© Ciaran Murphy

When I first catch sight of Greta Thunberg, it is eight in the morning, and a small crowd has already gathered. It is a Friday, her day of protest, and the 16-year-old is standing outside the rose-coloured parliament building, next to a beaten-up sign that says “School strike for climate” in Swedish.

The February sun has barely risen over Stockholm. Thunberg is slightly hard to spot, because she is so little — less than five feet tall. Her face peeks out between a big hat and a thick scarf. “Well, it’s warm today,” she says with a smile, when I ask how the protest is going. It is 5C and doesn’t feel very warm to me.

This is the 26th week of her school strike, which has taken place every Friday since school started last August — including vacations. During that time she has rocketed to a level of fame and influence that pretty much nobody, including herself, expected.

Over the past six months, she has become a superstar of the climate change movement. Her school strike, which started out with her sitting alone on a camping mat next to parliament, was swiftly highlighted by the media. Then came a Ted talk, speeches at rallies, and an invitation to address last December’s UN climate talks in Poland. Inspired by her example, the number of student strikers across Europe swelled into the thousands, then the tens of thousands — and all because of the bundled-up teenager in front of me with her hair in plaits.

For years climate change has been a big issue in search of a leader. Politicians, celebrities and naturalists have taken up the cause — think Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jane Goodall. But no one has captured the spirit of what is happening to the Earth as much as this autistic teenager, with her simple message: you are stealing my future.

Her protest has struck a chord because it comes at such a bleak time for the planet. Global emissions of carbon dioxide hit a new high last year, highlighting the limits of decades of climate negotiations. Temperatures have been rising — the past five years were the hottest since modern records began. And a string of natural disasters have started to make climate change feel less of an abstract threat.

The goal of Thunberg’s strike is to bring Sweden in line with the 2016 Paris climate agreement, which pledges to limit global warming to well below 2C, compared with pre-industrial times. She will, she says, keep striking every day until that happens. “Why should I be studying for a future that soon will be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future?” she asked in her Ted talk. It’s a message that has resonated across the world, echoing the spirit of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal resolution in Washington. On the day I visit, thousands of schoolchildren are striking across more than 200 cities in Europe.

Thunberg is famous for her blunt speaking. “We must change almost everything in our current societies,” she told businesspeople and politicians at Davos. “Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic.” As I watch her, it is hard to reconcile those searing words with the slight figure in front of me. Is she really the climate hero that so many make her out to be?

She speaks softly, often simply nodding when addressed. A few years ago she was diagnosed with Asperger’s, obsessive compulsive disorder and selective mutism, which means she only speaks when necessary.

I’ve arranged to have lunch with Thunberg a few hours later in a friend’s house. Her father, Svante, usually picks up food for her, so I walk over to meet him at a nearby vegan chain, Taku-Taku. His long brown hair, well past his shoulders, makes him easy to spot. The menu is an Asian-inspired hodgepodge featuring lots of fake meat. Mr Thunberg recommends the bulgogi, saying it is good if you like mushrooms. He orders the “paneng” curry with rice for his daughter.

There has been some controversy about whether Thunberg was put up to all of this by her parents, a charge that is often levelled at teenage activists. “At the start, obviously we were very reluctant for her to do this [the strike],” her father says as we walk through central Stockholm. Commentators have questioned why students needed to miss school rather than protesting at the weekend. Thunberg’s father stresses that she is the top of her class and makes up for the work that she misses.

She suffered from a severe depression when she was 11, he goes on to explain, and taking action on climate change helped her recovery. The family bought an electric car, stopped flying — a rule that effectively ended Thunberg’s opera-singer mother’s international career — and became mostly vegetarian. “It is like day and night, it is an incredible transformation,” he says, talking about how happy and energetic she is now.

Some activists and politicians have suggested Thunberg is not the ingénue she seems and is being used as a front for radical environmental groups. In Belgium, where the climate strike has been popular, one of the country’s environment ministers, Joke Schauvliege, claimed state intelligence had told her the striking students were a “set-up” by environmental groups. This was denied by state security, and the minister resigned earlier this month. In response to such accusations, Thunberg wrote on Facebook describing the activists and scientists who have been influential to her, emphasising she never takes money for speaking engagements.

“The timing was right,” her father says, when I ask why she rocketed to fame so swiftly. “Enough people were aware of the situation, and there was a frustration . . . Then she came along, and all of the sudden she carried the message through.”

Although Thunberg doesn’t have her own organisation, she had quickly been adopted as a figurehead for environmental and activist groups. “The network was there,” her father acknowledges. People showed up and wanted to help. There is still a slightly improvised quality to the Friday strikes, though — the main way to track them is by following her hashtag, #FridaysForFuture, on social media.

But being mobbed by her acolytes seems to be taking a toll. “It’s like a seven-hour-long press conference,” she sighs, after we extricate her from her admirers. We wind through the twisting streets of the Old Town to their friend’s apartment. Sunlight streams through the windows into a cosy kitchen, where we sit at a long wooden table.

Thunberg, who became a vegan last year, eyes the rice on her plate, which is topped with a dollop of red curry containing peas and sweet potatoes. I dig into my own mystery bowl, which is topped with fresh spinach, beets and shredded carrots, wondering what lies underneath. As Thunberg nibbles in silence, I ask how the school strike really began.

She traces the starting point to winning a writing contest in a Swedish newspaper last year, for an essay about why we should act now on climate change. Some environmentalists contacted her, and she joined a group that would discuss protest ideas, such as a school strike in playgrounds or classrooms. Thunberg wanted to strike from school altogether. “I tried to make the others in the group join me . . . but no one was really interested. So then I decided I was going to do it alone. And even if no one was joining me, I was going to do it.”

But the seeds of the protest were planted earlier still, when her teachers showed environmental films at school, about ocean plastic or the plight of polar bears. She spears small amounts of rice with her fork. “At first when I heard about climate change, I was a climate denier,” she recalls. “I didn’t think it was happening. Because if there really was an existential crisis like that, that would threaten our civilisation, we wouldn’t be focusing on anything else. That would be our first priority. So I didn’t understand how that added up.”

She says her despair at the state of the planet contributed to the deep depression she experienced when she was 11. “I was so sad because the world was so wrong, everything was so wrong, and then I thought there is no point in living . . . I became depressed, I stopped eating, and I stopped talking, and I stopped going to school.” She lost 10 kilos, and her growth was stunted as a result. Realising that she could do something about climate change was part of what helped her recover, she explains.

As we talk I realise that, the harder the question, the more she seems to open up. She is not one for chit-chat. I ask about her Asperger’s diagnosis, a label she proudly displays on her Twitter handle. She has previously said that Asperger’s is “a gift” — why is that?

“If I would have been normal like everyone else, I could just continue like everyone else,” she begins. “And get stuck in the social game, and just continue like before. But since I was different, I see the world from a different perspective, I see things very black and white.”

Unlike most environmental speakers, Thunberg doesn’t believe in offering cheery prescriptions for change. The world she sees is a dark one, and she wants other people to feel the same way.

“I often talk to people who say, ‘No, we have to be hopeful and to inspire each other, and we can’t tell [people] too many negative things’ . . . But, no — we have to tell it like it is. Because if there are no positive things to tell, then what should we do, should we spread false hope?” her voice takes on a more determined edge. “We can’t do that, we have to tell the truth.”

For her that includes lambasting her audiences — such as when she told the UN climate conference that everything they had done for the past three decades had been a failure. She told Davos grandees they were to blame for emissions. “Some people, some companies, some decision makers in particular know exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money, and I think many of you here today belong to that group of people,” she said.

I ask what reaction she faces when she says things such as that. “They are surprisingly supportive,” she says. “They take in what I say. Or, when I say these things, people sort of laugh nervously and they don’t know how to react, and that is pretty fun,” she grins.

She says her dad often asks her to tone down her speeches, which she writes herself. “He becomes scared when he reads it, he is like, you shouldn’t say this, it is too provocative,” she says proudly. As we near the end of the meal, it becomes clear the gloomy images in her speeches are if anything rather gentler than the analogies in her own head.

“If you have a child that is standing in the middle of the road, and cars are coming at full speed, you don’t look away because it is too hard to see, you run out and get that child away from there.” Too much green pep talk has become part of the problem, she adds.

When it comes to the climate science, her arguments are solid. She often cites the recent report from scientists convened by the UN, who found that the world is fewer than 11 years away from irreversible climate change impacts. The world needs to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 50 per cent in that period, she adds, pointing to their findings. As our conversation unfolds she displays a geek’s total mastery of her subject.

But the black-and-white logic she employs can gloss things over. The policy hurdle no one has really solved is how, exactly, to cut emissions that quickly, and who will pay for it all. With today’s technology, designing a world with 50 per cent less carbon emissions will be very costly. Pulling the “emergency brake”, as Thunberg advocates, is easier said than done.

I ask why she thinks the world has been so slow to act. If only everybody knew what she knew, she says, then they would do the right thing.

“People are unaware of what is going on. When I talk to people, they know the basics, they know the planet is warming because of greenhouse gases . . . but they don’t know the actual consequence of that.” Her plan is to keep stirring people up to put pressure on their politicians.

“People tell me that they are so hopeful when they see me, and other children ‘school-striking’, and they say, ‘Oh the children are going to save us,’” she says. “But no, we aren’t. We are too young to be able to do that. We don’t have time to wait for us to grow up and fix this in the future.” Her placid face doesn’t alter its expression, but there is a quiet anger in her words. “The people who are in power now need to do this now.”

Just a few spoonfuls of rice remain on her plate. “I’m full but I don’t want to waste food,” she says, gazing down at it. My bowl of mushrooms and quinoa was delicious, but I haven’t been able to finish it either.

Thunberg is considering taking a sabbatical from school next year to focus on climate issues. The past few months have been “quite exhausting”, she says. “I don’t really like being in the centre of attention. I’m not used to that. All my life I have been like the invisible girl at the back that no one sees or listens to. ”

Her phone rings — her father is calling. As she talks to him, I wonder what it says about the climate change movement that it’s taken this shy 16-year-old to become its voice. Perhaps the debate had become so tired and self-referential that an outsider was needed.

Her father soon arrives along with their black labrador, Roxy. Thunberg lights up when she sees the dog — who also solves the problem of what to do with the left-over food.

They invite me to come back to the protest at 2pm, when a choir and some grade-school children will be arriving. The next time I see Thunberg she is surrounded by her throng. Some supporters have started a drum circle on the other side of the street. Students are handing out tulips. A journalist clips a mic to her scarf. She just nods and smiles, like a tiny queen.

Leslie Hook is the FT’s environment and clean energy correspondent

Illustration by Ciaran Murphy

Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Subscribe to FT Life on YouTube for the latest FT Weekend videos

Letter in respnse to this article:

Money will not kill us but climate change will / From Graeme Maxton, Former Secretary-General, The Club of Rome, Zurich, Switzerland

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article