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The Swedish teen holding world leaders accountable for climate change

Eloi Rouyer, Agnès Pedrero, AFP | Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg arrives in Davos by train, carrying a sign reading ‘school strike for the climate’, on January 23, 2018

It all began with a school strike in August, 2018. Since then, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg has taken the world by storm with her frank calls for action on climate change. This week, she told the world’s financial elite in Davos: “I want you to panic.”

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While the majority of the delegates attending this year’s edition of the World Economic Forum made it to Davos by plane – 1,500 of them in private jets – Swedish teenager and environment activist Thunberg travelled by train – a journey that took her, and her father, a total of 32 hours.

“You have to practise what you preach, otherwise people won’t take you seriously,” she told reporters in what, along with her braids and flawless English, has become her hallmark matter-of-fact manner upon her arrival in the small Alps town on Wednesday.

Since arriving in Davos, where the cream of the world’s financial, political and social elite gather each year to shape global, regional and industrial agendas, Thunberg has wasted no time in putting her message out. She started by setting up camp with the activists at the “Arctic Basecamp Davos” where she spent her first night sleeping in freezing -18 degrees Celsius temperatures.

On Thursday, she immediately stole the show at a lunch discussion panel attended by hotshots including U2 frontman Bono, conservationist Jane Goodall and former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, by bluntly telling the audience that they were to blame for the world’s climate crisis.

“Some people say that the climate crisis is something that we have all created, but that is not true. Because if everyone is guilty then no one is to blame, and someone is to blame. Some people, some companies, and some decision-makers in particular, have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue to make unimaginable amounts of money. And I think that many of you here today belong to that group of people,” she said in her impromptu speech, delivered without a moment’s hesitation.

Her crusade against greedy, climate-sacrificing moneymakers continued on Friday when she attended another panel. “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. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house was on fire. Because it is.”

Sit-in outside parliament

Thunberg first shot into the international spotlight five months ago, when she planted herself in front of the Swedish parliament and staged a one-woman school strike (although she was often joined by other students, teachers and passers-by) to protest again the political inaction on climate change. The strike came after a particularly bizarre summer in Sweden climate-wise, in which the Nordic nation witnessed rampant wildfires in the wake of multiple heatwaves. Thunberg, who had initially planned to strike until the country’s parliamentary election on September 9, then decided to continue her strike action every Friday to demand that Sweden cuts its carbon emissions as per the Paris Agreement.

Thousands of students across the world have since joined Thunberg in her calls to fight global warming through strike action, and in December, TIME magazine named her one of the most influential teenagers of 2018.

In December, Thunberg was invited to speak at the COP24 climate meeting in Katowice, in Poland. And she gave it to them straight: "You only speak of a green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children," she told the world leaders gathered.

Painful road to activism

But Thunberg’s road to climate activism has not been easy. In a recent TEDx talk in Stockholm, she described how she became aware of the dangers of climate change at a very early age, and how this knowledge made her depressed.

“When I was about 8 years old, I first heard about something called climate change or global warming. Apparently that was something humans had created by our way of living,” she said. “I remember thinking that it was very strange that humans […] could be capable of changing the earth’s climate. Because if we were, and it was really happening, we wouldn’t be talking about anything else. […] But no one ever talked about it. If burning fossil fuels was so bad that it threatened our very existence, how could we just continue like before? Why were there no restrictions? Why wasn’t it made illegal? To me, that did not add up. It was too unreal,” she recounted.

At the age of 11, she stopped eating, and talking, and was eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Selective Mutism.

“For those of us who are on the spectrum, almost everything is black or white,” she said, explaining why she never feels the need to sugarcoat her messages. “If the emissions have to stop then we must stop the emissions. To me, that’s black or white. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival. Either we go on as a civilisation or we don’t. We have to change.”

In 2013, Thunberg brought her internal struggle out into the world. Her mother, renowned Swedish opera singer Malena Ernman was returning from a job in Tokyo, to where she had travelled by plane, when Thunberg finally snapped. “It’s like you’ve killed 80 people!” she said, referring to the greenhouse gases emitted from her mother’s plane trip.

The outburst resulted in Ernman ending her international career due to the necessary flight travel, and the whole family converting to a more sustainable lifestyle, including a vegetarian diet.

Svante Thunberg, the teenager’s father and a famous Swedish actor, told French daily Ouest-France on the sidelines of the Katowice conference that his daughter’s reaction had come like “an electric shock”.

“We stopped working like crazy. We were part of the problem and we hadn’t even realised it,” he said.

As for his daughter’s wider climate cause battle, Thunberg in August told Swedish news agency TT that it was all her own doing. “We have never told her what to say. It’s her own words, her own brain and her own will,” noting that they, as her parents, might understand her concerns about climate change, but can’t fully support her skipping school.

Again, Thunberg, gave her own explanation to that in her TEDx talk: “Some people say that I should be in school instead. Some people say that I should study to become a climate scientist so that I can ‘solve the climate crisis’. But the climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change. […] If a few children can get headlines all over the world by just not coming to school for a few weeks, imagine what we could do all together if we wanted to.”

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