How 16-year-old Greta Thunberg became the face of climate-change activism

Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg

Anders Hellberg

On September 20, an estimated 4 million people in 161 countries took to the streets in the largest climate change demonstration in history.

At the helm of this Global Climate Strike was 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who has entered the global spotlight over the last year as the leader of a youth movement that's pushing governments and corporations to address the climate crisis.

Thunberg launched the "Fridays For Future" movement — or School Strike for Climate (as it says in Swedish on her sign) — in 2018, encouraging students to skip school to demand action on climate change from their governments. In November, when she was a ninth grader, Thunberg staged a strike for two weeks outside the Swedish parliament, demanding that the government cut emissions by 15% a year.

Now Thunberg spends every Friday on strike.

On Monday, Thunberg gave an impassioned, tearful speech to world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit.

"This is all wrong. I shouldn't be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean," she said with tears in her eyes. "Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words."

To get to the UN event, Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic on a zero-emissions boat to avoid the carbon emissions  that would have come from flying.

Read More: Here's what 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg's zero-emissions journey from Europe to New York looked like.

Here's how Thunberg rose to prominence as the face of a new movement.

On Monday, Thunberg joined two other youth activists in opening the UN Climate Action Summit. With tears in her eyes, she chastised world leaders: "You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words."

Carlo Allegri/Reuters

"This is all wrong. I shouldn't be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean," she added. "Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you!"

For four minutes, Thunberg held the room in thrall as she chastised leaders for talking about "money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth" while people suffer.

"People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing," Thunberg said.

Thunberg has been thinking about climate change — and the lack of action to curb it — since age 8, when she first learned about the problem. She has said she didn't understand why adults weren't working to mitigate its effects.


By age 11, she said, she became depressed by the seemingly impossible task of saving the planet.

In May 2018, Thunberg won a climate-change essay competition for the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. It was the genesis of her activism career. She started the School Strike for Climate effort three months later, and launched her first protest three months after that.

Thunberg partially credits her Asperger's syndrome for her fierce activist nature. She was diagnosed four years ago.

Paul Zinken/dpa via AP

In an interview with BBC journalist Nick Robinson, Thunberg said that "being different is a gift." If she didn't have Asperger's, Thunberg added, she wouldn't have become such a passionate climate activist.

Thunberg has also tweeted about her condition, saying that having Asperger's is a "superpower."


In December, Thunberg spoke at the 2018 United Nations climate change conference in Katowice, Poland.

Janek Skarzynski/Getty Images

"This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced," she told UN secretary general António Guterres before the conference started. "First we have to realize this and then as fast as possible do something to stop the emissions and try to save what we can save."

Three months later, on March 15, 2019, Thunberg led more than 1 million students around the world to walk out of their Friday classes to protest inaction on climate change.

Matt Dunham/AP

Young people in more than 123 countries skipped school to demand more robust climate policies and the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Thunberg spoke at the Stockholm demonstration during that global event. "We have only been born into this world, we are going to have to live with this crisis our whole lives," she said at the time.

Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty Images

"We are not going to accept this. We are striking because we want a future and we are going to carry on," she added, according to Reuters.

Thunberg was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in March.


She "has launched a mass movement which I see as a major contribution to peace," Norwegian Socialist MP Freddy André Øvstegård told the Guardian. "We have proposed Greta Thunberg because if we do nothing to halt climate change it will be the cause of wars, conflict, and refugees."

Thunberg's fame has continued to grow since then. In April, she briefly spoke with Pope Francis during the weekly general audience at the Vatican.

Vatican Media/Reuters

The Pope has made it clear that he strongly supports action to curb climate change.

"Thank you for standing up for the climate and speaking the truth. It means a lot," Thunberg told him.

"God bless you, continue to work, continue. Go along, go ahead," he responded.

A week after that, Thunberg spoke to UK parliament leaders: "Many of you appear concerned that we are wasting valuable lesson time, but I assure you we will go back to school the moment you start listening to science and give us a future. Is that really too much to ask?"

Leon Neal/Getty Images

Thunberg has also met with UN leaders on numerous occasions and visited the French Parliament.

Because air travel has a heavy carbon footprint, Thunberg refuses to board any airplanes. In Europe, she typically travels by train. But crossing the Atlantic posed a new challenge.

Ricardo Pinto

A single round-trip flight between New York and California generates roughly 20% of the greenhouse gases your car emits in a year.

So Thunberg enlisted the help of Boris Herrmann, who captains a schooner named Malizia II. The ship runs on solar power and underwater turbines (in addition to wind, of course), thereby emitting zero carbon.

Courtesy of Malizia II media

After a 13-day journey, Thunberg arrived in New York City on August 28 with her crewmates: her father Svante, professional sailors Boris Herrmann and Pierre Casiraghi, and filmmaker Nathan Grossman.

On September 17, Thunberg sat down with former President Barack Obama

Screenshot/Obama Foundation

The two met at the headquarters of the Obama Foundation.

"My message to young people who want to have an impact on the world is to be creative," Thunberg said in a video of the meeting shared by the Obama Foundation. "There's so incredibly much you can do and do not underestimate yourself."

"Just 16, @GretaThunberg is already one of our planet's greatest advocates," Obama tweeted after their meeting.

The same day, she attended a meeting with US lawmakers to discuss policies on climate change.

Alastair Pike/Getty Images

Thunberg's remarks at the hearing on Wednesday lasted less than one minute. Instead of a prepared speech, Thunberg simply submitted a 2018 United Nations report on climate change to the lawmakers.

"I don't want you to listen to me," she said. "I want you to listen to the scientists."

On September 20, Thunberg led a worldwide climate strike that included 4 million people across 161 countries.

REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Adults joined the ranks of young protesters in most major cities around the world. It was the biggest climate-change protest in history.

Thunberg spoke at the New York City Global Climate Strike demonstration.

Another strike is planned for September 27.

On Saturday, Thunberg spoke at the UN Youth Climate Summit.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters

"Yesterday millions of people across the globe marched and demanded real climate action, especially young people. We showed that we are united and we young people are unstoppable," Thunberg said at the summit.

But she saved her most fiery speech for the world leaders who convened on Monday. "For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you are doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight," she said.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has urged UN member nations to put forward concrete plans to upgrade their national carbon-emissions goals by the 2020 deadline set in the Paris climate agreement. Summit organizers have also encouraged countries to set goals to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, and Guterres is calling for an end to coal use after 2020.

After delivering her speech, Thunberg joined 15 other young people from around the world to file a legal complaint, which alleges that five countries' inaction on global warming violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Radhika Chalasani/UNICEF

The complaint was filed against Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey.

The UN treaty is 30 years old; children have been able to file legal complaints to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child since 2014.

In the coming months, Thunberg plans to travel throughout the US, Canada, and Mexico, then attend the annual UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Santiago, Chile in December.

Associated Press

She has said that she wants to meet with people most impacted by the climate crisis, as well as other activists and influential decision-makers. Thunberg plans to travel to Chile in December via trains and buses.

"During the past year, millions of young people have raised their voice to make world leaders wake up to the climate and ecological emergency. Over the next months, the events in New York and Santiago de Chile will show if they have listened," Thunberg said.


She added: "Together with many other young people across the Americas and the world, I will be there, even if the journey will be long and challenging."