Swedish Teen Becomes the Face of Europe’s Climate Activism

Greta Thunberg sits at the House of Commons on Tuesday with former Labour leader Ed Miliband, center, and Environment Secretary Michael Gove. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP)

(CN) — Greta Thunberg is a 16-year-old autistic Swedish girl with braids, single-minded determination and an apocalyptic message who has taken Europe by storm and become the face of climate-change activism.

She’s seen by her growing number of supporters as a godsend — a visionary in the mold of Joan of Arc leading Europe, and the world, into the greatest of wars: the salvation of the planet and civilization by stopping global warming.

She doesn’t take airplanes, she doesn’t eat meat and she’s persuaded her parents, celebrities in Sweden, to do the same. Now she wants politicians, the media and the public to wake up and see climate change as the world’s gravest crisis.

Her meteoric rise to international stardom reached full blossom in the past two weeks when she met Pope Francis, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, delivered a stark warning to the European Parliament and was welcomed in the House of Commons in London, with some parliamentarians breaking House rules by applauding to show their admiration for her.

In eight months, Thunberg has become an inspiration for a wave of protests and school strikes over inaction by politicians, and modern civilization generally, to take the drastic steps needed to keep the planet from plunging off the cliff.

Her call for urgent action comes as Europe heads toward another summer of dread. In recent years Europe’s summers have been marked by wildfires, drought, heat waves and refugees fleeing climate-stricken parts of Africa and Asia.

This protest movement found its fullest expression so far in the past week in London with the Extinction Rebellion. Thousands of peaceful protesters swarmed the city center and blocked some of London’s busiest thoroughfares, calling for an end to the era of fossil fuels and action to stop what scientists say is the planet’s human-caused sixth mass extinction. The protests, which led to more than 1,000 arrests, were set to end Thursday after protesters disrupted London’s financial district.

On Sunday, Thunberg joined those protests and delivered one of her famously stark warnings.

“Humanity is now standing at a crossroads. We must now decide which path we want to take, how do we want the living conditions for all living species to be like,” she told throngs of people at Marble Arch in London.

“We are now facing an existential crisis, climate crisis and ecological crisis, which have never been treated as crises before. They have been ignored for decades,” she said, speaking in fluent English, her voice quiet yet strong and firm. Her audience listened attentively, enthralled.

“And for way too long, the politicians and people in power have gotten away with not doing anything to fight the climate crisis and the ecological crisis. But we will make sure they will not get away with it any longer,” she said, drawing cheers.

On Friday, Thunberg is expected to return to the spot where she started her remarkable journey: outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm, demanding immediate action to stop a descent into ecological Armageddon.

It began on Aug. 20, 2018, when she skipped school and sat down outside the Swedish Parliament with a handmade sign: “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (“School strike for the climate”). She was inspired to strike, she says, by students at Stoneman Douglas High School who went on strike after the mass murders at their school in Parkland, Florida.

Her story quickly caught on, and she was soon the subject of articles in major European newspapers and appeared on television. Her one-person strike grew into a movement and by this spring students across the world were skipping classes to demand action on climate change.

In the run-up to elections in Sweden in September, Thunberg initially skipped all her classes, but now she strikes on Fridays, spawning a movement called Fridays for Future. The movement says that 1.6 million people in 125 countries around the world went on strike during the week of March 15.

In telling her story, Thunberg says she was 8 when she first heard about climate change, deforestation, the mountains of plastic waste and starving polar bears. She wondered why people weren’t doing more to stop global warming.

Crisis then hit her. When she was 11, she fell into depression and was diagnosed, as was her sister, with Asperger’s syndrome. During this dark period, she became haunted by climate change, and as she recovered from depression, engrossed herself in climate change reading and science.

In an interesting twist, through her father she is related to Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist who received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1903 and was one of the first to link carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere to rising temperatures on the Earth’s surface.

Thunberg can talk like a scientist, too, and cites climate change studies and figures with ease. But she doesn’t see herself as a scientist, but rather as a rebel whose autism has helped her focus on what is true and what is not.

“It makes me see things from outside the box,” she said in one speech about her autism. “I don’t easily fall for lies. I can see through things.”

In this way, Thunberg says she sees through the falsehoods around the climate change debate, and is fearless in calling them out.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, she shamed attendants in the room for profiting from a world economy run by fossil fuels. In London, she stood next to politicians and said they had failed.

“You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to,” Thunberg said, as Michael Gove, Britain’s environment minister, sat close by. “You don’t listen to the science because you are only interested in solutions that will enable you to carry on like before.”

She did the same when she stood in front of politicians in Brussels and Rome. She routinely blasts the media for failing to report about climate change.

“Everyone keeps saying climate change is an existential threat, and the most important issue of all, and yet they just carry on as before,” Thunberg said at an event organized by TED. “I don’t understand that. If the emissions must stop, then we must stop the emissions. To me, that is black and white. There are no gray areas when it comes to survival. Either we go on as a civilization or we don’t. We have to change.”

Thunberg does not believe people truly understand what global warming means.

“No one is acting as if we were in a crisis,” she said in the TED speech. “Even most climate scientists or green politicians keep on flying around the world, eating meat or dairy.

“You would think the media and every one of our leaders would be talking of nothing else. But they never even mention it.

“We all think we know, we all think everybody knows, but we don’t know,” she continued. “How can we expect countries like India or Nigeria to care about the climate crisis if we, who already have everything, don’t care even a second about it or our commitments to the Paris Agreement?”

The 2015 Paris Agreement is a nonbinding United Nations framework that spells out a plan on how to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and thereby limit the planet’s warming.

But her message is not only dire.

“We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change. … If a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school for a few weeks, imagine what we could all do together if we wanted to.”

“The one thing we need more than hope is action,” Thunberg said. “Once we start to act, hope is everywhere”

Her success also has been met with some ridicule and skepticism. Some on the right decry her message as simplistic and fundamentally flawed.

“This poor young woman increasingly looks and sounds like a cult member,” wrote an editor of Spiked, a magazine tied to the billionaire Koch family, who are climate-change skeptics. “The monotone voice. The look of apocalyptic dread in her eyes. The explicit talk of the coming great ‘fire’ that will punish us for our eco-sins. There is something chilling and positively pre-modern about Ms Thunberg.”

Some radicals in the green movement, like the right-wing critics, also see her as a manufactured phenomenon. Some claim her story is a concoction of green venture capitalists eager to reboot capitalism through a “fourth industrial revolution” based around massive global spending on renewable technologies.

When Thunberg first went on strike outside the Swedish Parliament, she was promoted in a tweet by a climate action tech start-up called We Don’t Have Time, which is run by a Swedish entrepreneur and marketing consultant. Thunberg reportedly was a youth adviser to the start-up.

Also, when Thunberg went on strike last August, her mother, a well-known Swedish opera singer, had a book about her family’s struggles with autism published.

For now, though, Thunberg is being celebrated as the girl who is giving voice to a new generation demanding action.

“Thunberg says that all she wants is for adults to behave like adults, and to act on the terrifying information that is all around us,” The New Yorker magazine wrote about her this week. “But the impact of her message does not come only from her regard for the facts. Thunberg is an uncanny, gifted orator.”

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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