BONUS: Striking for the Climate with Greta Thunberg
On Friday 24th May the second global School Strike for the Climate will take place. In anticipation of this (and in support of it), we bring you a conversation between Christiana and Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg who started the school strike movement in 2018. This conversation was recorded in Davos at the World Economic Forum in January 2019.
Tom: Hello and welcome to Outrage and Optimism, a new podcast about dealing with the climate crisis and reshaping the world. My name’s Tom Rivett-Carnac.
Christiana: I’m Christiana Figueres.
Paul: And I’m Paul Dickinson.
Tom: Welcome to this, our second bonus episode. And today, in anticipation of the global school strikes that will take place this Friday, we bring you a conversation with Greta Thunberg.
So, later this week, on Friday the 24th May, there will be a school strike. Now, of course, these happen every Friday, but smartly, those who are organising them have periodic global days where a mass of young people around the world all coordinate to strike together. And this one looks like being big, even by their impressive standards.
Now, these strikes, of course, were originated by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg who started striking on her own outside parliament in Stockholm at the fall of last year.
Greta has really become the voice of a generation in a remarkably short space of time, precipitating among many of us that have been working in this space for a while a sense that this moment is something new. And we have to find every way we possibly can to support these brave, young people who are justifiably outraged by the world they are inheriting and are determined to make a difference.
A few months ago, in Davos at the World Economic Forum, we shared an apartment with Greta and her dad, Svante, and had the opportunity to get to know them. I have to say, I am used to meeting people who are well-known for one reason or another and being unimpressed for one reason or another. But Greta is something different.
Not that she needs my endorsement at all, but everything I have since read about her is actually a vast understatement of her presence and moral clarity.
Her father is also impressive in a very different way. I asked him at one point as we were moving between events and his teenage was stepping onto stages with world leaders what his role was in all this. He showed me a pocket full of train tickets and simply said, my role is to hold the train tickets and to listen to her. As much as I’m inspired by Greta’s example of direct action, I’m also inspired by Svante’s remarkably non-paternalistic approach to parenting.
Anyway, this conversation is from those days and it’s a chat in the apartment between Greta and Christiana. Those who heard the pilot season may have heard it before but whether you have or not, I hope you enjoy it and I hope it inspires you to either march on the streets on Friday or do what you can to support those who are.
The school strikes are one of the most exciting phenomena I have ever witnessed. Let’s do everything we can to help build the momentum. Here’s the conversation.
Christiana: So, we are in Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum and you are here. Greta, are you surprised that you’re here?
Greta: Yes, this is such a high-profile event. Not many people can get in. So yes, I am a bit surprised, I think.
Christiana: Are you happily surprised? Or not happily surprised.
Greta: Happily surprised.
Christiana: Happily surprised, okay. I want to take you back a little bit and then we’ll come back to Davos, okay? I wanted to take you back a little bit to that moment in which you sat on the front steps of the parliament all by yourself and ask you first, can you tell us the story of how it came to be that you were sitting there by yourself?
Greta: Yes. It started that I wrote an article. There was a competition. You were supposed to write an article for one Sweden’s biggest newspapers. Young people. And then I got on second place and got my article published. And then someone read it and contacted me. They said, I have a group for young people who are interested in the climate, maybe you are interested to join us and so on.
And then we had phone meetings, video calls once a week, maybe. We were going to make up new ideas for new projects to do. And then some of the ideas were… I’m used to speaking about this in Swedish.
Christiana: Oh yes, of course. I’m so sorry that you’re speaking in a second language.
Greta: Yes. But I can continue. Because there had been some students refusing to go to school because of the school shootings in the USA, the Parkland students. And then someone said, what if we could do something like that or stand on the school yard or do something for the climate?
Christiana: One of those young people on the video conference, okay.
Greta: He who held it.
Greta: And then I thought that sounded like a good idea that could make an impact. And then I developed that idea to sitting outside of this parliament. Like, every day. And they weren’t really that interested. They wanted to do other things like making big marches and so on. So, then I decided that I was going to do it whether people joined me or not. So, then I got to do it alone.
Christiana: Do you remember when that was?
Greta: Yes, it was the 20th August 2018. It was a Monday.
Christiana: So, you just marched yourself up to the parliament and sat on the front steps.
Greta: Yes. I had made a sign a few days earlier where I painted skolstrejk för klimatet, school strike for the climate. And then I just sat there. I had a few flyers as well with information I thought people should know about the extinction rate and carbon budget and so on. And then I sat there and then later on that day…
Christiana: Do you know how long you sat there?
Greta: Yes, I sit there every day from eight to three o’ clock.
Christiana: Every day.
Greta: No, no. Every Friday.
Christiana: Every Friday. Okay. From eight to three. With your sign and your pamphlets that you had prepared to educate other people.
Greta: Yes. And then later on that first day, journalists started coming, interviewing me. And it became a big thing in Sweden. And then, already, the second day, people started joining me.
Christiana: So, on the second day, you already started getting people joining you.
Greta: Yes. And then I sat there for three weeks, every school day. And then, after the
Swedish election, September 9th, I decided to… Now, I have so much attention and people are listening to me, then why should I stop now? And then I decided to continue doing it every Friday. And I still do.
Christiana: And you still do. Can you tell if you’re being joined by the same people or are they new people that are joining you?
Greta: There are some people that are the same that come almost every week. There are always new faces. We have a guest book where people who are there can write their names. And when we are finished it’s up to 200 people in one day.
So, yes. People of all ages. It’s everything from two-month-old babies and 89-year-olds. So, it’s good.
Christiana: All the way through.
Christiana: And, Greta, when you started this, did you have any idea that you would have this impact? There you were, the first days, sitting all by yourself.
Greta: No. When I started doing this, I thought that I will just have to see what happens and then if nothing happens then that’s okay. But then it got really big and I wouldn’t have imagined that it was going to be that big. The response was huge.
Christiana: What does that tell you that the response was huge? What have you thought about that?
Greta: Yes, I thought that people are desperate for something to… They want something to happen. And when a child or a few children sit down and say that, why should we study for a future that you are stealing from us and that soon may not exist anymore, then something is happening, I think. And so, people… Yes.
Christiana: So, you’re thinking, people are desperate for action. Does it also say anything about more and more people, A, becoming aware but also being willing to do their own part. Do you see more people getting personally and individually involved in the solution as well?
Greta: Yes, I think so. I think we are at a time where people slowly start to wake up and realise the emergency of the situation. And I was just lucky to have chosen that time to school strike because if I would have done it a year earlier that I don’t think people would have listened.
Christiana: Oh, how interesting. What do you think changed in that year?
Greta: I don’t know. That’s what’s so strange. I don’t know.
Christiana: But you think this was the right time. It was the right time for you, and it was the right time for other people.
Greta: Yes, I think so.
Christiana: And do your friends in school support you? Do they come? Do they sit there? Or are they asking you questions of, why are you doing this strange thing? What reaction do you have from your good friends?
Greta: My classmates, I don’t think most of them know what I’m doing.
Christiana: Oh, really?
Greta: Yes. But sometimes they come up to me and ask, why do you have so many Instagram followers? Or something like that. But some of them know and they support it, think it’s cool that I am doing it.
Christiana: Are some of them joining you as well?
Greta: No, but some of them have said that they would want to join me one day and sit and strike with me.
Christiana: You do know how many people have been following you, right? You gave me the numbers the other day of how many children in Europe.
Greta: Yes. And today, only, there were over 35,000 children and students in Belgium.
Christiana: And in what other countries have you seen the news?
Greta: Oh, it has been in every continent except from Antarctica. So, it’s everything from Australia, Colombia, the USA, Canada, South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, Finland, Sweden, Belgium, Switzerland, the UK, Spain, Poland, Turkey.
Christiana: I’m very impressed that you hold this list in your head.
Greta: It’s lots of other countries. That’s just a few.
Christiana: That is just a few. So, Greta, how does that feel?
Greta: It feels…
Christiana: What do you think, and what do you feel? Two different questions, if there is a difference for you.
Greta: Yes. No, I don’t think it’s much difference. I think it’s amazing that it has spread so far in such a short time and that proves that if we really want to do something then we can do it. And I think it’s good that people are saying that this is enough, and we are not going to accept this anymore and just sit down. Sometimes, not doing things speaks more than doing things, like just sit down.
Christiana: So, you say, you feel that if we decide that we want to do something, if we make that decision… Because all of those people have made that decision, have seen your example and then made a decision that affects their daily life.
Christiana: So, what do you think about that? That if you decide that you want to do something you can, and you can have a power over yourself but also influence that many people. Does that make you feel any more hopeful of actually getting something done?
Greta: Yes, of course. I mean, humans are very adaptable. And that is also what I think is hopeful that once we decide to do something and start to act, we can do almost anything.
Christiana: We can do almost anything. Is there anything that you think is outside of that?
Greta: How do you mean, outside?
Christiana: Outside of what we can do if we decide to do it. Or can we truly do anything that we decide to do?
Greta: Yes, of course.
Christiana: We can?
Christiana: I agree with you, actually.
Christiana: So, here we are in Davos. You have spoken to quite a few old, like me, boring people. The oldies. Have you drawn any conclusions from those conversations?
Greta: Yes. I have drawn very many conclusions. I feel like people are… Once they understand the problem, they are pretty open to change. They want change. They want the system to change. They don’t want it to continue like this. They are afraid what is going to happen to themselves, to their children, grandchildren and their children and grandchildren. But there’s also hopeful that people want to see these things happen.
Christiana: And what about those people who could actually make decisions and influence those changes? Have you run into any of those? Did you have any conversations with those? Today you were at a pretty impactful lunch.
Greta: Yes, I have met such people. But I haven’t had long discussions with them. They say, oh, keep up the work and like that and end of conversation. But I think that they have had access to all this information for a very long time and that they have chosen to look away and not do anything that is scary and that is insane.
Christiana: Did you find any reason for hope of actually getting things done between August and January of all of the people that you’ve spoken to, that you have been exposed to, of all of the situations, of everything that you’re reading? Are there any things that you can point to say, that is a little ray of hope, even if it’s a little one?
Greta: Yes. I mean, the emissions are increasing, but people are waking up and organising. They are stepping up and they are marching and demonstrating and saying that this is enough. And that, I think, is hopeful.
Christiana: What else is it going to take? What’s the next step from here?
Greta: I think that we need to… Especially people in power need to start speak clearly about what is going on and what we need to do and that we also need to make everyone aware of that we actually have a carbon budget which should be the heart of our economic system. But it’s not and we need to make people aware of that, that we have a limited amount of CO2 that we can…
Christiana: Use and not trespass beyond.
Christiana: Which, what that means, actually, the translation of that is that, especially for developing countries, we have to support them in continuing to grow their growth. But not with that footprint.
So, we all have to fit in to that carbon budget and not exceed it for the natural world. But, as I said today, for the natural world for future generations and for so many vulnerable people. Because, you know, Greta, I’m sure that you’ll understand that it is definitely the future generations that are going to hold the consequences of this.
But even before future generations are born, many vulnerable people today are already suffering the effects of climate change. And those people have zero responsibility and haven’t caused it.
Greta: Yes. And since we all have a carbon budget that we need to share with all people in the world, all the countries in the world, people in rich countries that already have everything need to take a few steps back in order to let people in developing countries get a chance to heighten their standard of living.
Because it’s not fair that we have everything, we have caused this problem and now we are stopping the people in developing countries from living the lifestyle we have lived for time, now. That’s not fair.
Christiana: For 150 years, yes.
Do you want to tell us of some things that you have done to change not only your own, but your whole family’s lifestyle?
Greta: Yes. I have stopped flying. I am vegan and I have stopped buying new things unless it’s absolutely necessary. And I have made my family stop flying as well. And since my mum, she had to fly in order to do her job.
Christiana: Because she’s an opera singer.
Greta: Yes. She had to change career, in a way. So, yes.
Christiana: How was that process, to change the career of your mother at the age of 11?
Greta: It took time. I had to convince her. She was not very fond of the idea. But she…
Christiana: I’m not surprised that she wasn’t fond of the idea.
Greta: Yes. She accepted it after a time. I showed her graphics and articles and videos, and I forced her to do it and then she accepted it. And since she’s famous, it’s created quite a debate in Sweden.
Christiana: What is the debate about?
Greta: About stop flying and influencers and so on.
Christiana: So you’re using your mom to message out also. Greta, what’s next for you?
Greta: I don’t know. I will just have to see what happens. But I know that I am going to sit outside the Swedish parliament every Friday until Sweden is in line with the Paris Agreement.
And if I’m not able to be in Stockholm, then I’m going to strike at the place where I am, like here in Davos.
Christiana: So, tomorrow’s Friday, it’s strike day.
Christiana: So, where are you going to strike? Have you already chosen your spot?
Greta: Yes, I am…
Greta: Outside the WEF. On the promenade.
Christiana: Do you think you’re going to be accompanied by other people? Will you be joined?
Greta: I don’t know, because I know some are afraid because it’s lots of security here. And I’ve spoken to people. They are afraid to be arrested if they go here. And so, I don’t know, I might be alone, but that’s okay too.
Christiana: You’ve been alone before?
Christiana: And that has actually gotten you your leadership.
Christiana: Thank you very much.
Greta: Thank you.
Christiana: Thank you. That was really very inspirational. I’m sure you know that.
Greta: Yes, you too.
Tom: It was quite interesting to sit in the room and hear that. What do you come away from that with, Christiana?
Christiana: I come away with many different feelings. One is deep sadness that it was so difficult for me to bring her around to any sense of optimism or hope. That makes me very sad. I mean, it really took a lot to get her around to being in contact with any sense of hope. She is very sad, and that makes me very sad.
On the other hand, I also came away with a sense of, thank heavens there are voices like this. And thank heavens that she’s courageous enough to use that voice in places like Davos or in front of her school or in front of Swedish parliament or wherever she goes.
And it’s interesting, because it’s a voice that comes out of fear, out of concern, out of solidarity. Certainly, out of concern for herself, but solidarity for other young people of her age.
Honestly, it just touches me to the core. Touches me to the core.
Paul: There’s no doubt in my mind that she is a special kind of orator. I think that she acknowledges that she has this condition, Asperger’s, I feel like she’s, kind of, weaponised it and she’s used it to focus people’s minds. Seriously. I think that what she’s doing is she’s just saying the unpalatable truth to us. And, I agree entirely with Christiana, we absolutely have to hear that. We can’t dodge it or duck it anymore.
The point is, there are incredibly large numbers of things we can all do tomorrow. We can spend our money differently. We can invest our money differently. We can vote intelligently. We can eat differently. Her descriptions of how to take action in response to climate change, I found truly inspiring. So, I think that she is a role model. And the fact that she puts ice down your spine is, kind of, the whole point.
Tom: Yes. One of the things I’ve take away from these few days we’ve got to spend with her and Svante, her father, she said one thing at one point where she said, I want you to feel the fear that I feel every day and then I want you to act. And I think the reason that affected me so much is, I live with the reality of climate change and what it might do for my children and I’m motivated by it, I work every day on it.
But it’s hard for me to really get in touch with my primal fear. And I think that we live such busy lives. We know it’s going to be bad. We know we’re afraid of it. But she really was internalising that in her bones and in her emotions. And I found that quite alarming to see what that looks like. And it looks hard to live with that.
I do think that it is profoundly motivating for her and for those that come into contact with her. And I can only think that there are lots of people, younger people, children, who are growing up with this reality who feel that, too. And that is both terrible and very hopeful as well.
Christiana: Well, it definitely calls us as adults to our responsibility as parents, whether we have children or whether we don’t. We still are, as adults, we’re the parents of all future generations, right?
Tom: Right, yes.
Christiana: And I think the words that she expresses just call us to stand up to our responsibility and do what has to be done, period. And it doesn’t mean we’re going to do as best we can.
Tom: It means we’re going to do it.
Christiana: It means we have to everything that is necessary.
Tom: Yes. We shall do what we should.
So, thank you for joining this, our second bonus episode of Outrage and Optimism.
As mentioned before, Outrage and Optimism comes out on a Friday. We occasionally put these bonus episodes out but look for your episode of Outrage and Optimism as usual on a Friday.
This Friday, as we said at the beginning, is a very special day, because it’s the second global school strike. And we’ll be speaking with Bill McKibben. Founder of 350.org, author of many books including, most recently, Falter, Bill has been at the forefront of the environmental movement for decades. We’ll sit down with him and discuss the school strikes, the upcoming secretary general’s climate summit in September, what’s next for him and what all of us need to do to make the coming months and years a big success.
Thanks for joining us, we’ll see you Friday.