Take a look at this photo of a girl dressed in colorful clothes and riding a bicycle on a street under construction in central Stockholm. Yes, it’s Greta Thunberg, with her backpack on her back and her famous sign in the luggage carrier, returning home alone on a Friday last fall after her weekly strike in front of the Swedish Parliament.
More than two years had passed since August 2018, the beginning of her public activity. She was then a 15-year-old teenager and had the normal life experience of a girl of that age. Well, normal considering her psychological peculiarities, diagnosed as she was with Asperger’s syndrome and selective mutism. After a very serious personal crisis at the age of 11, she devoted herself to a thorough study of the problem of climate change. This had been her life journey until then.
She turned 18 this January, so she has already reached the adult age. During this time, her personal situation has changed radically: she has become the global leader of an environmental movement which, though it has already made a long way, seems to have more future than past. It has been almost two and a half years during which she has met many of the world’s most important political and social leaders, so that she has been able to test both her convictions and her capacity for conviction.
And the result could not be more impressive: the girl who sat alone in front of the Swedish Parliament to start an unprecedented school strike, has been able to confront her discourse in front of virtually everyone and emerge clearly victorious. In addition, she has not yielded a single millimeter in her position, because she has never lost the conviction that in the climate crisis there is no negotiation possible.
I am Greta
The first part of this story has been beautifully told in the documentary “I am Greta” made by Swedish filmmaker Nathan Grossman, who followed her for more than a year, from day one of her school strike to her angry speech at the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2019. The story the film tells is a total challenge to the criticism her family has received, because it makes it quite clear that both her mother and father had never been environmental activists before the daughter convinced them, and that their only priority has always been for her to be happy.
The father, Svante Thunberg, has explained it with pride in interviews: ‘Greta has changed us, and now she is changing many other people’. It is he who has taken her everywhere and been her assistant all this time, and it is remarkable how Grossman’s camera shows that this accompaniment has been primarily emotional.
Because the documentary also shows how the management of her discourse and public interventions are almost exclusively her responsibility: the seriousness with which she faces the encounters with public figures, knowing how to be both respectful and attentive, and even sometimes friendly; the meticulousness with which she prepares her texts, in more than correct English, with a perfectionism that can exasperate her father; the clarity and rhythm with which she reads and exposes them in public, with first-rate communicative skills that allow her to capture the attention of her audience, with sobriety and intensity at the same time.
In this respect, Grossman has said in subsequent interviews that what struck him most was her ability to explain the most important facts and data of global warming and the climate crisis in a much more understandable and clear way than all those he had heard before, and that this, and the growing attention she was arousing, convinced him to change his initial intention of making a documentary about several activists and to focus exclusively on her.
Greta is well aware of the effect she has on politicians and people considered powerful. She made this clear in an online conversation with US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed by the British newspaper The Guardian: she makes them feel “something inside” that makes it difficult for them to “look at people straight in the eye“, a power that she states that is often underestimated.
Some reporters have explained how this power acts on politicians: this is the case of former TV3 correspondent in Brussels Xavi Coral, who has seen her in action in front of the European Union officials, and who has defined her as “a fragile-looking girl who becomes a conscience-crusher,” because “when she speaks, politicians look down.”
In the documentary you can see how this takes its toll on her: during the crossing of the Atlantic aboard a catamaran in August 2019 to attend the UN General Assembly in New York, just one year after the start of her public activism, Grossman shows her overwhelmed by the responsibility she feels upon her shoulders, and saying that she considers herself the main character of “a bad movie”, because of how “unreal” what she is living is.
Her public demeanor has rarely broken down: once, in front of European politicians at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, she was about to cry as she enumerated the effects on the biosphere of the model of economic and technological development and growth currently in force in the world. In the best known, in front of the UN General Assembly, she had a completely different attitude: she was angry, spitting out words and phrases with a face altered by rage, and the result was a shocking intervention that generated a great controversy.
She later explained that she did it consciously. She considered that perhaps it would be the most important speech of her life, in front of the main world political leaders and at the UN headquarters, and that she did not want to have to regret in the future not having made good use of the occasion to express things in the most incisive way, so she decided to let herself be carried away by her emotions.
She explained this months later on a Swedish public radio program broadcast in June 2020. This program is about her thoughts on her sabbatical year, and perfectly complements the story of the documentary, because it begins precisely with the impressions caused by the experience of being in New York and speaking in front of the UN General Assembly.
Greta and politicians
In this program she explained with rawness and detachment her opinion that politicians are practically the same all over the world, at least from the impression she got when she met and spoke with them. They all start praising her, then she talks to them about the facts and realities on the climate crisis and they end up getting nervous and trying to change the subject.
This has allowed her to observe that most politicians and leaders she has met do not have even the most basic knowledge to understand what the climate emergency, which is upon us, actually is. The conclusion she draws is devastating: it is “an unimaginable failure” that the responsibility for communicating and making it known lies upon her and the young people who are following her example.
The list of public figures she has met is impressive. Some of the most notable are active political leaders such as Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Pope Francis; prominent ex-politicians who openly admire her, such as Barack Obama or Arnold Schwarzenegger, who lent her the electric car with which she and her father moved around the United States; activists and opinion leaders such as Ocasio-Cortez or Malala Yousafzai; celebrities such as U.S. television star Ellen DeGeneres or actor Leonardo DiCaprio; and, to top it all, the iconic image of her staring at Donald Trump crossing the aisles in the corridors of the UN headquarters in New York.
Still, she insists once and again that she does not demand attention for herself, but calls on the world’s political and economic leaders to listen to climate scientists and pay attention to them. In this regard, she was invited to the United States Congress to testify, and she simply printed the IPCC report calling to keep the temperature rise at 1.5ºC and read the conclusions.
And yet the level of knowledge she has is very remarkable and allows her to make strong claims, such as that industrial technologies of carbon capture, sold by many optimists as the impending solution, will not be a solution for decades, because they are in the prototype phase and have not been proven to be effective. And she hammers it home by saying that she knows for sure, because she has visited two of the most important pilot plants in the world, so she has direct knowledge of them.
She also challenges another of the alleged solutions, which is to take advantage of nature’s ability to absorb and store carbon, and which almost always materializes in planting trees. On the one hand, all ongoing efforts to reforest fail to compensate for the brutal pace of current deforestation, equivalent to the surface of a football field every second; on the other, no matter how much surface is reforested, it will not be possible to compensate for the immense amounts of CO2 that already exist in the atmosphere.
The knowledge she has accumulated has allowed her to understand how science works: it is “a constant and endless debate” among researchers, but she has also realized that those who deny there is a climate crisis take advantage of this debate to “to sow doubts” about the consensus on the scientific foundations that are well established, and which she describes as “overwhelming”.
And also that, despite the consensus, scientists cannot predict when exactly these things will happen that everything suggests will happen sooner or later, so it is impossible to advance “a magical date” from which everything will be already lost, and that this makes it very difficult to communicate and explain the climate crisis so that people realize what they face.
The problem of overpopulation
She also challenges another of the arguments blocking change: that the real problem is human overpopulation, which is depleting resources. She refutes it with powerful figures, which show that most people in poor countries already live according to the limits of the planet, spending very few resources.
And that this argument is only an excuse for Westerners “to continue living the unsustainable life we consider our right“. In this sense, she is especially hard towards her own country, Sweden, which calls itself environmentalist and concerned about the environment, but which instead has one of the highest per capita incomes in spending of resources in the world, so up to 4 planets would be necessary if everyone lived like the Swedes.
And she challenges the superior and condescending attitude towards third world countries, to which Western countries have exported much of their most polluting industrial production, allowing them to say they are reducing emissions while benefiting from the fruits of these now distant emissions, in addition to low wages and other benefits of industrial relocation.
And, perhaps more important, she takes the opportunity to denounce that by 2030 the production of 120% more fossil fuels is already planned and contracted above the levels which governments around the world committed themselves to in the Paris Agreement against climate change. Contracts that will be very difficult not to execute, and that if not carried out could generate huge compensation for the companies affected.
The nudist party
This leads her to another of her strong conclusions, although in this case, not at all original: the big problem is that the long-term sustainability of the human world is not viable with the current economic dynamics. But on this point Greta does something remarkable, very logical but not usual: aware that her role is to act as a speaker to disseminate all this information but not to provide solutions to the problem, she does not opt for any political option or trend.
On the contrary, she merely denounces all current rulers, accusing them of not having the courage to do what needs to be done and of being prisoners of political inertia. And deservedly attributes to herself the leading role in the tale of the emperor’s new clothes, the one of the boy who shouts that he is naked. In the radio program she says verbatim: “The emperors are naked. Everyone. It turns out that our whole society is just a big nudist party.”
Because Greta is just that, she is the one who, surrounded by the “nudist party”, has stopped, looked into the eyes of the emperors, all of them, and has told them what no one had dared to tell them before. This is why she is the symbol that concentrates the need for a profound change in the way we look at the world and, even more important, a change in our way of being human.
She is no longer a little girl
She did it as a teenager, in fact practically as a little girl, due to her childish appearance, and now that she is officially an adult, politicians and the powerful will surely start to treat her with less respect. But most likely this won’t matter too much to a person whose convictions brought her very close to death, in the informal “hunger strike” she did when she was 11 years old, refusing to eat during several months.
The sabbatical year that she had taken during the 2019-2020 academic year was interrupted by the pandemic before she could go to China, to a meeting of the Davos Forum to which she was invited, if Chinese leaders had not prevented it, and also to Japan and South Korea among other places. A real world tour with a huge media impact, practically without a budget, only with her family’s means and the help of her supporters.
By the way: the pandemic has helped her -and everyone- to see that when human societies perceive a major crisis, they do not stand idly by but react and change priorities and behavior. And, with a leadership that it is not too bold to claim to be one of the strongest active right now on the planet, she demands that the same must be done with the climate crisis.
In short, Greta Thunberg is already an adult, and she has amply demonstrated her maturity, abilities and leadership. Now we adults, who have been adults for a long time, need to show that we are also mature and able to face the big problems, instead of hiding them under the rug or looking the other way if we can’t hide them.
Josep Maria Camps Collet