For Greta Thunberg, 16, it has taken just one year to traverse the distance from being a regular ninth-standard student in Stockholm to becoming the most recognised face of climate change activism who can give world leaders a dressing-down at a United Nations summit.
Along the way to her widely publicised speech at the UN climate conference on Monday, she has found a cult following, mingled with heads of states, given a TED talk, sailed across the Atlantic to spread climate awareness, been interviewed by countless media organisations, and has a detailed Wikipedia page. Earlier this year, she has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Born to an actor father and a singer mother, Thunberg, then 15, shot to fame in August last year, when she sat against the outer wall of the main building of Swedish Parliament. She carried a sign that read “School strike for the climate” in Swedish. She herself had decided to skip school to demand from her country’s lawmakers more concrete and urgent action on climate change. For a child her age in Sweden, attending school is compulsory. She was, in effect, breaking the law by not attending.
By her own account, Thunberg first heard of the climate change problem when she was eight years old, and wondered why no one was doing anything about it, or why fossil fuels were not being made illegal. Then in May 2018, she won an essay competition on climate change organised by a Swedish newspaper. Her essay was published, after which a few climate activists contacted her. One of them suggested to her the idea of a school strike.
“I like the idea of a school strike. So I developed that idea and tried to get the other young people to join me, but no one was really interested. So I want on planning the school strike all by myself.,” she wrote in a Facebook post in February this year.
Her strike and protest outside Swedish Parliament brought her instant fame, and a following on the Internet. She became a favourite of the well-networked climate change NGOs, and became the centre of massive campaigns in the run-up to last year’s climate change conference in Poland, where she was given the opportunity to address one of the plenaries.
Thunberg is not saying anything that the world doesn’t know of, or has not been said earlier. In fact, she sounds rhetorical in her well-choreographed speeches. But her young age, and the fact that she represents the generation that is likely to experience the worst impacts of climate change, is seen as bringing a moral force to the argument. She presents a stern face, and talks with the seriousness of someone who is helplessly witnessing her future getting ruined.
“If the emissions have to stop, then we must stop the emissions. To me, that is black or white. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival,” she said in her TED talk.
In her February Facebook post, she explains why. “When I say that the climate crisis is a black and white issue, (or) we need to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases, and (that) I want you to panic. I only say because it’s true. Yes, the climate crisis is the most complex issue that we have ever faced, and it’s going to take everything from our part to stop it. But the solution is black and white. We need to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases”.
With her massive following, and support from NGOs and the scientific community, Thunberg has managed to create awareness about the issue, especially among the young. Her school strike campaign is now held across the world, with students skipping schools for a few days in protest against inaction on climate.
“Why should I be studying for a future that soon would be no more, when no one is doing anything whatsoever to save that future. And what is the point of learning facts in the school system when the most important facts given by the finest science of the same school system clearly means nothing for our politicians and society,” she said in her TED talk.
However, it is debatable whether her campaign has brought any change in policy, or forced any country to announce additional climate action. International decision-making is governed by realpolitik and not by moral force or calls to conscience.
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