Greta Thunberg was born on 3 January 2003 in Stockholm, Sweden, the daughter of opera singer Malena Ernman and actor Svante Thunberg. Her paternal grandfather is actor and director Olof Thunberg. She is also related to Svante Arrhenius, the Nobel-winning chemist who first estimated the greenhouse effect on the earth's climate.
Thunberg says she first heard about climate change in 2011, when she was eight years old, and could not understand why so little was being done about it. The situation made her depressed. She stopped talking and eating and lost ten kilograms (22 lb) in two months. Eventually, she was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), and selective mutism. Her Asperger diagnosis was made public nationwide in Sweden by her mother in May 2015, in order to help other families in a similar situation, as she said. While acknowledging that her diagnosis "has limited me before", she does not view her Asperger's as an illness and has instead called it her "superpower".
In an interview with Amy Goodman from Democracy Now!, Thunberg said she first got the idea of a climate strike after school shootings in the United States in February 2018 led to several youths refusing to go back to school. These teen activists at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, went on to organise the March for Our Lives in support of greater gun control.
In May 2018, Thunberg won a climate change essay competition held by Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. In part, she wrote that "I want to feel safe. How can I feel safe when I know we are in the greatest crisis in human history?” After the paper published her article she was contacted by Bo Thorén from Fossil Free Dalsland, a group interested in doing something about climate change. Thunberg attended a few of their meetings. At one of them, Thorén suggested that school children could strike for climate change. Thunberg tried to persuade other young people to get involved but "no one was really interested", so eventually she decided to go ahead with the strike by herself.
On 20 August 2018, Thunberg, who had just started ninth grade, decided not to attend school until the 2018 Swedish general election on 9 September; her protest began after the heat waves and wildfires during Sweden's hottest summer in at least 262 years. Her demands were that the Swedish government reduce carbon emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement, and she protested by sitting outside the Riksdag every day for three weeks during school hours with the sign Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for the climate).
After October 2018, Thunberg's activism evolved from solitary protesting to taking part in demonstrations throughout Europe; making several high-profile public speeches, and mobilising her growing number of followers on social media platforms. By March 2019, she was still staging her regular protests outside the Swedish parliament every Friday, where other students now occasionally join her. According to her father, her activism has not interfered with her schoolwork, but she has had less spare time.
— Greta Thunberg in her TEDx TalkStockholm, November 2018
After the general elections, Thunberg continued to strike only on Fridays. She inspired school students across the globe to take part in student strikes. As of December 2018, more than 20,000 students had held strikes in at least 270 cities. The school strikes for climate on 20 and 27 September 2019 were attended by over four million people, according to one of the co-organisers.
In one of her first speeches demanding climate action, Thunberg described the selective mutism aspect of her condition as meaning she "only speaks when necessary". In 2019, Thunberg also contributed a voiceover for a release of "The 1975", a song by the English band by the same name. Thunberg finishes by urging: "So, everyone out there, it is now time for civil disobedience. It is time to rebel." Proceeds will go to Extinction Rebellion at Thunberg's request.
In February 2019, 224 academics signed an open letter of support stating they were inspired by Thunberg's actions and the striking school children in making their voices heard.
In February 2019, Thunberg shared a stage with the then President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, where he outlined "In the next financial period from 2021 to 2027, every fourth euro spent within the EU budget will go towards action to mitigate climate change". Climate issues also played a significant role in European Parliament election in May 2019 as Green parties recorded their best ever result, boosting their MEP seat numbers from 52 to 72. Many of the gains came from northern European countries where young people have taken to the streets inspired by Thunberg. In December 2019, the New Scientist described the impact made by Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion with the headline: "The year the world woke up to climate change".
In June 2019, Thunberg spoke by video link with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who had submitted the Green New Deal to the U.S. House of Representatives in February 2019, which calls for the United States to achieve carbon neutrality within a decade. They discussed how it feels when their views are not taken seriously because they are young, and what tactics really work.
Thunberg relies on the scientific community's consensus on climate change. From this consensus she says that the Paris Agreement's Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5° C commitment is insufficient and that the greenhouse gas emissions curve needs to start declining steeply no later than 2020. In February 2019, at a conference of the European Economic and Social Committee, she said that the EU must reduce their CO2 emissions by 80% by 2030, double the 40% goal.
Greta Thunberg has been depicted in popular culture and art. Greta and the Giants, a book by Zoë Tucker and Zoe Persico, published by Frances Lincoln Children's Books was inspired by the life of Thunberg. American painter Elizabeth Peyton chose her portrait named Greta Thunberg, 2019 as the leading image of one of her shows. She has been depicted in multiple murals. In Bristol, a 15-metre-high (49 ft) mural of Thunberg by artist Jody Thomas, portrays the bottom half of her face as if under rising sea water since May 2019. In San Francisco the Argentinian muralist Andrés Iglesias (known as Cobre) finished a mural portraying Thunberg in November 2019.
Make the World Greta Again, May 2019, is a 30-minute documentary featuring interviews with a number of youth protest leaders in Europe, released by Vice. Greta (working title) is a planned 2020 documentary for Hulu, produced by Cecilia Nessen and Frederik Heinig via B-Reel Films and directed by Nathan Grossman."
Thunberg has given many speeches during climate strikes, at NGO events such as a TEDx conference, and before gatherings of national and world leaders. She published a collection of her climate action speeches, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, in May 2019 with the earnings being donated to charity.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres endorsed the school strikes initiated by Thunberg, admitting that "My generation has failed to respond properly to the dramatic challenge of climate change. This is deeply felt by young people. No wonder they are angry." Speaking at an event in New Zealand in May 2019, Guterres said his generation was "not winning the battle against climate change" and that it's up to youth to "rescue the planet".
In June 2019, Swedish Railways (SJ) reported that the number of Swedes taking the train for domestic journeys had risen by 8% from the previous year, reflecting growing public concern (reflected in a survey published by the Swedish Railways) about the impact of flying on CO2 emissions.
Thunberg has inspired a number of her school-aged peers in what has been described as "The Greta effect". In response to her outspoken stance, various politicians have also acknowledged the need to focus on climate change. Britain's secretary for the environment, Michael Gove, said: "When I listened to you, I felt great admiration, but also responsibility and guilt. I am of your parents' generation, and I recognise that we haven't done nearly enough to address climate change and the broader environmental crisis that we helped to create." Labour politician Ed Miliband, who was responsible for introducing the Climate Change Act 2008, said: "You have woken us up. We thank you. All the young people who have gone on strike have held up a mirror to our society … you have taught us all a really important lesson. You have stood out from the crowd." In June 2019, a YouGov poll in Britain found that public concern about the environment had soared to record levels in the UK since Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion had "pierced the bubble of denial".
In July 2019, Agence France-Presse reported that OPEC's secretary-general Mohammed Barkindo "complained of what he called 'unscientific' attacks on the oil industry by climate change campaigners, calling them 'perhaps the greatest threat to our industry going forward'", in apparent reference to the recent school strikes inspired by Thunberg's 'Fridays for Future' movement. Thunberg and other climate activists responded by calling his remarks a badge of honour.
In late 2018, Thunberg began the school climate strikes and public speeches for which she has become an internationally recognised climate activist. Her father does not like her missing school but said: "[We] respect that she wants to make a stand. She can either sit at home and be really unhappy, or protest, and be happy". Greta struggled with depression for three or four years before she began her school strike. Thunberg says that her teachers are divided in their views about her missing class to make her point. She says: "As people they think what I am doing is good, but as teachers they say I should stop." In July 2019, Time magazine reported Thunberg was taking a "sabbatical year" from school, intending to travel in the Americas while meeting people from the climate movement.
In August 2019, Scott Walsman wrote in Scientific American that Thunberg's detractors have "launched personal attacks", "bash [her] autism", and "increasingly rely on ad hominem attacks to blunt her influence."
In August 2019, Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic Ocean from Plymouth, England, to New York, USA, in the 60-foot (18 m) racing yacht Malizia II, equipped with solar panels and underwater turbines. The trip was announced as a carbon-neutral transatlantic crossing serving as a demonstration of Thunberg's declared beliefs of the importance of reducing emissions. France 24 reported that several crew would fly to New York to sail the yacht back to Europe. The voyage lasted fifteen days, from 14 to 28 August 2019.
In August 2019, publication and sales of children's books about the climate crisis reportedly doubled. Publishers attribute this to the "Greta effect".
In September 2019, Donald Trump shared a video of Thunberg angrily addressing world leaders, along with her quote that "people are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction". Trump wrote about Thunberg, tweeting: "She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!" Thunberg reacted by changing her Twitter bio to match his description and stating she could not "understand why grown-ups would choose to mock children and teenagers for just communicating and acting on the science when they could do something good instead."
In one speech, at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit on 23 September 2019, Thunberg said to world leaders: "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! 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!" "You are failing us." Thunberg said toward the end of her speech. "But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you."
On 23 September 2019, in New York, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) hosted a press conference where Thunberg joined fifteen other children including Ayakha Melithafa, Alexandria Villaseñor, Catarina Lorenzo, Carl Smith and others. Together, the group announced they had made an official complaint against five nations that are not on track to meet the emission reduction targets they committed to in their Paris Agreement pledges: Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey. The complaint challenges these countries under the Third Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Protocol is a quasi-judicial mechanism which allows children or their representatives, who believe their rights have been violated, to bring a complaint before the relevant 'treaty body', the Committee on the Rights of the Child. If the complaint is successful, the countries will be asked to respond, but any suggestions are not legally binding.
In October 2019, Vladimir Putin described Thunberg as a "kind girl and very sincere", while suggesting she was being manipulated to serve others' interests. Putin criticised her as "poorly informed": "No one has explained to Greta that the modern world is complex and different and people in Africa or in many Asian countries want to live at the same wealth level as in Sweden." Similar to her reaction to Trump, Thunberg updated her Twitter bio to reflect Putin's description of her.
Thunberg had intended to remain in the Americas to travel overland to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Santiago, Chile, in December, however, it was announced on short notice that COP25 was to be moved to Madrid, Spain, because of serious public unrest in Chile. Thunberg refuses to fly because of the carbon emissions from air travel, so she posted on social media that she needed a ride across the Atlantic Ocean. Riley Whitelum and his wife, Elayna Caraus, two Australians who had been sailing around the world aboard their 48-foot (15 m) catamaran, La Vagabonde, offered to take her. So, on 13 November 2019, Thunberg set sail from Hampton, Virginia, for Lisbon, Portugal. Her departing message was the same as it has been since she began her activism: "My message to the Americans is the same as to everyone – that is to unite behind the science and to act on the science."
When she started protesting, her parents did not support her activism. Interviewed by the BBC in December 2019, her father said his wife stopped flying to try to 'save' their daughter rather than the climate. He added: "To be honest, (her mother) didn't do it save the climate. She did it to save her child because she saw how much it meant to her, and then, when she did that, she saw how much (Greta) grew from that, how much energy she got from it." Thunberg credits her parents' eventual response and lifestyle changes with giving her hope and belief that she could make a difference. The family story is recounted in the 2018 book Scenes from the Heart.
In December 2019, President Trump again mocked Thunberg after she was named Person of the Year for 2019 by Time magazine: "So ridiculous", Trump tweeted. "Greta must work on her anger management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!" Thunberg responded by changing her Twitter biography to: "A teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend."
In December 2019, Thunberg tweeted "Indigenous people are literally being murdered for trying to protect the forrest [sic] from illegal deforestation. Over and over again. It is shameful that the world remains silent about this". When asked about this subject two days later, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro responded: "Greta said that the Indians were dying because they were trying to protect the Amazon. It is impressive how the press gives voice to such a brat." On the same day, Thunberg changed her Twitter description to "pirralha", the Portuguese word for "brat" used by Bolsonaro.
On 30th December 2019 Thunberg was guest editor of the BBC Radio's flagship current affairs programme, the Today Programme. Thunberg's edition of the programme featured interviews on climate change with Sir David Attenborough, Bank of England chief Mark Carney, Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja, and Shell Oil executive Maarten Wetselaar. The BBC subsequently released a podcast containing these interviews and other highlights.
Thunberg arrived in the Port of Lisbon on 3 December 2019, then travelled on to Madrid to speak at COP25 and to participate with the local Fridays for Future climate strikers. There she called for more "concrete action," arguing that the global wave of school strikes over the previous year had "achieved nothing", because greenhouse gas emissions were still rising—by 4% since 2015.
On 11 January 2020 Thunberg called on German company Siemens to stop the delivery of railway equipment for the controversial Carmichael coal mine by Indian company Adani in Australia, but on 13 January Siemens said that it would continue to honour its contract with Adani.
On 21 January 2020, Thunberg returned to the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland, and delivered two speeches and participated in panel discussions hosted by The New York Times and the World Economic Forum. Thunberg used many of the themes contained in her previous speeches, but focused on one in particular: "Our house is still on fire." Thunberg joked that she cannot complain about not being heard, saying: "I am being heard all the time."