Greta Thunberg has made the ultimate sacrifice for the Guardian. She’s allowed us to turn her into a human oil spillage. The treacly black stuff is dripping from her hair, down her nose, past her cheeks on to her neck and shoulders.
Down, down, down it drips. By the time we speak on Zoom, a day later, she has just about got herself cleaned up. Has she ever been covered in oil before? (It’s actually a mixture of non-toxic finger paint and olive oil.) “No,” she says. This is a typical Thunberg answer – short, factual, to the point. She never likes to waste her words. How did it feel? “It felt better than I thought it would feel. I had a ribbon on my hair to not get my hair black, but then it spilt through the ribbon so my hair was completely black. It was very difficult to get off.” I suggest that she sues the Guardian. “Yes,” she says. Thunberg isn’t smiling.
We talk first thing on a Sunday. Look at Thunberg and she seems little changed – still elfin-like and earnest; still quoting the climate science with fastidious politeness; and still with that curious mix of pessimism (we’re doomed if we don’t act) and optimism (we can avert catastrophe if we do). But, as she relaxes, I begin to discover that this is a very different Thunberg from the one she presented to the public in 2018. While she has done much to change our perspective of the world, the world has done much to change her – and, she says, for the better. Despite the climate crisis deepening by the day, Greta Thunberg has learned how to be happy.
Like the rest of us she has retreated from the world over the past year and a half, but she has used her time to good effect – to grow up. Thunberg is now 18 years old and campaigning as ferociously as ever, while living in her own apartment (where she is speaking from), hanging out with friends and having fun. She is turning into the kind of young woman that neither she nor her parents could have ever envisaged.
At home in Stockholm, she says, she goes unnoticed. “Fortunately I live in Sweden, which is very good because people aren’t interested in ‘celebrities’. When I do get stopped, it’s mostly tourists and people from abroad.”
Her father, Svante, talking to me from the family home, tells a funny story about the time he and Greta attended a climate exhibition in the Swedish capital. “She was the main part of the exhibition. There was a big picture of her taken in North Dakota, hanging in the middle of the hallway, five metres tall. No one came up to her. When we left, someone came up with an iPad. I thought, ‘OK, maybe someone wants an autograph’ and the woman said, ‘Excuse me, we’re doing a survey for the museum.’ That sums up how people treat her in Stockholm. They’re not very impressed, and I think that’s good for her. No one really gives a damn.”
Locals may not give a damn, but I discover later on that plenty of other people do – sometimes in a way that has threatened the safety of Thunberg and her family.
Three years ago Greta Tintin Eleonora Ernman Thunberg was an unknown 15-year-old terrified that we were destroying the planet and furious that adults were letting it happen. Her fury was particularly directed at those with power. She decided to take unilateral action, and tweeted her plan. “We kids most often don’t do what you tell us to do. We do as you do. And since you grownups don’t give a damn about my future, I won’t either. My name is Greta and I’m in ninth grade. And I am school striking for the climate until election day.” She didn’t expect anyone to take notice. Thunberg had spent her short lifetime not being noticed. She was small, rarely spoke and described herself as “that girl in the back who never said anything”.
Thunberg spent the first day sitting cross-legged on her own outside the Swedish parliament alongside a sign made from wood scrap that read “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (“School strike for climate”). Although she was striking, she still treated it as a regular school day – she rode to the Riksdag on her bike, took out her books and studied till the end of the school day. The next week a few others joined her – fellow students, teachers and parents – and her campaign began to attract media interest. In September 2018 she began a regular Friday strike, calling it Fridays for Future, encouraging other students to join her. By March 2019, her protest had spread to more than 70 countries. On 20 September 2019, 4 million people joined a school strike across 161 countries – the largest climate demonstration in history.
Within a year, Thunberg had become one of the most famous people on Earth. Since then she has been nominated twice for the Nobel peace prize, addressed the UN and been thanked by the pope. Liberal world leaders suck up to her to show their people they take the climate crisis seriously, rightwing populist leaders mock her to show that they don’t. November’s Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow is due to be attended by more than 200 nations, and will be one of the largest gatherings of world leaders in history. But many people only want to hear from one person – the autistic teenager with the pigtails.
Perhaps the biggest change in Thunberg is her faith in people. When she started out, she didn’t have any. “I didn’t think young people cared about climate because all the young people I knew were like, ‘Oh yeah, the climate is important, but I don’t want to do anything about it.’ But it turned out many young people around the world actually care. A lot! And they are very ready to do something about it. I’m very glad I was proven wrong.”
She talks about the activists she has met, and how they have inspired her. For the first time in her life, she was meeting people who shared her passion – or obsession. I had met one of her fellow Fridays for Future activists a couple of weeks ago – Vanessa Nakate, Uganda’s first school striker. Thunberg’s face lights up when I mention her. “Vanessa is an incredible person.” She draws such strength from people like Nakate, she says, because they are taking greater risks than she has ever had to.
“Some places are much harder to be an activist in than others. I look up to them so much. They give me the hope and inspiration to carry on.” She pauses. “Of course, I might be naive because I’m very young.” She pauses again. “But I think naivety and childishness are sometimes a good thing.” The great thing about youth, she says, is you’re not blinded by realpolitik and the assumption of compromise. “I do think older people make things more complicated than they actually are.”
Is there a sense of solidarity between fellow activists? “Definitely. We have daily contact. We don’t just campaign together, we are also friends. My best friends are within the climate movement.” I ask if she could ever be friends with a climate denier. “Erm, yeaaaah,” she says uncertainly. “I mean in one way we’re all climate deniers because we’re not acting as if it is a crisis. I don’t know. It depends on the situation.” So there’s hope for your friendship with Donald Trump? She lets out a hiccup of laughter. “Well, I don’t think we would enjoy each other’s company that much. We have very different interests.” In 2019, when Thunberg was crowned Time magazine’s person of the year, Trump tweeted: “So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!” Eleven months later, with Trump demanding a recount, having lost the election to Joe Biden, Thunberg coolly tweeted: “So ridiculous. Donald must work on his Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Donald, Chill!”
She is still thinking about the question of befriending a climate denier. The funny thing is, she says, she used to be in denial herself. “When I first heard about it, I didn’t think it was real because if it was real, people would do something about it. It didn’t add up to me.”
Then, aged eight, she was shown a film of an armada of plastic assailing our oceans. She couldn’t get it out of her head. She started to read about it, and became more and more terrified. She was exceptionally bright, with a photographic memory, but was also withdrawn and quiet. And she was becoming more so.
At the age of 11 she fell into a deep depression and stopped eating and talking. Why does she think she was so unhappy? “One of the reasons was I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that people didn’t seem to care about anything, that everyone just cared about themselves rather than everything that was happening with the world. And being an oversensitive child with autism, it was definitely something I thought about a lot, and it made me sad.” Was it also because she had been bullied at school? “Yeah, to some extent.”
I ask if she literally stopped talking. “I spoke to my parents, my sister and a bit to my teacher,” she says. Why did she stop? “I don’t know. I just couldn’t.[SOURCE]