Greta Thunberg has become the youngest person ever to be named Time magazine’s Person of the Year since its inception in 1927. Thunberg was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and has already featured among Time’s 100 most influential people of the year. So who is Greta Thunberg and what explains her sudden rise to prominence?

Greta Thunberg is a 17-year-old climate activist from Sweden. Over the past few years, her activism has drawn unprecedented attention to global climate change, and has inspired protests and rallies, largely from young people around the world. She has called for stringent measures to counter climate change, such as her demand to the European Union to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by the year 2030.  

Fridays for Future – A Global Movement

Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement has encouraged young people to observe school strikes and organize local demonstrations demanding action against climate change.  Thunberg herself spent her school hours outside the Swedish parliament for nearly three weeks in 2018, and also took a year off from school, travelling to North America to champion her cause, and speaking at various international summits and conferences.

A global march by the movement on 15th March 2019 attracted more than a million protesters around the world. This was followed by a similar global climate change protest in May. Even more successful was the Global Week for Future, with an estimated four million protesting on 20th September 2019 in over 150 countries – including cities as diverse as Brasilia, La Paz, Seattle, Athens, Kiev, Nairobi, Lahore, and Jakarta to name a few.

People participate in a climate change protest in Australia
Over 300,000 reportedly took part in the 20th September 2019 protests in Australia

Greta Thunberg’s Message

Thunberg has stressed upon the need for immediate and substantive action, arguing that the “climate emergency is happening now”. She has been bluntly critical of world leaders and governments, accusing them at a recent UN summit of using “creative PR” to avoid having to take meaningful action. Thunberg constantly reminds people to think about the impact of climate change on their children’s lives, saying “every election is a climate election”.

A part of Greta Thunberg’s address to the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2019 – now one of her famous quotes – conveys the passion that typically characterizes her speeches and manner:  

“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 fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

Life beyond Activism

During a TEDx Talk in her hometown of Stockholm, Thunberg revealed she had been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, obsessive-compulsion disorder (OCD), and selective mutism. While Thunberg has described Asperger’s as feeling “sometimes a bit different from the norm”, she criticizes those who view it as an illness or as something negative. Being different could actually be a “superpower”, she reckons. 

At home, Thunberg has managed to convince her parents to shift to a more environment-friendly lifestyle, including taking some austere measures, such as giving up flying and becoming vegan. Thunberg herself travelled across the Atlantic Ocean in a sailboat to demonstrate the need for reducing emissions.

Also read: 40 Daily Actions to Make the World a Better Place

Critics and Opponents

The outspoken teenager is certainly not without her share of critics and opponents, some of them being the most powerful politicians in the world. US President Donald Trump has repeatedly mocked Thunberg, declaring she “must work on her Anger Management problem”. Another personal attack on Thunberg came from the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who described her as a “brat” after she expressed concern for the deaths in Amazon.

Russian President Vladimir Putin described Thunberg as sincere but “poorly informed”, suggesting she was being used to serve others’ interests. Other leaders who have criticized her include French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Despite the criticism and opposition, there is no denying that Greta Thunberg is a hugely popular figure around the world whose activism has been endorsed by major organizations, including the United Nations, and millions of people who share her views. She is likely to make an even greater impact on the global stage as the world enters a critical phase in the fight against climate change during the 2020s.