Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old schoolgirl from Sweden, has become, as David Wallace-Wells writes in his elegant profile of her, “almost a synecdoche for the global climate movement.” She has led protests and walkouts in her native country and across Europe to raise awareness of how grave the climate situation is; millions of other protesters have followed suit. And now, having sailed across the Atlantic in a non-carbon-emitting boat, she has arrived in New York both to protest and to participate in the U.N. Climate Summit. Wallace-Wells speaks both to Thunberg — who remains hopeful in the face of despair that something can still be done — and to thinkers like Naomi Klein and Green New Deal co-author Rhiana Gunn-Wright, who worry that a world without climate suffering may already be out of reach.
— Noreen Malone, editorial director
Greta Thunberg in Berlin in July. Photo: ddp images/SIPA USA/ddp images
It’s Greta’s World But it’s still burning. The extraordinary rise of a 16-year-old, and her Hail Mary climate movement.
By David Wallace-Wells By David Wallace-Wells
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When Greta Thunberg stepped onboard the Malizia II — a 60-foot racing yacht owned by the royal family of Monaco — it had been less than a year since she first walked out of school as an unknown, awkward, nearly friendless 15-year-old making a lonely protest outside the Swedish Parliament against her country’s absolute indifference to the climate crisis, which she saw in uncannily black-and-white terms. She painted her now-iconic sign in those colors, which she carried across the Atlantic on the two-week carbon-free journey she documented periodically on social media. Black capital letters on white: SKOLSTREJK FÖR KLIMATET (or “School Strike for Climate”).
By the time she stepped off the yacht in New York on August 28, two weeks after she’d set sail from Plymouth, England, wobbly legged from the weeks at sea as she walked to address a crowd of many hundreds, she had become something even more unusual than an adolescent protester or even a generational icon. She was the Joan of Arc of climate change, commanding a global army of teenage activists numbering in the millions and waging a rhetorical war against her elders through the unapologetic use of generational shame.
The comparison might seem hyperbolic and may come to look even more strained than that, depending on what the future brings for Greta and for climate action. But for the moment, there is simply no other appropriate analogy from political history to draw on in describing just how much she has achieved at such a young age and in so little time. (Even Malala Yousafzai, now a student at Oxford, was celebrated more in newsmagazines and on conference stages than in the streets.) In a way that is perhaps possible only in the social-media age, Greta has become almost a synecdoche for the global climate movement: its mascot, its theorist, its revolutionary, and a representative “victim” of generational malice. A well-off white girl, she has even been called out by fellow activists for embodying the movement’s blind spots and shortcomings — though she has been conscientious, in ascending the world stage, to praise the work of all the other teens striking from school now each Friday.
Within four months of beginning her strike, Greta had spoken at the U.N.’s climate-change conference in Katowice, Poland, excoriating the crowd for its nihilistic self-interest:
You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet. Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money.
The language was hot, relatively speaking, but Greta has Asperger’s, and her delivery was cool, flat, almost blank in its affect — somehow flatter even when performed aloud before an audience than when read on the page.
The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children, maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.
A month later, at the World Economic Forum’s orgy of plutocratic comity at Davos, where she traveled by train and slept in a small tent in the Swiss winter, she used even more direct language:
Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful; I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act, I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire, because it is.
In March, an estimated 1.4 million schoolchildren did just that, following Greta’s lead, walking out of classrooms and marching in cities and towns around the world: 300,000 students in Germany, 200,000 in Italy, 150,000 in Quebec. There were strikes in Delhi, Seoul, and Cape Town; London and San Francisco and Washington, D.C.; Melbourne and Brussels, Lisbon and Taipei, and Quezon City in the Philippines, and Kenya and Namibia and Ghana; Edinburgh and Dublin and Sydney and Prague; Paris and Reykjavík and Tokyo. Greta stayed home, leading the strike in Stockholm. She had only just turned 16.
I don’t want you to be hopeful; I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.
But the strikes themselves are only part of what Greta has achieved. In February, the president of the European Commission committed to spending fully a quarter of the E.U. budget on climate mitigation over seven years, following a meeting with her. And shortly after she visited the British Parliament, its Conservative majority voted to declare a climate emergency, then promised it would zero out on its carbon emissions by 2050 (and this amid the long, consuming drama of Brexit).
These were just pledges and may soon prove illusory, like every other pledge that has ever been made to fight climate change. But all are far more ambitious than would have seemed even conceivable a year ago. After all, when Greta began her school strike, late in August 2018, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had not yet released its “doomsday” SR15 report, which would arrive that October festooned with alarm bells and produce a sea change in public concern; the British protest movement Extinction Rebellion had not yet launched, which it would in November, blockading five bridges across the Thames and effectively stopping traffic in parts of London; hardly any American had heard of the Sunrise movement, which would make itself known when it occupied Dianne Feinstein’s Senate office in February 2019 and later forced two single-issue climate town halls onto the Democratic primary calendar; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had not yet been elected to Congress or introduced the crusade toward a Green New Deal. It has been a dizzying year for climate mobilization, in other words, and improbably but inarguably, Greta Thunberg has become its face.
Arriving in Davos, Switzerland, to protest outside of the World Economic Forum.
Photo: Valentin Flauraud/Keystone via AP
The announcement of the boat trip itself occasioned a huge flurry of media attention on both sides of the Atlantic. In the photos she shared on Twitter and Instagram along the way, Greta looked not entirely comfortable at sea. In New York, where she disembarked from the boat at Brookfield Place’s glitzy North Cove Marina, she took the stage wearing blister-revealing Crocs and a two-piece, water-resistant matte-black sailing outfit, printed on the back like an athletic jersey with her name (GRETA), as though anyone onboard or off would need help identifying her. On the front, a nameplate read G. THUNBERG, as it would on a military uniform. The crowd that welcomed her was made up of television and print media, activists pumping in the air signs like THERE IS NO PLANET B, and proud parents and teenage climate strikers she’d inspired, singing in rounds, to the tune of “Frère Jacques,” “Welcome, Greta, welcome, Greta / To New York.”
Greta hung back nervously as she was introduced by two local climate strikers: Alexandria Villaseñor, a 14-year-old who moved to New York from California last fall for a single school year while her mother pursued a master’s degree at Columbia and quickly started striking weekly in front of the U.N., inspired by Greta’s December call to action, and Xiye Bastida-Patrick, a 17-year-old from Mexico who moved to the U.S. because of her parents’ work on climate change and whose phone bore the sticker GRETA HAS A POSSE. Onstage, both towered over Greta, each more charismatic and typically adolescent in their affect than the headliner — a little more demonstrative, burning with considerably more performative righteousness as they addressed the crowd. “All of this is very overwhelming,” Greta said when she finally took the microphone. Losing her train of thought, she apologized: “My brain isn’t working correctly.”
Greta has delivered 12 speeches in her short but very public life, now packaged together in a Penguin paperback called No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference. But they have all been relatively quick, her interviews often briefer, and while she is regularly enveloped by supporters during climate strikes, she seems generally uncomfortable in crowds. “Greta’s in the middle there, looking miserable,” a reporter whispered to me, a few days later, when she joined Villaseñor’s weekly climate strike at the U.N.
Her natural medium — as it is for many celebrities roughly of her generation — is the controlled stage of social media. There, she has called her atypicality a “superpower” and has been quite open and unguarded about the details: As a young child, she says, she was diagnosed not only with Asperger’s but obsessive-compulsive disorder and what’s called “selective mutism.” Beginning at age 11, seized by a deep depression about the fate of the world, she stopped talking and eating. That has led, she says, to the stunted growth that today gives her the appearance of a preteen, a wise-beyond-her-years golden child.
This atypicality has not proved, as you might have expected, a challenge in her public life. In fact, the plot points of Greta’s rise could have been lifted from Joseph Campbell: an Everygirl turned reluctant crusader, a dark night of the soul, a forbidding and intrepid journey from the imperial periphery to the very center of global power. The saga was irresistible. And as was the case for the Parkland students who originally inspired her strike with their protests against gun violence in the U.S., Greta serves as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for members of an older generation, the one she so pointedly and repeatedly calls out, who seem desperate to believe in a next-generation savior — and who seemed gratified to be flagellated a little bit for their selfishness and shortsightedness.
Along the way, Greta’s childlike clarity has been her best and most unique asset — fortifying her moral standing and underlining the standing of her generation as a whole. She has been alive for fully a third of all the carbon emissions ever produced in the entire history of humanity, yet she is only now truly coming into political consciousness, just as the window for avoiding catastrophic warming is, the scientists tell her, almost closed. Perhaps for this reason, too, she does not appear to be grandstanding, even when she is.
That she delivers her message with such direct, uninflected matter-of-factness is another aspect of her disarming rhetorical power. Unlike alarmist activist groups like Extinction Rebellion, she cannot be accused of hyperbolic license in her presentation of the state of the science — they say the U.N. understates the crisis; she takes its reports at face value. Unlike policy-makers like Ocasio-Cortez, Senator Bernie Sanders, and those working on Green New Deal legislation, she cannot be faulted for pushing “too fast,” however necessary change may be, because she is not advocating any particular policy at all, merely describing the problem as scientists do and showcasing the failure of leaders to do much, yet, about it — a failure anyone with eyes can plainly see. And unlike climate celebrities like Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio, she cannot be attacked as a hypocrite, because she is already living an exemplary low-carbon life — abjuring plane travel, going vegan, denouncing consumerism. Greta’s visit to New York was occasioned by two essentially simultaneous but in other ways counterpoised events. There is the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit, beginning September 23, where many nations are expected to unveil new emissions-reductions commitments more ambitious than the ones they have all, to this point, failed to meet, and the Global Climate Strike, on September 20 and September 27, the first of its kind to invite adults to join the ranks of schoolchildren and walk out of work. There will be strikes in at least 500 places in the U.S. thanks to the organizing efforts of other teenage leaders, from Villaseñor and Bastida-Patrick to 13-year-old Haven Coleman and 17-year-old Jamie Margolin, among others. (“Many activists stand in the shadow, not being focused on, highlighted, being appreciated for what they’re doing,” Greta told me.) And there will be thousands more strikes elsewhere in the world. Which means Greta will have flanked with disruptive politics the whole project of addressing climate change through the existing, elite-governed order — though of course she will be a star attraction at the U.N. events that week too.
At the pier in Battery Park City, teenagers waiting for Greta to arrive burst now and again into call-and-response chants: “Show me what democracy looks like,” followed by “This is what democracy looks like.” But a strike, of course, is what you do when conventional politics has failed. The summit, like all U.N. activity on climate change, is aimed at stabilizing the planet’s temperature safely below two degrees of warming. At that level, a recently leaked U.N. report suggested, climate change would increase damages from storms and sea-level rise a hundred times over, displacing at least 280 million people. Already, the planet’s landmasses, which warm faster than its oceans, have surpassed 1.5 degrees. A report published in September found large parts of the ocean too had already hit that threshold of warming.
The stated goal is to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees. Practically speaking, by the time her yacht carried Greta into New York, that ship had already sailed. Nevertheless, she arrived buoyed by a kind of unpersuadable relentlessness of purpose, one that could almost look like optimism, it so contrasts with the reflexive resignation of so many older than she.
“It’d be great if we could stop at two degrees,” Gates said. “Unless there are huge surprises on scientific advances, I just don’t see it happening.” As for the U.N.’s stated goal of 1.5 degrees? “We’re not in that universe, period,” he said. “Unfortunately, the general literature, because it’s done by scientists, understates these things by quite a bit,” he went on. “I think of India as paradigmatic because it’s big enough to count and it’s poor enough. They deserve to have air-conditioning. They’re getting very high wet-bulb temperatures. Jesus Christ, by 2070 there could be just a massive number of people dropping dead in the streets.”
Gates is, famously, a techno-optimist. In recent years, the Gates Foundation has focused more on climate change, and he is, as an investor, behind a lot of the most ambitious work being done on next-generation nuclear power (critical to making new plants affordable), battery storage (critical to making intermittent renewable sources like wind and solar truly scalable), and carbon-capture technology (critical if we hope to take enough carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to bring carbon concentration back under catastrophic levels). But on innovation he cites more pessimistic thinkers. “The greatest expert on energy is Vaclav Smil,” Gates said, echoing praise he has offered elsewhere for the iconoclastic Canadian academic and author of Energy and Civilization. “Whenever you spend time with Vaclav, he’s like, ‘Oh yeah? You’re going to do what in 20 years?’ ”
Greta in Stockholm. Photo: Samuel Sánchez
/ EDICIONES EL PAÍS S.L., 2019
I called Smil. His new book, Growth, closes with the line “The long-term survival of our civilization cannot be assured without setting … limits on a planetary scale.” When I put the question of two degrees to him, he literally laughed: “To make that happen, you are talking about billions and billions of tons of everything. We are mining now more than 7 billion tons of coal. So you want to lower the coal consumption by half, you have to cut down close to 4 billion tons of coal. You have to get rid of more than 2 billion tons of oil. These are transformations on a billion-ton scale globally. They cannot be done by next Monday.”
Naomi Klein, the leftist and climate activist, was more hopeful but still called the goal of staying below two degrees “a moon shot.” When I asked Rhiana Gunn-Wright, the lead policy author of the Green New Deal, whether it was possible to decarbonize on the U.N. timeline, she said, “This is going to sound very dark, and I should preface it by saying ‘I am a depressive,’ but a lot of life is pain. And one of the best things you can hope for is that, in life, you have the privilege to pick what kind of pain you want.”
In dozens of conversations like these in the months leading up to the U.N. summit, not a single climate leader expressed great confidence to me that we would manage to avoid two degrees of warming. That may seem like a rebuke to the clarity of purpose embedded in Greta’s goals — and indeed to the whole U.N.-supported climate apparatus targeting, as she does, a safe landing at 1.5 degrees. And it does probably signal the arrival of a new era for climate politics, the post-two-degree phase, when we may stop so single-mindedly chasing quixotic temperature goals and debating how many angels have to dance on the head of a pin to get there.
Instead, we can begin designing ways to limit warming beyond that level and designing ways to live best amid those conditions, which once seemed unimaginable. As nearly all of my interlocutors pointed out, by any rigorous logic, the faster arrival of catastrophic impacts argues not for fatalism but for more ambition in response, deployed more quickly and more widely, especially to protect those already suffering. Gunn-Wright told me she hardly ever thinks about the technical question of whether the U.N. timeline is plausible, so focused is she on the work of preventing more warming and more pain at any temperature level. As Klein put it, “I don’t see this as either we do it all or we should all just give up and drink ourselves to death. I think it all matters because every quarter-degree is hundreds of millions of lives, if not more.” Then she added, “The rockier the future is, the more important it is that we become a decent society. Which we’re not right now.”
Here is why everyone is so pessimistic: Emissions are at an all-time high, not moving too slowly in the right direction but still moving in the wrong direction, last year reaching a new peak partly because of increased energy demand arising from growing air-conditioning use for relief on all the additional punishingly hot days; staying safely below two degrees, the U.N. says, requires halving emissions globally over the next decade; those modeled pathways also require such rapid deployment of technology to remove CO2 from the atmosphere that by the end of the decade, we’d have to have built from scratch a carbon-capture industry at least twice and perhaps four times as large as today’s oil and gas businesses, which took more than a century to develop; and they also require expanding nuclear power probably by at least 150 percent, perhaps by as much as 500 percent, by just 2050. There are other paths to climate stability than the ones drawn by the IPCC, of course, but those that feature less nuclear and less carbon capture require decarbonization to come even more quickly — perhaps, one IPCC scenario suggests, by adjusting our policy priorities away from economic growth. Even the slower, more manageable path to two degrees requires, the U.N. says, a global World War II–scale mobilization. Secretary-General António Guterres, who met Greta last December, says it needs to begin this year.
2019 has been, yes, a remarkable one for climate, with all those protests and town halls, rising poll numbers for concern about climate change (ten points in a single year in the U.S.), and wind and solar power expanding around the globe (now cheaper, in many parts of it, than dirty energy). But even a climate optimist would tell you this progress isn’t enough, not nearly. The rosy view is: With exploding political energy and skyrocketing policy pledges and astonishing progress with renewables, everything is moving in the right direction but time. The bleaker perspective is: We haven’t even begun to dent the centuries-long trajectory of global emissions growth, and, in the form of Category 5 hurricanes stalling for days over low-lying islands and record heat waves broiling Europe three times in a single summer, the impacts are already unprecedented and beginning to overwhelm us.
The politics show it, growing only more jagged. It has been just three years now since the historic signing of the Paris climate accords, which formalized the two-degree goal, and here is what has happened in the meantime: Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, pledging to boost coal, kill wind power, and roll back environmental regulations so aggressively that the industry groups he was theoretically appealing to have objected; Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil, promising to deforest the Amazon at such a rate that scientists of his own country estimated the impact would be, over the course of a decade, equal to adding a second China and a second U.S. to the global carbon footprint, if only for a year; and Xi Jinping appointed himself president for life of China, a booming autocracy that has, just this year, proposed new coal plants to single-handedly push us past the Paris goals.
What this means is that while Greta can look like a refreshing vision of a green future, in other ways her protest embodies the climate politics of the era now ending, when the forces of denial and delay so shaped the boundaries of political discourse that simply advocating for action and demanding we respect the science could sound, at first, like a radical gesture and perhaps sufficient. Greta knows it isn’t, not anymore, which is why she has pointedly said that what she wants now is “a concrete plan, not just nice words.”
Who Greta Met This Year (clockwise from top-left): U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, Jesse Jackson, British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and Pope Francis. Photo: Kiara Worth/IISD/ENB; Karin Tornblom / TT/SIPA USA/TT; Vatican Media/Handout via REUTERS; Stefan Rousseau/Press Association via AP Images.
For those resistant to that concrete action, Greta represents a difficult target — a teenager, after all, her hands clean. For most of the past year, the right wing stayed quiet about her aside from a few early attempts to dismiss her by saying she and her fellow strikers should just have stayed in school.
But beginning with the announcement that she would be traveling to the U.N. by boat — which they read as a kind of trolling, a gesture of liberal superiority — a phalanx of critics appeared and moved so much in unison you’d be forgiven for seeing it as a coordinated attack. “Is Greta a green prophet or a schoolgirl puppet controlled by more sinister forces behind her?” asked the British Sun, a Rupert Murdoch paper. “No teenager is more freakishly influential than Thunberg, the deeply disturbed messiah of the global warming movement,” the Australian columnist Andrew Bolt wrote in the Melbourne Herald Sun, another Murdoch paper. “I have never seen a girl so young and with so many mental disorders treated by so many adults as a guru.”
“The arrival of Greta Thunberg in New York on Wednesday was one of many recent events that illustrate how rapidly modern environmentalism is degenerating into a millenarian cult,” Niall Ferguson wrote in the Sunday Times of London, another Murdoch paper. And in the New York Times, the conservative centrist Christopher Caldwell called her rhetoric a threat to democracy.
“This is not a ‘woman of the year’ but at best a teenager with autistic prehistory who is burned by her ‘advisers’ and by willing MSM as a new icon for the ‘climate church,’ ” wrote one far-right member of the German Parliament in the run-up to the European elections. The Swedish populist Jimmie Åkesson described her as the creation of her parents and a PR agency, echoing a puppet narrative that has become so firm on the European right that a full-length book has already been published about the family, The Manufacturing of Greta Thunberg.
I should say a second full-length book, because Greta’s parents wrote their own account of their daughter’s troubled childhood and climate awakening, Scenes From the Heart, first published in 2018, when Greta’s mother — a successful opera singer who was once Sweden’s competitor in the Eurovision Song Contest — was still the most famous member of the family. This year, they brought out a new edition, with 90 new pages of material and Greta’s name now on the cover too. When it is published in English next year, it will be under a revised title: Our House Is On Fire.
The book is more of a parenting memoir than a hagiography of a child. In it, many elements of the Greta conspiracy theory are confirmed, but only as perhaps the most normal features of her otherwise nearly incomprehensible adolescence: She is a child of relative privilege who early on raised the matter of climate change to her singer mother and her sometime actor father, himself the son of a quite famous actor.* He was one of the four to accompany Greta on the Malizia II, for instance, and when she camped out at Davos, and he helped nurse her through her black years, a friend of the family told me, “one gnocchi at a time.” In other words, Greta has been helped, and perhaps even stage-parented, in her journey, as teenagers often are even on much less dramatic missions.
When she arrived in New York, Greta was asked what she thought she would miss about the boat now that she was back on land. Her second answer was about the beauty of the ocean; her first was about the solitude it brought. A few days later, on Twitter, she wrote, “When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning!” She added the hashtag #aspiepower and a photo of herself, smiling, aboard the Malizia II in New York Harbor.
“I’m not public about my diagnosis to ‘hide’ behind it,” she continued, “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.”
In a third tweet, she went on: “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 shallow and meaningless to so many people.”
She also met President Obama and Trevor Noah. Photo: Max Moden / TT / Sipa USA.
Imet Greta late on a Friday morning in early September near the U.N. at the Ford Foundation — a spectacular mid-century monolith with a towering atrium so wet with plant life that the corridors all the way up on the tenth floor smelled like the reptile house at a metropolitan zoo.
When Greta arrived, she was carrying her sign from the strikes and looking tired, even a little sad, wearing gray sweatpants printed with stars and a short-sleeved, medium-blue T-shirt she’d later layer with a sweatshirt of the same color and then a classic yellow raincoat. She wore her hair in a long, single braid and, in a couple of nervous moments, switched it from hanging over one shoulder to the other. Occasionally, between conversational breaks, she returned to the side of the room to collect her sign, held it for a moment, then set it down again.
I started by making an obvious point, that she could surely not have imagined what was to happen for her when she first began striking. “Yeah, I know,” she said, looking down and seeming very much like a teenager. “I think I was — and am — still in shock about how fast it has been changing. Of course, the situation has not become better, but it feels like people are standing up and understand more the problem.” Back then, she said, “I just thought I will try something new because nothing else seemed to be working in the way that is required.”
“But where it’s led is incredible,” I said. “I mean, hundreds of thousands of people all around the world — ” “Millions,” she interrupted.
“How did that happen?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “It was some kind of invisible tipping point that no one really could predict.”
She seemed genuinely surprised, still. She was sitting in the very seat of imperial American influence, after a few weeks of travel documented (and criticized) in the biggest newspapers and on the most widely watched news channels, outside the U.N., where in just a few weeks she would speak before the General Assembly, the world’s most powerful body, about what she saw as a global existential crisis, a girl from Sweden who had been simply unable to square what she understood about the state of climate science with how little she saw being done in response and simply said so. “I mean, you can’t really deny the science anymore,” she said. “So the dissonance builds up, the difference between what people say and what people do, what politicians say and what they do, and how the media frames the situation versus how the science frames the situation. I think people are just, in a way, as I was in the beginning. Like, very …” Here, she paused and made a face, almost as if she were pantomiming a T. rex, to suggest how frustrated she was to not be able to find the word in English, her second language. “How do you … It’s an easy word, I can’t …” Disappointed in herself, she settled on an unsatisfying alternative: “Surprised, or something like that.”
I asked whether she thought the public as a whole saw the crisis more clearly than they did a year or two ago.
“Yes, I definitely think we in general see things more clearly now. That has had several reasons. Both because people seem more worried about — I mean, floods and heat waves and weather events during the last year. Just many small things adding up to each other. The SR15 report and several U.N. reports and” — she gave a small laugh at the bland repetitiveness of the language — “other reports.”
“If you let yourself be optimistic,” I said, “what are you hoping unfolds?”
“If I’m optimistic, I can just see what has happened during the last year — during the last month — and I could never dream that something like this would happen. I think no one could have predicted it, either. And I think: There is the hope.”
Instead I asked what more change would look like. “If we imagine a world in which the powerful are really focused on addressing this at the scale that is necessary, what kind of power structure would we be looking at?”
“I mean, that is not for me to say,” she said, “because I am just an uneducated teenager. I can’t really speak up about things like this; no one would take me seriously. So I try not to speak about politics and that kind of … structure. I just think that we need to listen to the scientists and the experts so they can say how best to run the situation. I mean, I don’t know how things are going to look like in even the near future. I don’t know how the situation is going to look like in even a week from now because things can change. So I think—that is both the scary part but also the hopeful, exciting part, because things can change so quickly.”
I changed the topic to the logistics of the next few weeks. I knew she would be heading to D.C. the following weekend to meet with lawmakers, as she had in London and Brussels and Stockholm, before returning to New York for the climate strike. Afterward, it would be on to South America with a possible showdown in Brazil with Bolsonaro along the way to Chile and the Santiago Climate Change Conference.
“My ideal is that during the next month the awareness grows and the information spreads so that people in general become aware of these things. Because I think that once people are aware they will come together and put pressure on people in power.”
“So ignorance is the main obstacle?” I asked.
“That has been my experience, that people don’t know about these feedback loops or tipping points or carbon-dioxide budgets. I mean, in general, if you walk out on the street and ask a person, ‘What is a climate feedback loop?,’ they wouldn’t know how to answer that. So I think that is one of the keys — to spread awareness. And to treat the climate crisis as the crisis it is, because as it is now, we are just treating it like any other political issue, and that of course minimizes it to a very small subject. We must see it for what it is.”
“And you think if people see it that way, that will lead inevitably to some change in our policy?”
“That is what I hope,” she said cautiously. “Because I don’t think people are evil. I just think we are unaware. And that it is due to these surroundings, these circumstances around us, that make us continue like there’s no tomorrow and not care about anything.”
“But you’ve spoken in the past about the selfishness of the world’s powerful, the world’s wealthy, people like us who live in the West, relatively well off,” I said. “Do you think that is just ignorance? That once people really understand the story we’ll become less selfish?”
“That is what I think and hope,” she said.
“Is there hope we can stay below 1.5 degrees?” I asked.
She paused to collect her thoughts and answer carefully. “I have spoken to many scientists who have told me about the aspects not included — what things the IPCC are not supposed to write about. But I try to stay away from personal opinions. Current best available science says it is still possible within the laws of physics to do it but not as it is now — not if we continue like we are doing now.”
I told her it must be so strange to be at the center of conversations like that.
“It’s too much,” she said quietly. “In the beginning, it was like, when someone recognized me on the street, I was like, Someone recognized me on the street?” She smiled, then shook her head. “But now … it’s nice, of course, when people appreciate what you are doing. But I think it’s a focus on me, as Greta”—and here, as she pronounced her own name, I heard for the first time her native speaking voice, the emphasis on the second syllable — “not as one among many.”
This was not just a matter of fairness, she said. “I don’t like being in the center. I don’t like being heard. I don’t like to be always in the spotlight. I’d rather be in the back and not say anything.” She paused. “But I can’t really complain, because I’ve put myself in this situation and so much is at stake.”
I wondered aloud if she would still be doing the same kind of work in five years.
“I think that I will be doing …something,” she said. “I won’t be as interesting in people’s eyes, of course, as I am now. That will fade away eventually. But I will still try to do everything I can from where I am.”
*This article was updated to better reflect the dynamics of the Thunberg family in discussing climate change.