Life

Wednesday 21 August 2019

Earth's saviour? Why we've warmed to the Greta effect

A 16-year-old schoolgirl with a powerful message about climate change is challenging world leaders. Just who is the real Greta Thunberg, asks Guy Kelly

Greta Thunberg received a standing ovation after her speech in the House of Commons. Photo: Reuters
Greta Thunberg received a standing ovation after her speech in the House of Commons. Photo: Reuters

Guy Kelly

As anybody who has followed his political career will know all too well, it takes a lot for British Environment Secretary Michael Gove to feel shame. On Tuesday, though, after hearing the arguments of 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, he was unusually contrite.

"As I listened to you, I felt great admiration, but also a sense of responsibility and guilt... I recognise we have not done nearly enough to deal with the problem of climate change," he said. Thunberg - her hair in pigtails and a metal water bottle at her side - looked on, seeming unconvinced. "Suddenly, thanks to the leadership of Greta and others, it has become inescapable that we have to act."

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Thunberg had received a standing ovation from the 40 MPs and more than 100 guests she addressed inside the UK parliament where she was introduced as an "enthusiastic and dedicated environmental campaigner" when she appeared in the House of Commons.

Not for the first time, her name began trending on Twitter. Journalists queued up to interview her. In Hyde Park, where she had spoken earlier in the week, the remaining protesters of the Extinction Rebellion movement spoke of her as a nascent church would its patron saint. And through it all, the girl in the middle remained cool, calm and remarkably composed. It was another extraordinary day in the life of an increasingly extraordinary teenager.

Until last summer, the name Greta Thunberg was relatively unknown outside her family and friends in Sweden. The eldest of two girls, she is the daughter of actor Svante Thunberg and Malena Ernman, a well-known opera singer who came 21st in the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest. (She is also distantly related to Svante Arrhenius, the first scientist to predict that carbon emissions would lead to warming.)

Growing up with the family's two labradors, Moses and Roxy, near the capital, Thunberg was academically sound but quiet, and became interested in the subject of climate change when she was just nine.

Greta’s parents Svante Thunberg and Malena Ernman
Greta’s parents Svante Thunberg and Malena Ernman

"[Teachers] were always talking about how we should turn off lights, save water, not throw out food. I asked why and they explained about climate change," she said last year. "And I thought this was very strange. If humans could really change the climate, everyone would be talking about it and people wouldn't be talking about anything else. But this wasn't happening."

Images of melting ice and polar bears in peril became stuck in Thunberg's mind. At 11, she was uninterested in mobile phones or the trends other children followed, and her sadness turned to a crippling depression; stopping her from going to school, eating and - aside from family and one particular teacher at school - speaking.

At around the same time, she and her younger sister, 13-year-old Beata, were diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, ADHD and other conditions. Thunberg says that her autism has helped her to focus on doing something about the subject that caused her depression.

"[Asperger's] makes me different, and being different is a gift, I would say. It also makes me see things from outside the box," she told the BBC this week. "I don't easily fall for lies, I can see through things."

Having a "special interest" she says, is "very common for people on the autism spectrum", and it means she can concentrate on "the same thing for hours". And so she researched climate science, pressuring her family to change their ways. She stopped them eating meat, turned them vegan, urged them to buy an electric car and, in 2016, convinced her mother to stop flying. That victory was a turning point: it brought interest from the media and led to Thunberg's parents co-authoring a book, Scenes From The Heart, about how their children's mental health diagnoses had made them more aware of the health of the planet.

By last summer, Thunberg's focus had outgrown the home. Frustrated by what she saw as weak-to-non-existent policies on climate change from the Swedish government, and provoked by the summer heatwave, she resolved to skip school and sit alone, every Friday, on the cobblestones in front of the country's parliament. "I am doing this because you adults are sh**ting on my future," said the leaflets she handed out to passers-by.

Students in other countries followed, including Ireland, and soon tens of thousands of teenagers had joined the strike. Thunberg was invited to the United Nations Climate Change Conference and the World Economic Forum, in Davos. At the latter, she told a roomful of business leaders that their financial success had "come with an unthinkable price tag" for the planet.

It is Thunberg's refusal to defer to the authority of anybody she speaks to that has made her so effective. She is more than happy to tell people "Sweden is not a green paradise" and explain its crimes against the ozone layer. On Tuesday, she told British MPs: "You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to. And the saddest thing is that most children are not even aware of the fate that awaits us. We will not understand it until it's too late."

She has met Pope Francis and Jean-Claude Juncker, earned social media endorsements from Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio, and been touted for the Nobel Peace Prize. Like the brave Parkland Shooting survivors now fighting for gun control, 18-year-old US transgender activist Jazz Jennings and Malala Yousafzai, Thunberg is proof that the fearlessness of youth can be far more effective than decades of political experience.

There has, of course, been a backlash. Not everybody is keen to have a teenager - one who has been compared to Joan of Arc and Pippi Longstocking, no less - tell them what to do, and not everybody thinks she is picking on the right foes (arguing that emissions from China, the US and other powers would be better challenged).

Criticism has included the suggestion that having famous parents means Thunberg is the product of a well-orchestrated PR campaign. It is true that she started her school strike around the time the book was published. It's also true she was forced to distance herself from 'We Don't Have Time', a climate change start-up run by a Swedish PR consultant, after it had used Thunberg's image to gain funds. But there is no suggestion she is anything other than independent.

Others have picked on her delivery - curious, since she speaks fluently in a second language, with a wider vocabulary than most have in their first, and articulates complex political issues with astonishing simplicity. Or they've commented on her appearance. Michael Gove's wife, the journalist Sarah Vine, complimented her on dressing "like a girl instead of an off-duty pole dancer", which is a round-about way of showing your approval. And, perhaps most wildly, some have said her mother's Eurovision experience made things easy for her.

On Wednesday, a surely exhausted Thunberg left London and returned home - on the train, of course. It has been reported that her parents and teachers would like her to stop protesting and go back to school, but there is the possibility of a trip to the United Nations Climate Summit in New York in September. If invited, Thunberg plans to get there on a container ship.

"All my life I've been invisible, the invisible girl in the back who doesn't say anything," she said last year. No longer: "From one day to another, people listen to me."

For all our sakes, let's hope that's true.

Irish Independent

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