In August 2018, Greta Thunberg took a stand. One small act of defiance for a 15-year-old Swedish girl became one giant global leap forward for the movement for change. By one simple act of refusal – skipping school, refusing education, sitting in silence on the pavement outside the Swedish parliament with a homemade placard saying School Strike for the Climate – Thunberg sparked schoolchildren around the world into action.
She was joined by hundreds of thousands of young people taking their first steps into activism, no longer able to tolerate the failure of a generation of politicians to act fast enough in response to the climate crisis.
“It just spiralled out of control,” Thunberg says, speaking via Zoom to The Big Issue from her home in Stockholm, her pet dog making its presence felt nearby.
“In one way it feels like it was yesterday. But on the other hand, it feels like it was 10 years ago. It was just so strange that those kinds of things were happening and so hard to grasp. But I’m almost there now.”
I’ve always been a person who no one really listens to. I’ve always been very socially awkward
Since then, Thunberg has become one of the most famous people on the planet. Less than four months after her solo protest, she was addressing COP24, the annual UN Climate Change Conference, in Katowice, Poland, something she repeated the following year in Madrid. Of the 29,000 delegates, one was smaller, younger – but her voice carried the furthest. And it continues to reverberate around the world.
“It’s not something I’ve gotten used to,” says Thunberg, who turned 18 in January. “Because I’ve always been a person who doesn’t say anything and who no one really listens to. I’ve always been very socially awkward and so on. So to go from that, being almost invisible, to be someone who people actually listen to is a very big change. And it’s hard to adapt to.”
Thunberg is not protective of her platform. Instead, as she does in the new three-part BBC documentary series, she is keen to use it to foreground and amplify the voices of scientists warning us of the need to act decisively and act now.
“That was the very reason I decided to do this in the first place,” she says. “I wanted us to get beyond the clickbait headlines that people use to gain attention and to focus on the content instead. So if using my platform to lend my voice to science or people who actually need to be heard works, then that was the main purpose of the series. When you talk to different people and get many perspectives, that really provides the bigger picture.”
The series follows Thunberg on her year out from education, travelling the world, speaking at events including COP25, and meeting scientists, activists and experts such as Sir David Attenborough. Did seeing more of the world make her even more determined to save it?
“I don’t think you need to be able to see it to want to protect it,” she says. “But it has been an amazing opportunity to have seen it. We talk like it’s not until it’s burning in our own backyards and in our own towns that we act, but that’s not true.
“If we look at the things that are being fuelled by the climate crisis, such as the wildfires in western North America, the evidence is clear that it has connections to the climate crisis. But that doesn’t mean the people who live there change. I want to raise awareness and say: this is what the science says. You should listen to and act on the science.
Just imagine if we started to actually take action – I mean, we don’t know what that could lead to
“We see the climate crisis as something that will hit us in the future. And of course, it will. But we forget that countless people are already suffering and dying from its consequences today. So the climate crisis is already hitting us. We won’t be able to avoid all the consequences of it – that’s already too late – but it’s never too late to do as much as we possibly can. Every fraction of a degree matters and we still have time to avoid the worst consequences.”
Ask Thunberg what needs to change and whether it will be alterations in lifestyle – from what we eat to how we travel – or the science of carbon capture that will best tackle the crisis and the answer comes back the same. Anything that works. Everything that works.
“We tend to single out problems – ‘We need to do this rather than this,’” she says. “But we can’t afford to do that any more. We cannot spend all our time arguing what things are best to do if that means that we don’t have any time left to actually do those things. Right now we need to do everything we possibly can. We need to think holistically and long-term and implement all possible solutions and not focus on comparing them to each other. Because that only takes up time.”
In her new documentary, Thunberg says the only thing that creates hope is action. As calls to arms go, it is both inspired and inspiring.
“We can sit and do nothing and that may feel very hopeless, but as soon as we start taking action, there is hope,” she says. “So that’s the mentality I’m trying to live off. And just imagine if we started to actually take action – I mean, we don’t know what that could lead to.
“We don’t know what social tipping points we could pass. Because we’ve never done it before. We’ve never faced a challenge such as the climate crisis before. So we don’t know what could happen if we took action – and that is also very hopeful.”
But, adds Thunberg, even the growing numbers joining her campaign will not make sufficient change. She calls on the media and those with big followings to amplify the voices of climate activists (or indeed become activists).
“If the media started treating the climate crisis like a crisis, that could change everything overnight,” she says.
“Yes we need to do everything we can – all these small-scale actions – and enrol every possible person. But at the same time, not be naive and think things will be enough if only we do this. Something big needs to come from outside as well.”
What does Thunberg want from the media – reporting the science, rallying people behind it, not giving a platform to sceptics?
The climate crisis is a social crisis. It mostly affects people who already are the most vulnerable
“It’s all those things,” she says. “But above all it is treating the climate crisis like a crisis. Right now, the media is reporting about climate change, the climate issue and symptoms of the climate crisis like melting glaciers and rising sea levels and wildfires. But that’s not the climate crisis. Those are only symptoms.
“The climate crisis is mostly about time and the amount of accumulated CO2 in the atmosphere and about what we do now. We shouldn’t be focusing on vague, hypothetical scenarios in the future but rather what needs to be done now. But just treating it as a crisis – and if that seems vague, take a look at the coronavirus pandemic. Did we treat that as a crisis? Yes. That shows the media is capable of treating something like a crisis and changing the way they operate.
“As long as the climate crisis is not dominating the news, it sends a signal that maybe it’s not important.
“I don’t just mean more articles about the climate crisis but rather taking it into account in everything. When a politician says they will build a new road or do anything, always think – OK, what will that mean for the climate? Because the climate crisis is so important.”
Where Thunberg goes next is up for grabs. Two more years of school, then university, she says. But whatever she does outside of her climate activism, this is already looking like her life’s work. “I will focus on many more things as well, but I will do it in addition to this,” she says.
“I just feel like I want to be able to say that I did everything I possibly could. And that’s what I’m striving to be able to say. But if I try to imagine what my older self would tell myself right now, then it will probably be to take care of yourself and try to enjoy it. Try to enjoy the ride, I guess. You have to take breaks sometimes and so on. So I’m also trying to do that.”
Thunberg has not done many interviews to promote her documentary. But just as she is using her platform to put climate science in the spotlight, she is also, by choosing to speak to The Big Issue, actively helping address poverty and homelessness. Does she see these two issues as linked – because it’s often people in poverty who are first to be affected and have the fewest choices?
“Of course. All these things are interlinked. Being a climate activist or environmental activist is not because you care about trees or flowers. Of course, we do care about that too, but we are mainly doing this because what we do to nature, nature does to us,” she says.
“The climate crisis is a social crisis. It mostly affects people who already are the most vulnerable. So without having that in mind, without taking that into account, we won’t be able to solve the climate crisis.
“I usually say I try to stay out of politics. But some things are beyond politics, like fundamental human rights. That’s not politics, at least not for me. That’s just common sense. I don’t see it as politics because I see it as something that should be obvious for everyone to care about.”
Asked whether she has a final message for Big Issue readers eager to join her mission to wake the world up to the climate crisis, Thunberg pauses for a moment.
“Everyone counts,” she says. “We might think there’s no point an individual making changes, so we don’t do anything. But the school strike movement shows that is not true. Every single individual counts. And if we are to change everything, we need everyone. So no step in the right direction is too small.”
Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World airs Mondays on BBC One and is available on BBC iPlayer