foot down and it echoed across the world. Now young people everywhere are demanding the rights to their future, angry at how adults have failed them.
Thunberg’s call to action comes at a critical moment. Scientific warnings are colliding with the drawbacks of the political system. Every minute the government puts off climate change policy, we grow closer to a tipping point, where Earth will be led down a grim path and become ultimately uninhabitable. With scientists predicting we have less than 11 years before irreversible damage, Earth cannot afford another setback.
Leaders act in response to pressure; pressure is created when thousands of people stand together and raise their voice in unison. There is no turning back now, and everyday more people define climate change as the most important issue in their lives.
Thunberg was first introduced to the climate crisis when she was in primary school. Her teacher presented her class with a video of its consequences: intensifying weather conditions, sea-level rise, and emaciated polar bears. This information stuck in Thunberg’s mind. Because of her Asperger’s syndrome, she was unable to compartmentalize the information the way other people can. Thunberg was launched into a deep depression, unable to understand why adults knew this and did nothing to combat climate change. She felt her future had been stolen away from her and in fact, it had been.
Thunberg’s parents were desperate to bring her out of her depressive state. They gave up flying and converted to veganism, but what really helped Greta was the power of protest.
In August of 2018, Greta decided she would go on a school strike to compel the Swedish government to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and would remain there until the Swedish elections in September 2018.
Like any good parents, Thunberg’s mother and father were more concerned about her missing a month of school than a climate protest, but Greta was unassailable. That August she promoted her impending strike with a flyer that detailed the grim facts on emission budgets and extinction rates, then ended it with her signature pointed humor, “My name is Greta, I am in ninth grade, and I am school-striking for the climate,” she wrote “Since you adults don’t give a damn about my future, I won’t either.”
On Aug. 20, 2018, Thunberg arrived alone under the daunting figure of the Swedish Parliament, her homemade school-strike sign in hand. She had no official support and nobody to stand alongside. But taking a stand, even alone, brought her out of her depression.
On the second day, she was joined by a stranger, and they stood outside parliament together. Then, as the days went on, a few more people joined in protest. As the elections grew closer, the word spread, and her modest protest steadily turned into an assembly of thousands.
By this time, her Climate Strike had become so strong she announced she would remain on strike every Friday until Sweden aligned with the Paris Agreement. Thus, the Fridays for Future movement was born. By the end of the year, tens of thousands of students across Europe began following Thunberg’s example, skipping school on Fridays to protest in favor of stricter climate policies.
Now, over a year later, the climate strikes have spread across the globe. 1.4 million people in Germany alone flooded the streets during the Global Climate Strike. Social media was flooded with images of youth enraged, holding up signs that read “Our mother is on fire!” and “If you were smarter, we’d be in school!”
As Thunberg took to the stage in New York City, a crowd of 250,000 erupted in cheers of “Greta! Greta! Greta!” and lasted for well over ten minutes.
In one year, this meek and quiet teenage girl changed the world. She became the voice of millions and inspired the world’s youth to stand alongside her shouting a unified message to save the planet and our future. Her unrelenting message has sparked a global rebellion never before seen.
When Thunberg addresses celebrities and heads of state, she speaks quietly but powerfully, bringing light to the injustice that has been handed down to us. She applauds those who pioneer climate action and publicly shames those who don’t. Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly in September, Thunberg declared pointedly, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.”
Though Thunberg may be the most widely recognized climate activist, she was not the first. This is something she feels should not be overlooked and it has led to some discomfort between her and the media. Thunberg often tries to share the spotlight and bring attention to the efforts and contributions of other activists.
Because of her sudden and newfound fame, she has had to face the onslaught of internet trolls and political opponents that have no qualms about publicly insulting a teenage girl. Online trolls have poked fun at her mannerisms and appearance. In Rome, someone went so far as to hang an effigy of her off a bridge. Donald Trump has notoriously mocked and insulted her on several occasions, sparking nationwide outrage.
“When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning!” She writes on her Instagram, “I have Asperger’s syndrome and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances – being different is a superpower. I’m not public about my diagnosis to “hide” behind it, but because I know many ignorant people still see it as an “illness”, or something negative. And believe me, my diagnosis has limited me before. Before I started school striking, I had no energy, no friends and I didn’t speak to anyone. I just sat alone at home, with an eating disorder. All of that is gone now, since I have found a meaning, in a world that sometimes seems meaningless to so many people.”
It can’t always be easy, especially for a teenage girl, to be constantly mocked and ridiculed. She and her family have received so many death threats they must now be protected by police while traveling. But all in all, she sees the global backlash as something positive, it means the climate protests are pushing the right buttons. When the defenders of big oil can’t stand you, it’s because you’re making a positive impact.
While her movement has been mostly about raising awareness and pressuring politicians into substantial climate policy, it is hard to measure the tangible effects the movement has caused.
But progress is being made. Big business has realized sustainability is a consumer expectation and providing it leads to good PR. Numerous airlines including KLM and Emirates have launched sustainability campaigns. Many Fortune 500 companies are now required to report on their yearly sustainability initiatives.
Youth and adults alike claim climate change is the most important issue facing the world right now and is the number one thing on their minds. We are shouting and lawmakers are listening. In the past year, over 60 countries set proposals to eliminate their carbon footprints by 2050.
Greta has refused air-travel to set an example to the rest of the world and encouraged proposals for new methods of sustainable travel. She could have easily boarded a plane to fly from Sweden to New York, from Virginia to Lisbon, but she spent two weeks crossing the Atlantic Ocean instead. Now, a movement has erupted across Europe known as “flight-shame,” discouraging unessential travel and promoting the choice of trains over planes. As a result, train ticket sales are up and flight tickets have dropped by 8%.
Thunberg’s solitary strike outside the Swedish Parliament corresponded with a flood of unparalleled youth protests that have exploded around the globe—all with different effects, caused by different injustices, but powered by a rapidly changing social climate.
The singular commonality is outrage. The youth of today know the world they are inheriting is a broken one, a world that will not function on the same level it had for the ones who destroyed it. Even though Thunberg is not affiliated with non-climate related youth movements, she has become a symbol of what today’s youth can accomplish when they stand up and say, “enough is enough.”
The climate crisis has put every one of us at risk, but children are the ones paying the biggest price.
From her seat at the UN conference, Greta Thunberg stares with righteous fury. She speaks for this generation and the generation that follows, preparing to fight for their future. “We showed that we are united and that we, young people, are unstoppable.”