The Story of 16 Year Old Climate Activist Greta Thunberg

‘I promised myself I was going to do everything I could to make a difference’

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On Friday 15 March 2019 1.6 million people hit the streets in support of the school strikes for climate change movement. It was the biggest day of global climate action we’ve ever seen [1]. But it started out as just one person taking a stand against the inaction of politicians in the face of global warming by refusing to attend school. That one person was Greta Thunberg.

Greta Thunberg was born in Sweden to her mother Malenda Ernman, an opera singer who represented Sweden in the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest, and father Svante Thunberg, an actor.

Although neither of her parents have a background in environmentalism, she does have an ancestral connection to climate science.

Interestingly enough, Greta’s father is a distant relative of scientist Svante Arrhenius, who essentially discovered global warming. Arrhenius was the first person to investigate the effect that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had on the earth’s surface temperature, and found that it caused warming. This became the basis of the first models of the greenhouse effect, and led scientist David Keeling to demonstrate in the 1960s that carbon emissions from human activity were enough to cause global warming.

Greta herself first learnt about global warming at the age of 8, when she her class was shown documentaries about climate change at school. At school she was always the one to be sat quietly at the back of the classroom, but she remembers being more affected than the other students [2]:

“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.”

She puts this down to having aspergers and selective mutism, both illnesses which can cause anxiety and overthinking. Most of us, like Greta’s classmates, can compartmentalise knowledge effectively. We learn of the atrocities of the animal agriculture industry, but we still go home and eat our usual dinner of chicken that evening. We learn that plastic pollution is clogging our oceans and destroying marine life, but we continue to buy bottled water. We learn that we are heading into a climate emergency, but we still opt to drive ourselves to work in the morning. For Greta it was different. After learning about global warming she couldn’t simply go back to normal, continue with her studies, and think about something else. It profoundly affected her.

It affected her so much, that three years later, at the age of 11, Greta experienced a period of depression. Climate change wasn’t the sole reason for this depression, but it definitely played a part.

“I kept thinking about it [climate change] and I just wondered if I am going to have a future.” [2]

She was so deep in her depression that she stopped attending school. Naturally, her parents were incredibly concerned. When they spoke to her about the depression, Greta opened up to them about her climate crisis worries. She gained a sense of release from talking about it. But more than that, she also saw her parents start to understand her concerns too. Greta had been eating a vegan diet for a while, but now her parents stopped eating meat too. Her mother’s career as an opera singer meant flying regularly across the world, but she stopped flying and chose instead to perform only in Stockholm.

Greta realised that by talking about her worries, she could influence others make a difference. This marked the beginnings of the movement that she has created. Out of her struggle with depression came the spark of activism.

“That’s when I kind of realised I could make a difference. And how I got out of that depression was that I thought: it is just a waste of time feeling this way because I can do so much good with my life.” [2]

She made a promise to herself to ‘do everything I could to make a difference.’ And she stuck to that promise. [3]

Her next step was to go public. In May 2018, at the age of 15, Greta entered a climate writing competition held by Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. She was announced as one of the winners of the competition, for her essay entitled ‘We know — and we can do something now’. Her essay was published in the newspaper, and this brought Greta her first publicity.

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She was approached by Bo Thorén, an activist who was focused on what young people could do about the climate crisis, who had some ideas of ways to raise awareness about global warming. One of the ideas he brought up was children protesting at their schools, inspired by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — after their school shooting in 2018 they started striking to change the gun laws in the US. This idea resonated with Greta, who ‘liked the idea of a school strike’ [3]. She tried to get others to join in, but they were more interested in other ideas, and so she decided to strike alone.

On August 20th 2018 Greta conducted her first school strike. She did not go to school that day, and instead sat down outside the Swedish Parliament. She had with her a piece of wood, which she had painted with the now-famous words ‘Skolstrejk for Klimatet’ (School Strike for Climate). She also took flyers in which she had written a list of facts about global warming and climate change. She stayed there for the full length of the school day, from 8.30am to 3pm. During the day she was posting photos on Twitter and Instagram, and she started to gain traction — a couple of journalists and newspapers even came to see her outside parliament that day.

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The next day, she was back in the same place, striking again. But this time she wasn’t alone. People started joining her on her strike, which took place until the Swedish National Elections took place on Sunday 9th September 2018. That’s 21 days of striking.

By this point, people had started to know her name. Her mother had shared her story on her personal social media, where she had several thousand followers as a famous opera singer. Her story had also been picked up by various news outlets, and was being shared widely on social media.

Greta was asked to make a speech at a People’s Climate March rally, which would be in front of thousands of people. She asked her parents if she could do it, but they were reluctant. Her selective mutism meant that she was sometimes unable to speak in certain situations, and her parents felt that she might struggle to speak out at such a public event. They tried to talk her out of the speech. But Greta was determined that she needed to speak out about the climate crisis, and that her selective mutism wouldn’t prevent that. In her TED talk [5] she said of the disorder:

“Basically it means I only speak when I think it’s necessary. Now is one of those moments.”

She delivered the speech brilliantly, in fluent English. Many of the crowd filmed her, and the videos spread through social media. Now, she speaks regularly in front of crowds, politicians, and journalists.

Her school strikes started to go global, with children across the world joining in to make their stand against climate change. On Friday 15 March 2019 a global school strike was called. 1.6 million people took part in the strike globally, from 2,233 cities in 128 countries. It was the biggest single day of climate action that has been seen in history [1]. What started with a single girl sitting outside of the Swedish parliament with a hand-made wooden sign, has become an international movement. And she has become a household name.

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Greta’s charm lies in how relatable her story is. She’s a quiet, socially awkward girl, seen as different. And yet these attributes, caused by her aspergers, are what gave her the determination to do something about the climate emergency which she could see unfolding, and which she didn’t see anyone else acting against [3]:

“It makes me see the world differently. I see through lies more easily. I don’t like compromising… To be different is not a weakness. It’s a strength in many ways, because you stand out from the crowd.”


[1] 1.6 million students across the globe demand climate action,, March 15 2019

[2] Greta Thunberg: School Girl and Climate Change Warrior, The Guardian, 11 March 2019

[3] How Teen Climate Activist Greta Thunberg Got Everyone to Listen, Time Magazine, May 16 2019

[4] Information from a post on Greta Thunberg’s Facebook page

[5] The disarming case to act right now on climate change, Greta Thunberg, TED Talk

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Ramblings on communication and our climate crisis🌱

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