By Rebecca Nicholson
In Greta Thunberg’s BBC One series, A Year to Change the World, there is a moment where it feels as though a baton is being passed: the first in-person meeting between the 18-year-old environmental campaigner and Sir David Attenborough, 94. The veteran broadcaster tells the young Swedish activist that, while his generation has not done enough for the climate crisis, she has brought real hope, and real change. It is an emotional exchange.
“He’s such a genuinely nice and down-to-earth person,’ says Thunberg, warmly. “Much more than you can imagine.”
Thunberg is at home in her family’s apartment in Stockholm. After a year of travelling the world, she is back at school, where she is studying social science. She has a piece of embroidery with her as she talks, and is sewing a pretty green border. She prefers to do something with her hands, she explains, or else she starts to fidget.
Though Attenborough insists that she has “done such a lot” for the planet, she’s not so sure. “Of course, I don’t agree with that,” she says.
She starts many of her sentences with “of course”. “I mean, compared to him, I have done nothing. He is a person who is loved by everyone, and he is using that platform to communicate these things that are very uncomfortable. And I’ve only done this together with millions of others in the Fridays for Future movement, so it’s not something that I have accomplished, really.”
The FFF movement began one day in August 2018. Thunberg, then 15, decided not to go to school, but to sit in front of the Swedish parliament building to protest against the government’s inaction on the climate crisis. Her protest not only went viral, it galvanised a new generation of activists and played a huge part in forcing governments to address the reality of environmental decline.
At 16, she became Time’s youngest ever Person of the Year. She only turned 18 in January, but has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. She’s spoken to, and in front of, many world leaders. Does she really believe she has done nothing?
“I mean, it’s just the truth,” she says. “All I’ve done is to write and give speeches and to travel around, and it feels like anyone else could have done the same thing. It’s not that I’m unique in this sense. So that’s just how it is. And yes, I’ve won many prizes, and been nominated for prizes, but that doesn’t really mean anything. That’s not a sign of accomplishment. I don’t think you should measure success by the number of awards you’ve been given or the amount of money you have made or the followers you have on social media, but rather if you have actually succeeded in shifting the discourse or changing people’s mindsets.”
Her latest step towards accomplishing that goal sees Thunberg taking her persuasive skills to television and fronting the BBC’s A Year to Change the World. The past seven years have been the warmest on record, and the effect of rising temperatures on the planet is increasingly plain. We are seeing more natural disasters, more extreme weather, more food and water insecurity, and greater economic and political disruption. Oceans are acidifying, the Arctic is melting and, after a drop in the early stages of the pandemic, CO2 emissions are increasing.
According to the International Energy Agency, global emissions were two per cent higher in December 2020 than they were in December 2019. “You can’t fit the whole picture in just three hours,” says Thunberg, but the sense of urgency in the series is unmistakeable.
Before the pandemic took hold, Thunberg wanted to travel, to see some of the devastating effects of the climate crisis for herself and meet the people trying to find solutions. She got around by train, mostly, as she refuses to fly, and travelled to the US and back by boat. For the return leg, this meant crossing the Atlantic on a catamaran, in November, during severe storms. It did make her seasick, she admits, but only for a day.
She was supposed to take the Trans-Siberian railway to China, but the trip was cancelled as the pandemic spread. By the time she got back to Stockholm, she and her father Svante, who was travelling with her, both fell sick with what she believes was probably COVID.
“It wasn’t that serious,” she says. “We got a bit ill. I wasn’t allowed to test myself because I was a minor at the time, but he did it and he had antibodies.”
The pandemic has shown the world what it means to confront a crisis, she says, and that has made it clear that the climate crisis has never actually been treated as a crisis.
“It shows that we can change social norms very quickly. If I were to go up to someone and shake their hand today, that would be completely socially unacceptable. But if I would have done it a bit over a year ago, that would have been the normal thing to do. So it really shows how these kinds of things can change, which is very hopeful.”
When Thunberg was younger, she wanted to be a scientist working in a lab, but now she believes she is more useful as a political activist. After her school strike became famous and her tactics were adopted by children around the world, Thunberg went on to make powerful speeches to the UN and at the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland. But the paradox of her new and vast fame meant that sometimes the science she wanted to spotlight would be under-reported in favour of a photograph, for example, of her glaring at Donald Trump.
Was this series a way to put the science, and scientists, at the front? “I think that is the reason why I chose to start this project. This was mainly to give science a voice and to really go more in depth. So that people don’t just see the surface, but focus a bit on the content, as well.”
Against a bleak backdrop of melting glaciers, forest fires and starving animals, Thunberg meets coal miners in Poland who fully accept the need to move away from fossil fuels. She visits an “air capture facility” in Switzerland, which removes carbon dioxide from the air, though the scale is still small. She hears that every country has the means to create renewable energy. Everyone wants to know if Thunberg is hopeful.
“One thing I think is hopeful is the fact that nothing is happening and we are still in the same place, or even moving in the wrong direction,” she says, acknowledging that this might surprise people. “Because right now, the science is becoming more and more clear. A few years ago, you could still say, ‘Well, according to this, we are moving in the right direction.’ You can’t do that today. The gap between what we are saying and what needs to be done is growing. You can still ignore it by focusing on other things, but you can’t deny it any more. And that, I think, is hopeful.”
People often assume that Thunberg has the answers. “Of course, I don’t have all the solutions. No one has. But when we ask that question, we need to think about: solutions to what? Solutions to the climate crisis, or solutions that allow us to go on like today? Because right now, we are looking for solutions that allow us to go on like today.”
She’s impatient with targets and pledges because they are abstract promises of future action, rather than action itself. She says that, ultimately, change won’t come from summits or conferences or governments.
“The changes necessary will come from the streets. They will come from breakfast tables, they will come from schools. They will come from the people. Because in a democracy, which is the only way forward, the people are the ones who have the power. If people become aware, then we can create change. If people don’t put pressure on our elected officials, then of course they won’t do anything. So that is the solution, to make people become aware and to create these social norms, this critical mass that will be impossible for people to ignore.”
Thunberg has needled plenty of politicians. She has been criticised by Putin, by Bolsonaro, by Trump, yet they seem incapable of getting to her in return. How?
“Because I know that it’s a political game and they’re using me to gain popularity.” This, she acknowledges, applies to both those politicians supportive of her agenda and her most vocal detractors. “Whether it is by applauding me or taking selfies with me, or whether it is by calling me…” – she pauses, then settles for the higher ground – “things, or criticising me. I mean, both these teams are using me for different purposes and in different ways, but they are still using me to gain popularity.”
In last year’s feature-length documentary, I Am Greta (currently available on BBC iPlayer) and in the new BBC series, it becomes clear just how often Thunberg is stopped and asked for selfies. Does she mind it?
“I would maybe be happy if they didn’t do that,” she says, sweetly. “But of course, I also recognise that the fact that they are doing it is proof that the message is getting across, that I am reaching people. You have to see it from the bright side.” Besides, at home in Sweden, it doesn’t happen much, owing to the cultural phenomenon of Jantelagen. “The Law of Jante, you will translate it to. It’s like, ‘OK, so what, you’re famous, I don’t really care.’ Which is quite nice.”
Thunberg was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when she was 12. On Autism Awareness Day, on 2nd April, she wrote a Twitter thread calling for more awareness of autism and support for those with the condition, and said how proud she is that she is different.
When she became famous, she frequently found herself in big, noisy crowds, being jostled, pushed and shouted at. These sorts of environments did become easier for her to handle over time, she says.
“That’s also a very beautiful and important part of the story itself. Before, I wasn’t able to speak to anyone. Going outside was hard. I was in a class of five people in school, because I couldn’t be around too many people and I couldn’t handle the noise.”
When she became a climate activist, everything changed.
“All that basically disappeared overnight. Because I was given a meaning and a purpose. And that just made me feel much better. I had more resistance to withstand the situation, which is a very good thing. But then again, I’m still very different. I am not like everyone else. It’s still much harder for me than for others to be in these environments.
“But I just think that, OK, this is for a good cause. And then it doesn’t really bother me that much.” Anyone who follows Thunberg on Twitter will know she can be funny. In person, she is much lighter than you might expect, if you had only heard snippets of those fierce speeches. “People think that I’m angry or that I’m sad or scared or worried, but that’s a misunderstanding that people have. I just laugh at everything all the time.”
Is humour a useful tool?
“Of course, it could be, and even if not, I don’t care. You need to be able to laugh sometimes. The climate crisis is actually hilarious, if you think of it. It’s just the absurdity of the situation. Someone recently asked me, if I could describe the climate crisis with an emoji, what emoji would I use? And the first thing that came to my mind was the laughing emoji with tears in the eyes. That’s the way I see it. I mean, if you’re doing everything you can, then you just need to take a step back and say, OK, there’s nothing more I can do, so then you just have to laugh at it.”
In one recent tweet, she reposted a report that penis sizes may be shrinking due to pollution.
“See you all at the next climate strike,” she wrote, with a smile emoji.
When Trump raged about losing the presidential election, she turned what he had said about her back on him, urging him to “Chill, Donald, chill”.
Does she enjoy joking around?
“That is nothing,” she says. “If I were to write however I wanted to, then people would not take me seriously anymore because I would just joke [about] everything and be sarcastic all the time.”
The University of Winchester recently erected a bronze statue of Thunberg to celebrate her as a role model, though students there have complained that the money could have been better spent. Has she seen it? “I have seen pictures.”
What does she make of it?
“I mean, I don’t really care,” she says, politely. “I try to stay out of these things as much as possible. Of course, it’s very strange. But I try not to soak those things in or to really grasp those kinds of things. If you would do that, and if you would actually believe those things that people say about you, then you would develop some kind of ego that would not be very healthy.”
And not very popular in Sweden, by the sound of things.
“Ha! No,” she says – with a laugh.