Greta Thunberg: The 16-Year-Old Climate Activist Who's Become A Global Celebrity

Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images.
School students around the world – including 60 UK towns and cities – are skipping classes today, demanding governments take action on global warming. It's the second time in a month that the school climate strike has spread throughout the UK, as part of the worldwide School Strike for Climate movement, which this time around has sparked similar demos in more than 100 countries.
The young firebrand leading the charge? Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, a Swedish schoolgirl who you wouldn't have picked out of a lineup a year ago, but who was nominated this week for the Nobel Peace Prize for her climate activism. In recent months, Thunberg has become a global celebrity, given a TEDx Talk that's been watched over 708k times, spoken at the UN Climate Talks in December and addressed January's World Economic Forum in Davos.
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All this is a remarkable achievement for someone so young and if she wins this year's Nobel Peace Prize, she'll be the youngest person to do so since Malala Yousafzai, who was 17 when she jointly received the award in 2014. Thunberg told her 296k Twitter followers on Thursday that she was "honoured and very grateful" to be nominated. Here's how Thunberg found herself in the spotlight.
Who is she?
Thunberg, who is rarely spotted without pigtailed hair, is a Stockholm native who lives at home with her mother, Malena Ernman, a famous opera singer in Sweden, her actor father, Svante Thunberg, and sister Beata. A self-described introvert, Thunberg was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome four years ago and also has selective mutism, a severe anxiety disorder in which a person is unable to speak in certain social situations. Thunberg has credited both conditions for her tenacity as an activist.
In keeping with her climate activism, Thunberg follows a vegan diet and avoids flying, travelling abroad by train instead. She persuaded her mother to give up flying, which she admits was quite an achievement given her globe-trotting career, and her father to become vegetarian. "She kept showing us documentaries, and we read books together. Before that, I really didn’t have a clue. I thought we had the climate issue sorted," Thunberg's father told the Guardian recently. "She changed us and now she is changing a great many other people. There was no hint of this in her childhood. It’s unbelievable."
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In her spare time, the teen enjoys riding Icelandic horses, spending time with her two dogs, Moses and Roxy. She's widely described as an animal-lover with a penchant for science and reading.
How did the movement start?
On 20th August 2018, a then 15-year-old Thunberg decided to skip school, cycle to the Swedish parliament with her hand-painted banner and homemade flyers, and sit down on the steps in a bid to persuade the country's politicians to act on climate change. Her parents tried to talk her out of it and her classmates turned down the offer, yet she persisted. "The first day, I sat alone from about 8.30am to 3pm – the regular schoolday. And then on the second day, people started joining me. After that, there were people there all the time," Thunberg told the Guardian.
Thunberg says she was inspired by the Parkland students in the US, who walked out of school in protest against the country's gun laws following the massacre at their Florida campus. Their movement, Thunberg says, alerted her to the impact of mass action.
What drives her?
It was watching a documentary about climate change at school that first piqued Thunberg's interest in climate change, which, owing to her Asperger's, she says, she couldn't get out of her mind. "I overthink. Some people can just let things go, but I can’t, especially if there’s something that worries me or makes me sad," Thunberg told the Guardian. "I remember when I was younger, and in school, our teachers showed us films of plastic in the ocean, starving polar bears and so on. I cried through all the movies. My classmates were concerned when they watched the film, but when it stopped, they started thinking about other things. I couldn’t do that. Those pictures were stuck in my head."
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She's tenacious in her hunger for change, telling her TEDx audience last year: "Some people say that Sweden is just a small country and that it doesn't matter what we do, but I think that 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."
Haters spur her on
As a climate change activist, you're destined for criticism (and online abuse) whatever your age, but when you're a teen, you may be less equipped to handle it. The criticism hasn't fazed her, though, and she already had the wherewithal to handle playground bullying. "I expected when I started that if this is going to become big, then there will be a lot of hate," she told the Guardian. "It’s a positive sign. I think that must be because they see us as a threat. That means that something has changed in the debate, and we are making a difference."
What's next?
Given her youth, we can only hope Thunberg has many years of activism ahead of her – but she wants more than our "hope". Thunberg has become known for dismissing the notion in favour of action, telling political leaders and billionaire entrepreneurs in Davos: "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." In the mean time, she's reportedly working 12- to 15-hour days, getting up for school at 6am and staying on top of homework, in between speechwriting, protesting and giving interviews. More power to her.
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