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Who is Greta Thunberg and why she stands as a beacon of sustainability

Eighteen-year-old climate change champion Greta Thunberg is a name that has become synonymous around the world with sustainability. In fact, the teenager has made an unprecedented contribution to the spread of climate change awareness across the world.

She has single-handedly influenced her generation to speak boldly, emphatically and effectively upon the threat of climate change on the planet and question those in power over their inability to implement policies that would usher in a sustainable future.

On 28 September, 2021, Thunberg censured world leaders at the Youth4Climate summit in Milan, Italy.

“Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises,” she said.

“They are clearly not listening to us. Just look at the numbers. Emissions are still rising. The science doesn’t lie,” the Swedish environmental activist added.

Thunberg’s criticism made headlines around the world. It was praised by climate activists, environmentalists and many others who understand the disastrous effect of climate change on the planet and our lives.

Roberto Cingolani, Italy’s Minister for Ecological Transition, was among the first global leaders to express solidarity with Thunberg.

Accepting the criticism, he told the BBC that she raised “a serious problem, we were not credible in the past”.

A day after Thunberg’s address, Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church and Sovereign of the Vatican City, praised young climate activists for their persistent determination to bring in a change.

“It is said that you are the future, but in these matters, you are the present. You are those who are making the future today, in the present,” the Pope, who is a proponent of the Paris climate accord, told young activists at the event in a video message.

His message was an endorsement of Thunberg’s rebuke of those in power who are not doing enough. The Pope had met Thunberg at Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican in April 2019.

Today, Thunberg is a global leader in her own right with millions of supporters for her cause. However, it took just around four months for her to transform from an unknown teen to the face of the sustainable future people hope to see. And it all began when the young girl started a school strike all alone outside the Swedish Parliament.

From solo protest to Fridays for Future movement

Greta Thunberg Fridays for Future
Image credit: gretathunberg/Instagram

Greta Thunberg was born Greta Tintin Eleonora Ernman Thunberg on 3 January, 2003, older of two daughters of Malena Ernman and Svante Thunberg. Her grandfather was veteran Swedish actor Olof Thunberg, who passed away in 2020.

Her mother, Malena, is a celebrated opera singer and even performed at the Eurovision song contest for Sweden in 2009. Trained at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm, she was honoured with the title of court singer by the Swedish king, Carl XVI Gustaf, in 2010.

Svante was an actor, a member of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. He is also a film producer and screenwriter. He has a distant family connection to Svante August Arrhenius, Sweden’s first Nobel laureate who was awarded the prize in Chemistry in 1903. Interestingly, Arrhenius’ work was focussed on global warming and climate change.

Beata Ernman is Greta’s younger sister who began her singing career in 2020.

On 20 August, 2018, at the age of 15, Greta Thunberg sat in front of the Swedish Parliament wearing a yellow raincoat and holding a sign that read “Skolstrejk för klimatet”, meaning “school strike for climate”.

It was not a spontaneous decision to go on such an, at the time, unheard-of strike. It resulted from a swirling concern deep in her heart about the earth, which was set in motion when she was around 11 years old.

Thunberg went into deep depression because of a lesson on climate change at her school in Stockholm, where the teacher showed the class the disastrous effects of rising temperatures and sea levels on all living beings.

She suffered malnutrition as a result of not consuming enough food, which affected her growth.

It was because of her condition that the family altered their lifestyle to make it more environmentally friendly, changing everything, from food habits to giving up flying.

Eventually, in May 2018, a Swedish newspaper published her essay on climate change, which led to the start of her popularity among environmental activists. She pitched the idea of a school strike along the lines of a school in Parkland, Florida, US, whose students protested gun violence by refusing to attend classes. The activists didn’t support her idea and her teachers and parents, too, were not particularly thrilled. So, she went ahead alone and began the strike at the Swedish Parliament.

Gradually, complete strangers started joining her protest and in September, many became a part of it. The movement came to be known as Fridays for Future. By the end of the year, the world was aware of the name Greta Thunberg, and thousands of school students were answering her call with school strikes on Fridays. This is today known as ‘The Greta Effect’.

Today, Fridays for Future is an international network of young climate activists who continue to hold world leaders accountable for the climate crisis.

The movement has witnessed millions, mostly students, marching for the sake of the planet. One of these mega protests was held in September 2019, when an estimated four million joined the protests in 2,500 events held in more than 163 countries around the world.

Fridays for Future has been awarded the 2019 Champions of the Earth award, the UN’s highest environmental honour.

Meanwhile, her inspirational drive to protect the environment brought Thunberg to the 2018 UN Climate Change Summit in Katowice, Poland, where she met UN Secretary-General António Guterres and addressed the summit.

“For 25 years countless people have come to the UN climate conferences begging our world leaders to stop emissions and clearly that has not worked as emissions are continuing to rise. So I will not beg the world leaders to care for our future. I will instead let them know change is coming whether they like it or not,” she said.

A champion at heart who is battling Asperger’s Syndrome

Greta Thunberg superhero
Image credit: gretathunberg/Instagram

In 2018, Malena Ernman described in detail the family’s struggle with her older daughter’s condition and the effect it had on the family in the book Scenes from the Heart.

In the book, she talks about trying times the family endured when Greta had stopped eating. She was in the fifth grade.

Greta was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This led to her going into her shell, cutting herself off from social circles. Those diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome usually have other disorders; in Greta’s case, it was obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This, however, helped Greta focus completely on one issue — climate change. It is also the reason why she is so direct in her conversations and speaks on almost nothing except the environment.

According to Malena, the initial years were tough on Greta and the family.

“She was slowly disappearing into some kind of darkness and little by little, bit by bit, she seemed to stop functioning,” Malena writes in Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis, the 2018 book authored by the four members of the family.

It also affected Beata. Malena writes in Scenes from the Heart that her younger daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), OCD, and oppositional defiant syndrome.

Malena has, however, described both Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD as “superpowers”.

When Greta Thunberg was targeted by her critics over her diagnosis, she took to Twitter to silence them by acknowledging Asperger’s syndrome as her “superpower”.

“When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning! I have Aspergers and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances- being different is a superpower. #aspiepower,”  Thunberg wrote.

“I’m not public about my diagnosis to “hide” behind it, but because I know many ignorant people still see it as an “illness”, or something negative. And believe me, my diagnosis has limited me before. Before I started school striking I had no energy, no friends and I didn’t speak to anyone. I just sat alone at home, with an eating disorder. All of that is gone now, since I have found a meaning, in a world that sometimes seems shallow and meaningless to so many people,” she wrote in two follow-up tweets.

Greta Thunberg has never tried to hide her condition of Asperger’s. She had earlier told Germany’s TV broadcaster ZDF that she became what she is because of the syndrome.

“I would simply have continued to live and think like everyone else,” she said.

Greta Thunberg crosses the Atlantic

Greta Plymouth
Image credit: Greta Thunberg/Twitter

Thunberg began 2019 with a speech at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. This was the first time that the young climate activist addressed the influential economic grouping.

It was here that she delivered one of her historic speeches, “Our House is on Fire”.

“At places like Davos, people like to tell success stories. But their financial success has come with an unthinkable price tag. And on climate change, we have to acknowledge we have failed. All political movements in their present form have done so, and the media has failed to create broad public awareness,” she said.

Underlining the need for reducing CO2 emissions, she said, “You say nothing in life is black or white. But that is a lie. A very dangerous lie. Either we prevent 1.5 degree [Celsius] of warming or we don’t. Either we avoid setting off that irreversible chain reaction beyond human control or we don’t. Either we choose to go on as a civilisation or we don’t. That is as black or white as it gets. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival.”

On 14 August, 2019, she embarked on a significant voyage, starting from Plymouth, England, crossing the Atlantic and arriving at New York City, US. The objective was to attend the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit.

Since Thunberg doesn’t travel by air because of her climate activism, she took a racing yacht named Malizia II, which was fitted with solar panels and underwater turbines.

Fifteen days later, she reached New York and put out a tweet announcing her arrival.

On 23 September, she addressed the Climate Action Summit at the UN, where she made headlines with her historic “How Dare You” speech, challenging world leaders to act immediately.

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!” she said.

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” she added as she went on severely criticising world leaders for their failure in checking climate change.

Then, Thunberg left for Washington DC, where she accused the US of being the “biggest carbon polluter in history” while criticising the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris agreement.

She also testified before the US House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, where she submitted the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming, which was released on 8 October, 2018.

“I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists,” she said, adding, “And I want you to unite behind the science. And then I want you to take real action.”

During her Washington visit, Thunberg also met former US President Barack Obama. In a tweet, Obama called her “one of our planet’s greatest advocates.”

She also made headlines by taking a jibe at the then US President Donald Trump, who had directed a sarcastic remark at her following Thunberg’s Climate Action Summit speech.

Trump, whose Twitter account remains suspended, had tweeted: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”

In response, Thunberg changed her Twitter bio to: “A very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.”

On the day of the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States — 20 January, 2021 — Thunberg took a jibe at Donald Trump.

“He seems like a very happy old man looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” she wrote on Instagram, which had a picture of Trump boarding the presidential helicopter.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Greta Thunberg (@gretathunberg)

Thunberg sailed back to Europe on a catamaran named La Vagabonde to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid, Spain.

After landing in Lisbon, she took a 10-hour train ride to Madrid. At the conference in the Spanish capital, she said, “Our leaders are not behaving as if we are in an emergency. In an emergency, you change your behaviour. If there is a child standing in the middle of the road and cars are coming at full speed you don’t look away because it feels uncomfortable. You immediately run out and rescue that child.”

She also urged the world to put pressure on leaders. “Without pressure from the people, our leaders can basically get away with not doing anything,” she said.

Through 2020, COVID-19 and into 2021

Greta at a protest
Image credit: GretaThunberg/Twitter

Thunberg addressed the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2020 in Davos. Reminding the world of the “Our House is on Fire” speech, she said that there is an immediate need to stop emissions.

“Let’s be clear. We don’t need a ‘low-carbon economy’. We don’t need to ‘lower emissions’. Our emissions have to stop to stay if we are to have a chance to stay below the 1.5 degrees target. And until we have the technologies that at scale can put our emissions to minus, then we must forget about net zero — we need real zero,” she said.

Thunberg presented a demand telling the world that these must be “done now”.

“We demand that at this year’s World Economic Forum participants from all companies, banks, institutions and governments: Immediately halt all investments in fossil fuel exploration and extraction. Immediately end all fossil fuel subsidies. And immediately and completely divest from fossil fuels,” she said.

In February, Thunberg met Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai at Oxford University where the latter was studying at the time. This was the first time that the Swedish champion of climate change met the Pakistani human rights campaigner. Both took to social media to praise the other.

While Thunberg called Yousafzai her “role model”, the latter said that the teenager is “the only friend I’d skip school for”.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Thunberg and other activists of the Fridays for Future virtually continued their campaign for the planet.

In March, she urged people to go online and carry on with a digital version of the school strike in support of the planet.

Meanwhile, in August, Thunberg ended her “gap year” from school, which she had started a year ago to focus on her quest to make world leaders take action to prevent climate change.

“My gap year from school is over, and it feels so great to finally be back in school again!” she wrote on Twitter.

In April 2021, she donated about US$ 120,000 via her foundation to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) initiative called COVAX — global equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. According to the United Nations, she said, “We talk today about showing solidarity, and yet vaccine nationalism is what’s running the vaccine distribution. It is only when it really comes down to it that we show our true face.”

In August 2021, she graced the inaugural cover of Vogue Scandinavia. In the cover photo, she is seen wearing a pastel brown upcycled trench coat over a printed dress. The photograph was taken in a forested area outside of Stockholm. Also pictured alongside Thunberg was an Icelandic horse named Gandalf.

Sharing her interview with Vogue Scandinavia on Twitter, Thunberg called out the fashion industry for its contribution to the climate emergency as well as ‘greenwashing’ — a strategy where some fashion brands market themselves as environment-friendly when they are not.

However, her Vogue appearance created controversy over the use of real animal wool in the cloth she wore. People for Ethical Treatment of Animals — UK (PETA-UK) confirmed that the activist was unaware of the fact.

“We have confirmed that Greta Thunberg was unaware that the outfit she was photographed in was made of real animal wool. We were sure that as a vegan and an environmentalist, she would not have worn it had she known,” reported PETA-UK.

Will Greta Thunberg win the Nobel Peace Prize?

Image credit: gretathunberg/Instagram

Thunberg has been nominated for many accolades and awarded by several major institutions and bodies.

One of her first international recognition came as early as in December 2018 when Time magazine recognised her among 25 Most Influential Teens of 2018. It was followed by the magazine including her in the ‘Time 100’ list of 2019.

In December, the same year, 16-year-old Thunberg was named as the Person of the Year by Time magazine. She, thus, holds the Guinness world record for being the youngest person to be so honoured by the magazine. She is also the fifth woman after Wallis Simpson (1936), Queen Elizabeth II (1952), Corazon Aquino (1986) and Angela Merkel (2015) to have been individually recognised by Time as the Person of the Year.

When Thunberg was listed by Forbes in its 100 Most Influential Women of 2019 at age 16, she became the youngest honouree in the history of the list.

Amnesty International awarded both Thunberg and Fridays for Future the Ambassador of Conscience Award for 2019 in September of the same year.

Above all, Thunberg has been nominated thrice for the Nobel Prize for Peace. The first time was in 2019 — the year the prize went to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali. The second time was in 2020, the award for which was given to the World Food Programme.

In 2021, Reuters reported that Norwegian lawmakers gave Thunberg her third straight nomination. Other prominent nominees include exiled Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, jailed Russian activist Alexei Navalny, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), former Charlie Hebdo journalist Zineb el Rhazoui, the news website Hong Kong Free Press, and the GAVI vaccine alliance.

According to Reuters, observers of the world’s most important awards believe that Greta Thunberg could be the winner of the Peace prize this year. If that happens, Thunberg will be the second-youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize after her idol Malala Yousafzai.

(Main image: Carl-Johan UTSI/TT News Agency/AFP)

(Featured image: Ina Fassbender/AFP)

Who is Greta Thunberg and why she stands as a beacon of sustainability

Manas Sen Gupta writes at the intersection of tech, entertainment and history. His works have appeared in publications such as The Statesman, Myanmar Matters, Hindustan Times and News18/ETV. In his spare time, Manas loves studying interactive charts and topographic maps. When not doing either, he prefers reading detective fiction. Spring is his favourite season and he can happily eat a bowl of noodles any time of the day.


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