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Climate activist Greta Thunberg found strength in talking about how global warming affects kids and grownups alike, and how together we can make a positive impact on the world we live in. This story is read by actress and writer Jameela Jamil.
You can find Greta in the new book Rebel Girls: 100 Inspiring Young Changemakers! We’re celebrating all September long with two special Changemakers podcast episodes each week. Preorder Rebel Girls: 100 Inspiring Young Changemakers wherever books are sold to learn about how girls just like you are changing the world.
This story was produced by John Marshall Media. It was written by Joy Fowlkes and edited by Pam Gruber. Special thanks to our narrator, Jameela Jamil. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!
When Greta was around ten years old, her teacher showed the class a documentary about the Great Garbage Patch. Greta learned about plastic materials that toppled off shipping containers. Those plastic fragments were picked up by ocean currents and swirled together to form an island of trash the size of Mexico.
Some students felt moved. Others’ attention wavered. Greta could not look away. She thought “that can’t be right. No way there is something serious enough to threaten our very existence.”
When the film was over and the lights clicked on, Greta’s classmates were already standing, pulling on their jackets, and chattering away. Greta stayed seated, unaware that it was lunchtime.
The cafeteria was serving hamburgers. Greta could not stomach the thought of eating one. It was a “ground-up piece of muscle from a living creature with feelings, consciousness, and a soul,” she said. And when she wasn’t thinking of the cow, she remembered that island of trash.
As others pulled out their phones and started swiping, Greta cried and wanted to go home. In that moment, she couldn’t quite understand how everyone went back to life as usual.
When Greta started sixth grade, she cried on her way to school. She cried in class too. Every day, her teachers called Greta’s stay-at-home dad, Svante. Every day, he rushed to bring her home to their golden retriever Moses.
Greta would sit with Moses for hours, petting him and caressing his coat. As much as her parents tried to help, Greta slipped further into a funk until she stopped functioning altogether. She stopped playing the piano. She stopped laughing, stopped talking.
Greta’s mother, Malena, a well-known opera singer, took a break from performing when Greta stopped eating.
At home, they hung a white sheet of paper on the wall where they tracked Greta’s food
intake. A half of a banana. Five gnocchi. Never enough.
Malena and Svante tried to coax Greta into eating. Sometimes they screamed, and threatened. Other times they begged, cried. They offered young Greta anything their imagination came up with. But more often than not, they had to sit on their hands until Greta herself decided to eat something.
Doctors diagnosed Greta with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. She also had obsessive compulsive disorder, an anxiety disorder which consumed Greta with worried thoughts that overwhelmed her sometimes.
“We could give her the diagnosis of selective mutism as well,” a doctor told her parents. They were referring to Greta’s refusal to talk to anyone besides her family. The doctor continued, “…but it often disappears on its own with time.”
Eventually, the doctor was proved correct; Greta only needed to find a reason to speak.
JAMIL People on the autism spectrum tend to have a special interest. Greta’s curiosity about global heating consumed her. She read reports filled with jargon, and what she didn’t understand, she researched until she did.
Greta learned that everyone has a carbon footprint. Every time someone consumed energy by lighting the stove or putting gas in their car, for example, they were responsible for releasing carbon gases into the air.
Carbon was important, because it kept the planet warm enough for life, but now, too many gases were being released, so the Earth was warming too much and too fast.
Greta decided that the biggest danger to our future was not inaction. Scientists had asked leaders to do something, but people were still not doing enough. The real danger was when politicians and C.E.O.s were making it look like real action was happening, when in fact almost nothing was being done.
Greta was ready to make personal sacrifices to protect her future, but she knew she could not make impactful changes alone.
She shared what she learned with her parents and sister. She suggested lifestyle changes, goading them into giving up meat and eventually, going vegan.
“You can’t really stand up for something without walking the walk,” Greta said. The family installed solar batteries and started growing their own vegetables.
Her most important victory came when, in 2016, she persuaded her mother to stop flying. This was a big deal because Malena’s career depended on traveling widely. Malena’s decision showed that no one person’s goals were more pressing than the planet, regardless of how important she was.
Once she successfully changed minds at home, Greta focused her attention on the wider world.
In America, a group of students who survived a school shooting organized a national walk-out to protest the use of assault weapons. The act of civil disobedience inspired the biggest youth-led protest yet. It was called March for Our Lives.
Greta was inspired by their revolt. She was frustrated by the politicians who misquoted climate crisis data, outright lied, or in the worst cases, patted themselves on the backs. At fifteen, Greta could not vote in the upcoming election. Walking out of school was one of the few ways she knew she could capture attention.
Greta told her parents that she wanted to skip school too, like the student survivors in America. Greta wanted to protest her government’s response to the climate crisis. Her parents discouraged her at first. Greta pushed back.
“Why should I be at school studying for a future that soon may be no more?” she asked.
They couldn’t argue with that. Greta’s parents saw that her new sense of purpose made her feel good, and she looked healthier than ever. With that, her dad Svante took Greta to the hardware store to buy supplies to make a protest sign.
On Monday, August 20, 2018, Greta got up an hour earlier than usual and packed her rucksack with books and snacks. She rode her bicycle to parliament with Svante trailing behind. A sign that read “School Strike for Climate” was tucked under his arm.
Greta took her place against a wall around the corner from the prime minister’s office. And there she sat. Even though Greta didn’t put up a fuss, she was hard to overlook in her bright yellow rain jacket.
Greta asked a passerby to take her photo, which she shared online. A few people asked questions and offered their support.
“Your generation will save the world. You are the ones who will clean up after us,” some
It wouldn’t hurt if you helped too, Greta wanted to say.
Svante called Greta on her phone. The media had heard of Greta’s strike, and they were on their way. Greta wasn’t expecting this, but she was surprised and happy. A year ago, she wasn’t speaking to anyone beyond her family. Now she managed to give several interviews.
Greta, who had a photographic memory, repeated what scientists had already said again and again. The reporters wrote it down as if they were hearing it for the first time.
Over and over she told them: Unless radical and immediate action is taken to curb carbon emissions, the planet will warm to catastrophic temperatures. What we do during the next decade will determine the climate for the nearly two billion children alive today.
Svante came by to check on Greta and found her surrounded. A journalist asked Svante if they had permission to film an interview, and he noticed that Greta was tense.
Svante pulled Greta aside, and she started to cry.
“Let’s go home now,” her father said. “OK?”
Greta shook her head.
“You don’t need to do any of this. Let’s forget about this and get out of here.”
Greta paced. She inhaled. She exhaled. Even though she was still upset, she focused straight ahead.
“No,” she said. “I’m doing this.”
Greta stayed there every day during school hours for three weeks.
Greta’s strike had drawn coverage from Sweden’s biggest newspapers. As reporters flocked to her, she handed out fliers bearing the message “You grownups don’t give a [crap] about my future.”
After three weeks of missing classes, Greta still was not satisfied. The emissions continued to increase whether she striked or not.
The day before parliamentary elections, Greta spoke in front of two thousand people at the People’s Climate March in Stockholm. When she took the stage, she asked everyone to take out their phones and share her remarks.
“We will go on with the school strike. Every Friday, as from now, we will sit outside the Swedish parliament until Sweden is in line with the Paris agreement,” Greta announced. The crowd cried out their support.
In a matter of months, the number of protesters grew from hundreds to thousands. Greta refused to recognize the movement as one she started. She was one of many, many activists who were pushing for climate action.
In January 2019, Greta was invited to speak to business leaders and politicians at the World Economic Forum in Davos. She warned them:
“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.”
By summer of 2019, Greta was both celebrated and condemned. More than two million people across 135 countries had joined the movement. People wondered if she’d win the Nobel prize. Time put her on the cover of their magazine.
Some lawmakers refused to listen when Greta spoke publicly. Instead, they poked fun.
Nearly a year after Greta first sat outside parliament, a new journey awaited her on the other side of the Atlantic. Greta and Svante boarded a zero-carbon yacht to sail from Britain to New York City where she was invited to take part in the United Nations Climate Action Summit.
The morning Greta docked at a Manhattan marina, she woke up and suddenly smelled something indescribable. The salty air that she’d become accustomed to had been replaced with the odor of pollution.
When she sailed beneath the gaze of Lady Liberty, seventeen sailboats heralded her arrival. The ground seemed to shake beneath her feet when Greta stepped off the yacht. She searched for balance as her sea legs stabilized.
In the distance, she heard supporters chanting, “Welcome Greta.”
For two weeks, all Greta had heard were her own thoughts and the laps of the ocean waves. She was stunned by starry skies and spontaneous encounters with wildlife. New York City can be overwhelming for any outsider, but for Greta who felt everything very deeply, it was so big, and so loud.
“It’s so overwhelming. I’ve gone from nothing but me and the ocean to this,” Greta told a reporter.
Her fear for the planet outweighed her discomfort. Greta continued on.
In America, people discussed climate change as something that one did or did not believe in.
In Sweden where Greta came from, the climate crisis was a fact. When she was asked whether she’d speak with President Donald Trump on her trip, Greta feared it would be a waste of time, because he did not believe in climate change. He was what people called “a climate denier.”
As President of the United States, he had the opportunity to speak with many experts. If they couldn’t convince him of global heating, Greta figured it was a lost cause.
“I’m not that special. I can’t convince everyone,” she said.
Senators complimented Greta and other young activists for the work they’d done.
“Please save us your praise. We don’t want it,” she scolded them. Greta was frustrated hearing the same compliments day after day. She wanted someone to do something.
On September 20, 2019, Greta marched alongside four million people worldwide. Three days later, at the U.N. Climate Action Summit, she was asked what message she had for world leaders:
Greta said: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! …
“You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.
Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”
After Greta’s speech, more and more people around the globe took notice. An American media outlet called her “mentally ill,” which Greta saw as a signal that she was winning!
She knew that people pointed out looks and differences when they had no other challenges available. Greta knew her difference was a superpower.
“I see the world kind of black-and-white,” she said. “Everyone says that there is no black-and-white issue, but I think this is. Either we go on as a civilization or we don’t.”
Today, Greta still stands outside protesting every Friday, but now she’s not alone. Supporters drop by to join her on their lunch breaks. They sometimes bring her food. Greta, who generally eats the same thing every day, surprises herself by finding new things she enjoys like noodles and falafel.
While our planet’s future is still uncertain, Greta has many opportunities ahead. She launched a foundation to promote sustainability as well as mental health.
Inspired by the environmental documentaries that she saw in the classroom, Greta agreed to participate in a documentary series that will follow her to some of the most extraordinary places on earth, as she explores what actions could be taken to limit climate change.
But perhaps the most exciting news is that Greta has inspired what journalists are calling “the Greta effect.”
A wave of youth have taken to action offline and online to raise awareness about the causes they care about most. And world leaders are racing to keep up with their demands, because, as Greta pointed out, “Change is coming. Whether you like it or not.”