- Greta Thunberg, a teenage activist from Sweden who has become the face of the youth climate movement, turns 17 today.
- In the summer of 2018, Thunberg started sitting outside the Swedish parliament every Friday as part of a climate strike. On September 20, 2019, Thunberg led the largest climate strike in history.
- Thunberg has addressed the United Nations, US Congress, and UK Parliament.
- In December, Time magazine named her the 2019 person of the year.
- Here’s how she rose to prominence in just 18 months.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Today, the world’s most prominent climate activist turns 17.
In the last 18 months, Greta Thunberg “has succeeded in creating a global attitudinal shift, transforming millions of vague, middle-of-the-night anxieties into a worldwide movement calling for urgent change,” the editors of Time wrote in December, when they named her the magazine’s 2019 person of the year.
Thunberg launched the “Fridays For Future” movement – or School Strike for Climate (as it says in Swedish on her now-famous sign) – in 2018, encouraging students to skip school to demand action on climate change from their governments. That November, when she was in ninth grade, Thunberg staged a two-week strike outside the Swedish parliament, demanding that her government cut emissions by 15% a year.
She still spends every Friday on strike; Thunberg is on week 72, according to her Twitter.
In September, 4 million people joined her in that strike across 161 countries – the largest climate demonstration in history. Following that day of action, 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.”
Here’s how Thunberg rose to prominence as the face of a new movement.
“She has offered a moral clarion call to those who are willing to act, and hurled shame on those who are not,” Time magazine wrote of Thunberg last month.
Thunberg has been thinking about climate change — and the lack of action to curb it — since age 8. She has said she didn’t understand why adults weren’t working to mitigate its effects.
- Anders Hellberg
By age 11, Thunberg 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. That 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.
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 activist. Thunberg has also tweeted about her condition, saying that Asperger’s is a “superpower.”
In December 2018, Thunberg spoke at the 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 that 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, in March 2019, Thunberg led more than 1 million students around the world as they walked out of Friday classes to protest inaction on climate change.
“We have only been born into this world. We are going to have to live with this crisis our whole lives,” Thunberg said in a speech in Stockholm during that global event.
- 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,” Thunberg added, according to Reuters.
Thunberg was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in March 2019.
She “has launched a mass movement, which I see as a major contribution to peace,” Norwegian MP Freddy André Øvstegård told The Guardian at the time. “We have proposed Greta Thunberg because if we do nothing to halt climate change it will be the cause of wars, conflict, and refugees.”
In the end, the award went to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who brokered peace between his nation and Eritrea.
A month later, Thunberg spoke with Pope Francis during the weekly general audience at the Vatican.
- Vatican Media/Reuters
The Pope 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 in April 2019.
“God bless you, continue to work, continue. Go along, go ahead,” he responded.
A week after that, Thunberg told 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.”
- Leon Neal/Getty Images
Thunberg has also met with UN leaders on numerous occasions and visited the French parliament as well.
Because air travel has a heavy carbon footprint, Thunberg refuses to fly. In Europe, she typically travels by train. But getting to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York in September 2019 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.
Thunberg enlisted the help of Boris Herrmann, who captains a schooner called Malizia II. The ship runs on solar power and underwater turbines (in addition to wind, of course), thereby emitting no carbon.
- Courtesy of Malizia II media
She completed the 13-day, cross-Atlantic journey with her father Svante, professional sailors Boris Herrmann and Pierre Casiraghi, and filmmaker Nathan Grossman in August.
While in the US, Thunberg sat down with Barack Obama.
- Screenshot/Obama Foundation
“Just 16, @GretaThunberg is already one of our planet’s greatest advocates,” Obama tweeted after their meeting.
She also met with members of the US House of Representatives to discuss climate-change policies. Instead of a prepared speech, Thunberg simply submitted a 2018 UN climate report.
- Alastair Pike/Getty Images
Thunberg’s remarks at the hearing lasted less than one minute.
“I don’t want you to listen to me,” she said. “I want you to listen to the scientists.”
On September 20, 2019, 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.
“We showed that we are united and we young people are unstoppable,” Thunberg said the following day.
At the UN Climate Action Summit a few days later, Thunberg chastised world leaders with tears in her eyes: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”
- Carlo Allegri/Reuters
“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.
After that speech, Thunberg joined 15 other young people from around the world to file a legal complaint alleging 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.
Thunberg spent the next couple of months traveling throughout the US and Canada, meeting climate activists and environmental protesters.
Thunberg had planned to travel to Santiago, Chile to attend the COP25 climate conference last month, but the event was moved at the last minute to Madrid, Spain.
So Thunberg hitched an impromptu cross-Atlantic ride with an Australian couple, their 11-month-old son, and a professional sailor in November.
On December 11, Thunberg addressed climate scientists in Madrid. “I am telling you there is hope. I have seen it. But it does not come from governments or corporations. It comes from the people,” she said.
Thunberg added: “We do not have to wait. We can start the change right now. We the people.”
Ivan De Luce contributed to a previous version of this story.