She’s considered one of the most influential voices of her generation, but environmental activist and climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg is incredibly modest when it comes to talking about the impact she has made.
The 18-year-old from Sweden has become a global force for good following her lone protest in 2018 which saw her strike for three weeks outside the Swedish parliament holding a sign saying “School Strike for Climate”. But ask her and she says she’s still surprised at the effect she’s had a few years down line. “I still don’t really understand why people are actually listening to me,” she says frankly when we talk on Zoom. “Also, because I’ve always been a shy, invisible girl at the back that no one listens to, I’ve always been very socially awkward, and I haven’t really been able to be involved in the social game, so to speak.
“And to go from that, to be someone who many people listen to is, of course, a very big contrast. So of course, it’s very strange. I don’t really understand why. I guess it was just the right thing to do, and the right timing, and people were maybe ready for that kind of thing.”
Her strike gave rise to the Fridays For Future movement, which would eventually involve more than 100,000 schoolchildren going on strikes in more than 100 countries. And now in a new BBC series titled Greta Thunberg: A Year To Change The World, viewers can follow her journey during a year off school in 2019 as she explores the science of global warming and challenges world leaders to take action.
Over three episodes, she witnesses first-hand the consequences of climate change and also meets climate scientists and experts, among them naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough She journeys through Canada where she visits a glacier and a national park in the Canadian Rockies and learns how a small change in temperature has allowed an insect infestation to kill nearly half the trees in the park. In Europe, she meets Polish miners who’ve lost their jobs and who talk frankly to her about their fear of the impact climate change policies will have on their industry and culture.
She also explores how technology is trying to help in the fight, examining a machine in Switzerland that sucks carbon dioxide out of the air, and in the UK investigating the prototype of a technology that aims to lower emissions by capturing carbon dioxide from factories before it enters the atmosphere. “Every single trip, every single meeting has impacted me, in different ways,” she says. “The plan was to go on travelling. I think we had over 100 days planned, [including] going to China and going into east Asia But then, of course, the coronavirus pandemic came. So that didn’t happen. I think we only got 25% of the actual time that we had planned doing the filming.
“So we had to sort of use what we had. Right now, it only takes place in Europe and North America and of course that’s not the way we intended it to be. We wanted to include more of the global south and east Asia and so on, but that didn’t happen, unfortunately”.
Thunberg, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome which is a form of autism, says the people featured in the series are important in giving the climate change fight a face. She says: “We may think of, when we think of the climate crisis, polar bears and so on. But to actually see that it has human implications is very important.”
Referring to the idea that we have to act now because our children will be impacted in the future, she says: “When we say that, we forget the people who are already suffering today, and we can’t afford to do that any more, because their stories also need to be told, and we need to see the human implications. This is actually impacting people today and has been [for] a long time.”
Her meeting with Sir David Attenborough as part of the series was, she reflects, “truly remarkable” and “very encouraging”. “Because he said that we young people have had an impact, and that people are listening to us, we just have to continue,” she says. “That’s very powerful to hear from someone like him, who is one of the very few people in the world who has made the most difference, who has been leading this fight. So that’s very encouraging to hear. I haven’t done anything compared to what he has done.”
Yet her voice has struck a chord around the world and millions have joined her call to demand countries and leaders stick to the promises they made in the 2015 Paris Agreement, the world’s first comprehensive treaty on climate change. The agreement, secured in December 2015, commits countries to holding global temperature rises to “well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels, which will require greenhouse gas emissions to be cut to net zero by the second half of the century.
In February this year, America returned to the global climate accord as new president Joe Biden reversed the work of predecessor Donald Trump. But does Thunberg think the change of leadership will make a difference? “Well, of course, Biden is not good for the environment, but maybe he is a bit less worse than the previous administration,” she says resolutely. “Of course, it could have an impact, it could make a big difference. As long as we don’t allow ourselves to relax now, and think that, ‘Oh, at least it’s better than before, this will be taken care of’, because that could be dangerous, if we start to relax and stop putting pressure on him.”
In her fight to make a change, putting pressure on world leaders is something she’s no stranger to. So how does the rest of her year look? “I don’t know. It’s up to Covid I guess,” she says matter-of-factly. “The last year has really showed that we can’t take anything for granted any more and that we can’t plan too far ahead. We always need to have back-up plans.
“Right now, it’s school. We have online school now. I get to attend school one day a week physically. I don’t know whether that will change. And then, doing activism, campaigning in a corona-safe way parallel to that, and then the summer holidays will come and that will be quite long. And then I will probably need to figure out something to do then.”
Greta Thunberg: A Year To Change The World starts on April 12 at 9pm on BBC One and is also available on BBC iPlayer.