News National From skipping school to Time’s person of the year: The making of Greta Thunberg

From skipping school to Time’s person of the year: The making of Greta Thunberg

16-year-old Greta Thunberg is the face of the global climate movement. Photo: Greta Thunberg
Twitter Facebook Reddit Pinterest Email

To some she’s a “disturbed teenager”, to others a Messiah, and now she’s Time magazine’s person of the year.

In just over 12 months Greta Thunberg went from a girl wagging school for a good cause to the most recognisable face of the climate movement.

The 16-year-old has become the poster girl for the world’s rage at inaction on climate change.

And on Thursday, she became the youngest person to be chosen by Time as its most influential person of the year.

US president Donald Trump responded to the news by again mocking Thunberg saying she had a “anger management problem” and to “chill” with her friends by going to a movie.

She responded quickly and with equal measure, editing her Twitter biography to “a teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend”.

Just before the magazine rolled off the printing press and the ink declaring ‘The Power of Youth’ dried on millions of copies, Ms Thunberg took the stage at the UN climate change summit in Madrid.

Using a step to reach the lectern, she called out the world’s leaders as all talk and no action.

“The biggest danger is not inaction,” she told the crowd.

“The real danger is when politicians and CEOs are making it look like real action is happening, when in fact almost nothing is being done apart from clever accounting and creative PR.”

She said drastic emission cuts were urgently needed and the world had to focus on keeping its carbon in the ground if we want temperature rises to stay below 1.5 degrees.

The speech fell in line with her cynical, yet inspiring style.

She laid down the grisly facts of the climate crisis but ended with hope and a call to action.

“There is hope – I’ve seen it,” Ms Thunberg said.

“But it does not come from the governments or corporations, it comes from the people, the people who have been unaware are now starting to wake up.”

Just last November she was a regular 15-year-old, who had skipped school to stand outside the Swedish parliament with a sign that read “Skolstrejk för Klimatet” in English: “School Strike for Climate”.

Ms Thunberg sits next to a placard reading “school strike for climate”. Photo: Getty

By the second day, others had joined her.

By the second week, she had started a viral movement on social media.

Within a month she was telling world leaders where to go.

“You are not mature enough to tell it like is,” she said at the COP24 summit.

“Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet.”

Then came a TED talk, meetings with heads of state, a yacht trip across the Atlantic, more speeches to the UN, and digs from world leaders, including US President Donald Trump, who sarcastically tweeted she was “a very happy girl”, and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who called her a “brat”.

Journalists now line up to hear her speak, heads of governments look and listen, parents have started naming their children after her, and every time she changes her Twitter byline it creates international headlines.

While she might have upset some leaders, on her side she’s had at least four million people from 161 countries supporting her.

They hit the streets in September for the largest climate demonstration in history.

Born in Stockholm to an opera singer mother, Malena Ernman, who represented Sweden at Eurovision in 2009, and actor father, Svante Thunberg, Greta described herself as ‘an invisible girl’ for most of her 15 years.

There was a wave of controversy over if her parents had put her up to it – but she’s adamant she has led the charge.

They might not be the puppets pulling the strings but they are no doubt supportive.

When she started out, the family bought an electric car, became vegan and stopped flying – a move that all but killed her mother’s international career.

Greta’s passion for climate justice and reluctant activism also helped save her.

At eight years of age, she learnt about climate change and by age 11 that knowledge was contributing to severe depression.

Greta Thunberg with her parents and sister, Beata. Photo: Thunbergs

She lots 10 kilograms, her growth stunted and she stopped talking. She frequented the eating disorder unit.

Eventually, she was diagnosed with autism.

Thunberg said she became an activist not in spite of her autism, but because of it.

In September she opened up about her diagnosis on Twitter.

“Before I started school striking I had no energy, no friends and I didn’t speak to anyone. I just sat alone at home, with an eating disorder,” she said.

“All of that is gone now, since I have found a meaning, in a world that sometimes seems shallow and meaningless to so many people.”

She said she had not been public about her diagnosis to “hide” it but because she knew “ignorant people still see it as an “illness”, or something “negative”.

“When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning!” she said.

Acknowledging her diagnosis had sometimes limited her, she said it “means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm” but ultimately it was a “superpower”.

In July, Australia’s Andrew Bolt lined up to join the negative commentary on her.

In a column, Bolt repeatedly referred to Greta’s mental health, labelling the young girl as “deeply disturbed”.

On Wednesday Thunberg said she spoke because she had to. Photo: Getty

But Ms Thunberg didn’t back down – hitting him with a tweet that she was  “deeply disturbed” by the “hate and conspiracy campaigns” run by climate deniers like Bolt, before asking: “Where have the adults gone?”

Ms Thunberg, who still strikes every Friday, is considering taking a sabbatical from school next year to focus on climate issues.

She’s exhausted by the movement but determined to go on.

Most importantly, though, she says she doesn’t want the world to listen to her, she wants people to listen to the science.

And then panic.

“A year and a half ago, I didn’t speak to anyone unless I had to,” Thunberg said on Wednesday at the beginning of her speech.

“But then I found a reason to speak.”

View Comments