Greta Thunberg is a troublemaker. A rabble rouser. A movement builder. She’s also all of 15 years old. Thunberg might look small for her age, but this pigtailed teenager from Stockholm has been packing quite a punch on the international arena ever since she went on strike for about three weeks leading up to Sweden’s September 9 elections by refusing to attend school. Instead, she parked herself outside the Swedish parliament to protest her country’s inadequate action on climate change, handing out leaflets to passersby that said: “I’m doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.”
Thunberg first heard the words “climate change” when she was eight and it didn’t take her too long to figure out how serious the situation was and how little was actually being done to address it. At first, she started with making changes at home, convincing her family members to learn more about the issue and make major lifestyle changes in order to cut their carbon footprint. Her mother – the well-known opera singer Malena Ernman – gave up her international career in 2015 because of aviation’s huge carbon footprint. But over the next few years, Thunberg came to the conclusion that making personal lifestyle changes wasn’t enough and that developed nations, Sweden included, needed to do more to address the climate problem. Hence her solo protest outside the corridors of power. “Why should we be studying for a future that soon will be no more and when no one is doing anything to save that future?” she asks, in a widely circulated letter explaining her action.
Once the elections were over, Thunberg returned to school for four days a week but is usually back at her protest spot on Fridays. Her dogged action has struck a chord in Sweden, which has just suffered through heatwaves and wildfires during its hottest summer in 262 years. Many Swedes, including some of her friends and school teachers, have joined her at her post from time to time. News of her campaign has reverberated across the world as well, making international headlines and even inspiring hundreds of high-schoolers in Australia to start planning similar “school strikes.” She’s also been invited to speak at climate events in Finland and London. (She drove to these, of course!)
In early November, Thunberg was nominated for the Children’s Climate Prize by Swedish renewable energy company Telge Energi, but in true Thunberg style, she declined the nomination, writing that she was honored but “the idea that all the finalists are to be flown in from all over the world, to be a part of a ceremony, has no connection with reality.”
When I spoke with Thunberg over Skype recently, she called on all young people across the world to join the #FridayForFuture movement and push their governments to take more urgent action on climate change. “The grown-ups,” she says, “have failed us.”
How did you first learn about climate change?
It was in school when they said save water and turn off the lights, don’t throw away food and paper, and so on, and I asked why. And they said because there’s something called global warming and climate change caused by humans, by our way of living.
How did you come to be so concerned about climate change?
I am a person who doesn’t like it when people say something and do something else. And I found that was the case with the climate issue, because they keep saying that it is an existential threat but do very little about it.
I thought it was very weird because if the climate crisis was as serious as it was then people would be talking about it all the time. It would be our top priority and you would never hear about anything else. And then I started reading about it and … the more I read it the more I realized how urgent this issue was.
Were any of your classmates as concerned about it as you were?
What did they think when you started talking to them about it?
Did they think it was strange?
(Snorts) I have always been a little bit different. So yeah, I think so.
Is there any specific thing about the impacts of climate change that you’re most worried about?
Every one of them, but I think specifically that we might soon, if we haven’t already, reach a tipping point and then there’s no going back. Then it doesn’t matter what we do. That is scary.
Once you learned about our role in changing the climate, you made a very big lifestyle change and so did your family. Can you talk about that?
First I stopped flying, and then my mom stop flying. She had to fly to do her job because she was an opera singer and she worked at different opera houses around the world. And so she gave up her opera career and now she works as a musical artist. So, yeah, that’s changed our lives pretty much.
What about your dad?
Yeah, my dad and my sister too have stopped flying.
Did you fly a lot earlier?
Yes, because my dad was, or is still, some kind of housewife. He gave up his career so that my mom could continue working. Because he was home with us we could follow [my mom] on the trips. But we never went on vacations because work travels were enough.
How did you convince your mom to stop flying?
I don’t know. At first, when I started turning off the lights at home [my parents] thought it was very weird. They said to me that we have to have light, but I kept on doing it and they asked me why, and we started reading about [climate change] together, and so they also realized the situation. And then there was an article about the airplanes’ emissions and the emissions were extremely high. So, yeah, that’s how.
You said earlier that you see the world a little differently. Can you explain what you mean by that? How is your view the world different from others?
I have Asperger’s Syndrome, autism. That means that I see the world in a very literal way and my brain works a bit different.
When you say you see the world in a literal way do you mean that you expect that when people say something they mean it?
Yeah. And that’s why I thought it was very strange about climate change, because people said one thing and then [they didn’t take any big action when] the emissions increased.
So why did you choose this form of climate activism? You could have, say, joined a movement or organization that’s working to address climate change, but instead you chose a rather unique form of protest and you did it all alone.
Because I have tried being in organizations with other people but it didn’t lead anywhere. So I decided I must do something and then I did this. And because we children can’t vote but have to go to school, this is a way that I can make my voice heard.
And it is being heard all across the world right now. You are demanding that the Swedish government take climate change more seriously…
And follow the Paris Agreement.
Do you think it’s enough for Sweden to take action just to reduce its own emissions?
No. But Sweden is one of the top 10 countries in the world with high ecological footprints per capita. We live as if we had the resources of 4.2 planets. This means that Sweden steals 3.2 years of natural resources from future generations every year. We have to change ourselves. Of course, we should help other countries too, but we can’t do that without changing ourselves. Rich countries like Sweden need to do more, change more, so that poor countries can heighten their standard of living. Sweden needs to reduce its emissions by 15 percent every year to align with the Paris Agreement.
So now you are sitting in front of the parliament every Friday during school hours?
Have you managed to keep up with your schoolwork?
Yes. I was actually ahead of school when I returned [and started going to school four days a week]. I have books that I read when I am sitting outside the parliament.
Can you describe how a typical Friday in front of the parliament goes for you these days?
I wake up maybe at 6:30 a.m. in the morning. I ride my bike to the Swedish Parliament and then I sit down with my sign and flyers and then the first one or two hours I am alone. Then at nine or ten o’clock more people start joining in. Then more people at lunch come and sit with us. Then I go home maybe about three or four o’clock.
How long do you think you’ll be doing this?
Until Sweden is aligned with the Paris Agreement, and that can take a while.
What you’re doing has definitely had an impact, not just in your country but in several places across the world. But I’m wondering if your action and the response it has received has impacted you in any way.
Yes, of course! I feel like my life has a meaning, that this is something I have to do and, yeah, except from being pretty tired, I’m very happy.
What message do you have for young people who, unlike you, do not concern themselves with such matters?
I don’t know. Learn and read about it and then you will understand more and do something about it. Put pressure on the adults. If just not going to school for a few weeks can make headlines, think of what we could do together.
And do you have a message for grown-ups?
Treat [climate change] as a crisis. Do something about it. Change your own habits and put pressure on people in power [to address it.] Start living within planetary boundaries.
What do you look forward to doing once you can call an end to your protest?
I have no idea. I don’t know what is going to happen after this. So I will just have to see where it goes.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate
For $20 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.