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Greta against the world: how a 17-year-old activist took on climate-change denying leaders

How an initial lone school sit-in galvanised a new global movement. 

For the World Economic Forum in Davos in January Donald Trump and his huge entourage flew from Washington, DC to Zurich in both his official Boeing 747s, then completed the final leg in a fleet of seven helicopters. He stayed in the Inter-Continental Hotel’s presidential suite (normal charge: £2,670 per night). He was cocooned by security agents. His speech was crafted by professional speechwriters.

Greta Thunberg came by train and electric car with a family friend, Erika Jangen, and met her father, Svante, there. She had no aides, no spokespeople. She wrote her two speeches herself. For security reasons she had to stay in a hotel, but wanted to stay in a flat with other young climate change activists like 19-year-old Isabelle Axelsson, a fellow Swede. “She was complaining about having to stay in a hotel,” Axelsson said. The little protection Thunberg had was provided by the Swiss police.

It seems improbable that the president of the United States, the world’s most powerful man, would let a 17-year-old girl with Asperger’s Syndrome, plaits and a homemade protest sign get under his skin, but clearly she did.

Nobody doubted who he was targeting when he used his address to denounce climate change “prophets of doom” and their “predictions of the apocalypse”. As Thunberg sat listening in the audience, Trump called her and her ilk “the heirs of yesterday’s foolish fortune tellers”, adding: “These alarmists always demand the same thing – absolute power to dominate, transform and control every aspect of our lives. We will never let radical socialists destroy our economy, wreck our country or eradicate our liberty.”

Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s Treasury secretary, joined the assault, sarcastically asking a Davos press conference: “Is she [Thunberg] the chief economist? Who is she? I’m confused.” He then suggested she earned an economics degree before lecturing the world.

In Our House Is On Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis, a book by Thunberg’s family published in Britain on 5 March, her mother, the Swedish opera singer Malena Ernman, recalls her saying on the eve of her first lone school strike against climate change in August 2018:  “I am going to be so incredibly hated.”

But Thunberg could never have foreseen quite how much hatred she would attract. Trump had tweeted in December 2019 that she had an “Anger Management problem” and should learn to “chill”. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has dismissed her as a “poorly informed” girl who does not understand complex global issues and is being manipulated. Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, has labelled her a pirralha (brat). Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, has denounced her for causing “needless anxiety”.

Conservative commentators have accused her of being “mentally ill” and “unstable”, and her parents of exploiting their daughter for fame, financial gain or to advance their political agenda. They say she is being used in the way that Nazi propagandists used images of blonde young German children. A veritable tsunami of abuse has been unleashed against Thunberg on social media where she is portrayed as the brainwashed puppet of some vast left-wing conspiracy to gain global ascendancy on the pretext of curbing carbon emissions.

Fake photos widely circulated online variously purport to show Thunberg feasting in a train while starving children stare through the window, standing in front of an Islamic State flag, and meeting the financier George Soros, a favourite villain of right-wing conspiracy theorists. Her face appeared on a fabricated magazine cover above the words “Annual List of Highest Paid Activists”. Her effigy was hung from a noose beneath a bridge in Rome. A cartoon depicting Thunberg being assaulted recently circulated online. One conspiracy theory suggests she is a fictional creation played by an actress. She and her family regularly receive death threats, and have excrement mailed to their Stockholm flat.

Greta Thunberg is the world’s most famous teenager, the only one known across the planet by her first name alone. She has inspired millions of her peers on every continent to stage school strikes. She has some 17 million Instagram, Twitter and Facebook followers combined. She addresses diplomats, politicians and business tycoons. She has been applauded by former president Barack Obama, Pope Francis, French president Emmanuel Macron, Al Gore, Prince Charles and the UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres. She was Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2019, and has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

“You have achieved things that many of us who have been working on [climate change] for 20-odd years have failed to achieve,” David Attenborough told her when she guest-edited the BBC’s Today programme on 30 December 2019. “You have aroused the world.”

Her detractors evidently find it impossible to believe – or wilfully refuse to believe – that a young girl operating alone could have such an impact. But they are wrong. She has become a global brand, but there is no such thing as “Greta Inc”. It is said that it cost a fortune to keep Mahatma Gandhi in poverty, but there is practically nothing in the way of a support structure behind Thunberg. She has no office, no staff, no organisation – just her parents, a few volunteers, the climate change experts from whom she seeks advice and the sheer force of her words.

As she once wrote of her solitary campaign on a Facebook post: “People say that since I have Asperger’s I couldn’t possibly put myself in this position. But that’s exactly why I did this. Because if I would have been ‘normal’ and social I would have organised myself in an organisation, or started an organisation myself. But since I am not that good at socialising I did this instead… There is no one ‘behind’ me except for myself.”

Our House is On Fire describes a deep and protracted crisis within Thunberg’s family and, paradoxically, how the global climate crisis helped to alleviate it. When Thunberg was 11 she became deeply depressed. She cried constantly. “She was slowly disappearing into some kind of darkness and seemed to stop functioning. She stopped playing the piano. She stopped laughing. She stopped talking. And. She stopped eating,” her mother writes in staccato style. She lost ten kilos in two months. She was eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s, high-functioning autism, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Her younger sister, Beata, also began behaving strangely. She couldn’t tolerate sounds. She shut herself in her bedroom and screamed obscenities at her parents. “For five years… our family could not eat together, or were barely able to be in the same room,” Ernman writes. Beata was finally diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and elements of Asperger’s, OCD and oppositional defiant disorder.

Ernman and Svante, an actor, stopped work to look after their daughters. Friends fell away. “We felt like shit. I felt like shit. The children felt like shit. The planet felt like shit. Even the dog felt like shit,” recalls Ernman, who survived with the help of sedatives and antidepressants.

Then, Greta Thunberg latched on to the climate crisis with the intense, laser-beam focus that can be a characteristic of those with autism – what she calls her “superpower”. She persuaded her parents to stop flying, become vegan and buy an electric car. That energised her, her parents say. She started to speak outside the family again, and to eat in the company of strangers.

She got the idea of staging a three-week strike from school in front of the Swedish parliament in Stockholm from the 2018 high school protests against gun violence in America. Her parents say they opposed the plan, but did not stop her. “Whatever happens, you have to do it all on your own,” her father warned. “You have to be able to answer every question. And you have to know the arguments and answers. The journalists are going to ask you everything.”

One obvious question, he told her, would be: “Did your parents put you up to this?” She replied: “I’ll tell it like it is. I’m the one who influenced you and not the other way around.”

Her father took her to buy a rough wooden board on which she painted the now famous words “Skolstrejk för Klimatet” – school strike for climate. She printed fliers with facts about climate change. “We see that she feels good as she draws up her plans – better than she has felt in many years. Better than ever before, in fact,” Ernman writes.

On the morning of 20 August 2018, Thunberg put on a black T-shirt with a crossed-out plane on the front. She and her father then cycled to the parliament building where she sat down on the pavement. While Svante watched discreetly from a distance she asked a passer-by to take a picture of her and posted it on Twitter and Instagram. Journalists arrived to interview her. Other students joined her, and the global school strike movement began. So did the venom.

Thunberg appears unfazed by the attacks. “Quite frankly I don’t know how she does it, but she laughs most of the time,” says her father.

Her parents are less sanguine. “Some think that ‘someone’ is ‘behind all this’. A PR agency. But that’s not the case,” Ernman protests in the book. “Greta’s summer did not pass by in a series of clandestine meetings behind thick curtains at murky advertising agencies, where she was drilled in falsifying her background, her values and opinions. All under the influence of globalists, cunning left-wing economists and George Soros. That sort of thing.

“All to reinforce government influence and increase our joint tax burden; all for the creation of the eco-fascist, global super-state. Each conspiracy theory is worse than the next. Greta has not sacrificed four or five hellish years to simulating various life-threatening difficulties in order now to launch the world’s most cunning PR coup.”

Ernman might have added that the hidden forces at work are actually those opposing her daughter – the fossil fuel companies and other vested interests who spend vast sums discreetly lobbying against environmental regulations; the right-wingers who consider her a threat to individual freedom, to untrammelled capitalism, to an economic system that depends on boundless consumerism and constant growth.

She might also have observed that the extremists are not those who warn that the planet is in peril, but those – like Trump – who ignore and disparage the increasingly irrefutable scientific evidence that this is so.


School’s out: Thunberg joins Italian pupils at the Fridays for Future rally in Turin in December

***

Shortly before Thunberg began her first school strike, she and her parents asked to see Kevin Anderson, a climate change professor at the universities of Manchester and of Uppsala in Sweden. They quizzed him in the morning, over lunch, and into the afternoon.

“I was slightly cynical. There was a sense inside me that perhaps this was a child being used to voice the concerns of her parents,” Anderson told me. “That changed. By the end of lunch I realised it was the other way round. It was Greta who had really made her parents think about these issues. She was well informed, articulate and was genuinely interested in the science and what to do about it.”

Anderson’s initial scepticism was understandable. The quiet, somewhat introverted teenager is easy to underestimate. But to a remarkable degree she alone has propelled her campaign from a solitary sit-in to a global force in 18 months.

She has no team of media advisers telling her what to say or how to say it. She is sometimes accompanied on her travels by Jangen, an old friend of Thunberg’s mother who until last year worked for the global PR agency Prime Weber Shandwick. But Jangen (who declined to be interviewed) insists that she helps only with logistics and that Thunberg shapes her own messages.

Thunberg also receives pro bono help from a couple of members of the Global Strategic Communications Council, a non-profit network of communications professionals concerned about climate issues. They field up to 100 requests a week for media interviews with Thunberg, and occasionally organise interviews and press conferences. They too insist that Thunberg decides which interviews to do and what to say.

Nick Robinson, the BBC presenter, interviewed her after she addressed a meeting at the Quaker Friends House in London’s Euston Road last spring. “I fully expected a bunch of minders to come in with her but she just walked in on her own,” he told me. “I was much more impressed than I expected to be in the sense it was not spun or controlled or anything.” Likewise, the BBC team that spent several hours recording her editing the Today programme in Stockholm just before Christmas found no PR advisers on hand – just Thunberg and her father.

A naturally sceptical environment correspondent on a national newspaper who covered her departure by yacht from Plymouth last August for the UN Climate Action Summit in New York the following month was hugely impressed by the press conference she gave on the quay. For 30 minutes she stood alone amid several dozen journalists and answered their probing questions. “I witnessed her in the flesh and I can tell you no one was dictating her answers,” he said. “She’s absolutely sincere, extremely intelligent and incredibly poised. She’s the genuine article.”

Thunberg cooperates on an ad hoc basis with environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace, and addressed an Extinction Rebellion protest in London last year, but while such groups might on occasion help organise her public appearances she insists that “I am absolutely independent and I only represent myself”. The #FridaysforFuture school strike movement, which she inspired but does not aspire to lead, is a grass-roots movement with little formal structure.

She writes all her own speeches. She seeks facts, checks drafts and explores simple ways of expressing complicated ideas with half-a-dozen well-respected climate change scientists – Anderson; Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a former vice-chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); Glen Peters, research director at Norway’s Cicero Centre for International Climate Research; Stefan Rahmstorf from Potsdam University; and Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

She discusses climate issues with the likes of Naomi Klein, the Canadian author and climate change activist, Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, and Bill McKibben, co-founder of the international climate change organisation 350.org. But there is no evidence that they are using or manipulating her. She generally approaches them, not the other way round, and she alone decides whether to include or omit their suggestions from her speeches. “She listens to what we say then makes her own judgement,” said Anderson.

Thunberg also reads avidly. She has consumed all the IPCC’s reports. When she sailed across the Atlantic last summer she took reams of reading material with her including US Democrats’ proposals for a Green New Deal, the Climate Justice Alliance’s “Just Transition Principles”, and the Greenpeace report Real Climate Leadership.

Her grasp of the science – and of governments’ failure to act on it over the past three decades – is “remarkable”, said Anderson, who feels as if he is talking to a junior academic colleague when he speaks to Thunberg, not a teenager.

“She understands the challenges of the climate crisis much better than most political or economic leaders,” said van Ypersele, a professor of climate science at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium. “I’m blown away by the accuracy of her words… She understands the immense risks that the accumulation of greenhouse gases poses to life on Earth. She does not confuse the ozone hole, air pollution or the daily weather forecast with the climate crisis. Few leaders can say the same.”

The scientists also rebut Trump’s charge that Greta is alarmist. Van Ypersele told me: “There’s a big difference between being ‘alarming’ and ‘alarmist’. The data is, of course, alarming, but that doesn’t mean it’s alarmist.” Anderson said: “She makes a very clear interpretation of what the science is saying and where we are heading, and about how we have fundamentally failed [to address that]. I think her message on that is absolutely spot-on.”

Thunberg strives to ensure not only that her message is accurate, but also that it is not compromised. She accepts no sponsorship, though it is often offered. During her first school strike, for example, she dispatched a representative of a major burger chain who was offering her and her fellow strikers free food. At Davos a Russian energy company representative offered her a lot of money, said her fellow activist Isabelle Axelsson. He, too, was rebuffed.

She jealously guards her political independence. When she and her father visited the Palace of Westminster at the Green Party’s invitation last April, “they were very, very clear. Everything had to be cross-party. They were very careful about being used for party political goals. They checked who had been invited to every meeting,” said one of the organisers. Caroline Lucas hosted Thunberg as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on climate change, not as the Green Party’s sole MP.

She accepts no speaking fees. She makes no money from her campaigning. Book royalties, prize money and donations go to a foundation that her family is presently setting up in Sweden. It will support environmental and mental health causes.

With the pro bono assistance of two lawyers Thunberg is trademarking her name, but not to enrich herself. She is doing so to prevent others exploiting and tarnishing it. She recently complained on Instagram that her name is “constantly being used for commercial purposes without any consent whatsoever”, and of “people who are trying to impersonate me or falsely claim that they ‘represent’ me”. She severed links with We Don’t Have Time, a Swedish company working on environmental projects, when it used her name on a company prospectus without consent.

When she travels, she relies on local activists for practical support. She journeys by train, electric car or, famously, by yacht – but never flies. She stays in hotels, guest houses, flats or people’s homes. Before sailing to New York she and the crew rented an Airbnb in Plymouth for four days and rode around on rented bikes. Being vegan, she sometimes carries her own lunch box with her. At Westminster last spring she bought lunch from the Commons canteen and ate it in Caroline Lucas’s office.

She accepts some travel costs – BBC Studios financed part of her journey to Davos, for example, because it is making a documentary series about her. But mostly her parents pay for her trips (her mother has now returned to work, and her father manages a small music production company).

Thunberg does not court celebrity. Neither she nor her family are giving interviews to mark the publication of their book. Axelsson said of her friend’s global notoriety: “On a personal level she hates it, but on another level she’s aware it helps spread her message and she uses it.”

Nor will she sugar-coat her message or play to the gallery. At one point while writing the book Thunberg’s father suggested it needed more human interest to keep readers engaged. “This is a book about the climate and it should be boring,” she retorted. “They’ll have to put up with it.”

Those who know Thunberg ridicule the idea that she is being manipulated in any way. “It’s utter nonsense,” said Anderson. Axelsson said: “I’d really like to see someone try to make her say something she doesn’t want to say or tell her how to say it. She has extreme integrity when it comes to that. She’s completely her own person. The conspiracy theories are pretty crazy. They couldn’t be further from the truth.”

A member of the GSCC network who organised, pro bono, the media coverage of her departure from Plymouth, told me: “She’s quite exceptional for knowing her own mind and what she wants to do and how she wants to do it. She just wouldn’t accept any outside interference with that. It would be completely alien to her.”

***

Two weeks ago Thunberg texted Lily Fitzgibbon, a 17-year-old schoolgirl and a leader of Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate. She was coming to the UK and wanted to know if there was a school strike in Bristol on 28 February because she strikes every Friday wherever she is – even in the middle of the Atlantic. “It was quite a moment,” said Fitzgibbon, who had met Thunberg just once before.

She and a dozen other high school students duly organised a strike in eight days flat. While Thunberg was meeting Malala Yousafzai in Oxford, and the environmentalist George Monbiot and the Bank of England governor Mark Carney in London, they raised more than £1,000. They booked College Green and rented a stage and sound system. They trained 90 volunteer stewards and liaised closely with the police. Mindful of Thunberg’s cherished independence, they declined a request from Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees, to meet her, and a local bank’s offer to provide a meeting room.

The organisers expected a big crowd, but not the 20,000 to 30,000 who came from across the country to give her a rock star’s welcome. “Greta, Greta,” they chanted as the heavy rain turned College Green to Glastonbury-style mud. “There’s No Planet B” and “This Can’t Wait Till I’m Older”, their homemade placards proclaimed. “We Will Rock You” and “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” blared from giant speakers. “We want to be inspired. She shows how one person can make a really big difference,” said Elsa Harris, 13, from Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire.

Thunberg, wearing a woolly hat and her trademark yellow jacket, cut a tiny figure on the stage. She offered no preamble, no jokes, no levity in her four-and-a-half minute speech, just characteristic bluntness.

“People are dying because of the consequences of the climate and environmental emergency and it will get worse,” she declared. “Nothing is being done despite all the beautiful words and promises of our elected officials… We are being betrayed by those in power and they are failing us. But we will not back down, and if you feel threatened by that then I have bad news for you: we will not be silenced because we are the change and change is coming whether you like it or not.”

Thunberg did not bask in the adulation, or milk the crowd for applause. Speech over, she gave a brief half-wave then joined a huge, exuberant march around the city centre. People spilled from shops and restaurants to watch her pass in a melee of police, photographers and drummers. Office workers hung out of windows. Others packed bridges and overpasses, or climbed up traffic lights and on to bus shelters, to get a better view. “Greta, we love you,” they yelled.

Thunberg remained largely expressionless as she marched behind a green banner emblazoned “Skolstrejk för Klimatet”. She appeared as impervious to adoration as she is to hatred. Only the mission matters to this diminutive global icon. All else is distraction.

Martin Fletcher is a New Statesman contributing writer

Martin Fletcher is a New Statesman contributing writer and a former foreign editor of the Times

This article appears in the 06 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10