Greta Thunberg goes back to school. But what has she achieved?

By Nicole Leslie Charria

Three weeks ago marked two years since Greta Thunberg’s first school strike took place. Last week, she returned to school after taking a sabbatical year to spread her message and demand action, inspiring others.

It is 2018. She is photographed outside the Swedish Parliament, holding a cardboard sign that will become internationally recognised. Scrawled across in block capitals: Skolstrejk för Klimatet.

A week later, her classmates join her for the beginning of weekly school strikes, also known as Fridays for Future. They begin demanding action from the Swedish government. By September, she is seen every Friday, her yellow coat outside Parliament becoming a sign of rebellion.

Thunberg may only be a teenager, but she has changed the world as we know it. Her mission? To bring to light our fault in creating and fuelling the climate crisis. Her actions have been intrinsic in making us all rethink our ways of living, gaining international awareness for her advocacy with supporters worldwide promoting her message. But how did it evolve from one girl with one small cardboard sign?

Skolstrejk För Klimatet becomes an international affair

Over 10,000 British students marched in protest in February 2019, echoing Thunberg’s call for radical action. In March of the same year, seven months after her first strike, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for launching a mass movement, seen as “a major contribution to peace.” The nomination came just a day before what was set to be the biggest protest so far, attracting hundreds of thousands of students in 105 countries across the globe.

Three months later, Thunberg was announced as one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, and appears on the cover of the May 27th edition. Posing against a concrete backdrop in a second-hand green dress, photographer Hellen van Meene explained the significance of the colours — “the green for me symbolises life, and the darkness of the corridor is what we will end up in if we don’t pay attention to what Greta is telling us.”

Her gap year starts in August

Thunberg announced in June last year that she would be taking a year out to focus on forcing world leaders to take action and continue spreading her message. Most notably, she would attend the United Nations climate summits in New York City and Chile.

Rather than flying, she embarked on a carbon-neutral racing yacht that took her to New York. Venturing cross-Atlantic to a continent struggling with their environmental promises, Thunberg’s 14 day journey led her to the Fridays for Future march outside the White House. Astride President Donald Trump’s plans to exit the Paris accord and his repeated denials of climate science, Thunberg’s presence at the protests marked a more serious direction.

Here she is, face to face with one of the world’s most powerful men; one who’s mind she has said she cannot change.

Her message is simple — “wake up

Attending a US Congressional hearing in September, she urged lawmakers and politicians to listen to climate scientists, and support climate change combatting legislation. Her actions led her to one of four awardees of the 2019 Right Livelihood Award, highlighting her efforts fighting for a better future. The award’s panel named her as a “practical visionaries” in “inspiring and amplifying political demands for urgent climate action reflecting scientific facts”. Later, she reiterated her message at the November United Nations climate summit in New York, with her famous words “you have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words”.

Thunberg’s US adventure was halted when protests in Santiago required the UN-sponsored climate summit to be relocated to Spain. Hitchhiking on an Australian couple’s 48-foot catamaran, which, much like her previous journey, used solar panels and hydro-generators to generate energy, her carbon footprint remained smaller despite journeying worldwide.

How did 2019 end for Thunberg?

The same year that the Oxford Word of 2019 was announced as “climate emergency”, Thunberg continued to hold us all accountable, this time at the COP25 summit. She lambasted wealthier nations for their relative inaction towards the crisis, calling their efforts a symptom of “clever accounting and creative PR” and their targets for greenhouse gas reduction as “misleading”.

National treasure David Attenborough and even Prince Charles have showed their support, the latter having commented on the “paradigm shift” needed to change our ways of living. Thunberg and Attenborough meet through Skype, to reduce emissions, discussing the climate crisis, and ways to make change.

Coronavirus cannot halt Greta’s message

In what would have been week 82 of the strikes, the hashtag #ClimateStrikeOnline went viral as Thunberg made the school strikes digital, in the wake of the spreading coronavirus pandemic.  She argued the efficient countermeasures brought in to slow the spread of coronavirus prove that we can take extreme and necessary action to save the planet, given that the world is “now passing a social tipping point”. During a sombre 50th celebration of Earth Day, Thunberg called for a “new path” post-pandemic, simultaneously tackling coronavirus and the climate crisis.

Her incredible work received recognition again, and was awarded the first Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity, receiving a €1 million prize which was gifted to help various climate groups. As well as donating some of her prize money, Fridays for Future and Thunberg created a crowdfunding campaign to help Indigenous communities in the Brazilian Amazon, after Paulinho Paiakan, an indigenous chief, campaigner and voice for the indigenous communities, died from coronavirus. She also supported the campaign against Filipino President Rodrio Duerte’s new Anti-Terror Law, due to the possibility that the law would be used to declare climate activists as terrorists.

And finally, on the two year anniversary of her first school strike, Thunberg wrapped up her gap year by meeting Angela Merkel, demanding a halt in fossil fuel investments and subsidies, as well as establishing binding annual carbon budgets based on scientific research.

What does the future hold?

From former President Nicolas Sarkozy calling her a “guru of the apocalypse” to Andrew Bolt mocking her autism, calling her “deeply disturbed” and “[having] so many mental disorders”, the abuse Thunberg has endured shows how much of a positive threat to current unsustainable global systems she is. For a young woman to stand up in front of world leaders, telling them they are liars and failures, takes courage.

What Greta Thunberg has achieved in a year is more than most of us will ever do, and her efforts to stem global warming are incredible. The coronavirus pandemic has shown us direct and fast action is possible through governmental and international collaboration. Looking back over the year she has had, it is easy to see the impact of her words and protests. Millions have gone on strike and countless governments have been held to account.

May she continue to fight for climate justice, and may we continue to act.

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