Greta Thunberg
Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg takes part in a media event on Capitol Hill on September 17, 2019 in Washington,DC. Thunberg spoke forcefully on September 16, 2019 in Washington,DC about the "destruction" of the planet and the large-scale deaths that could come about as a result of climate change, water and air pollution and the destruction of food chains. Image Credit: AFP

What can one person do? What can a child do?

"No one is too small to make a difference" shows Greta Thunberg's life, answering both questions - not just through her firebrand speeches and starkly honest opinions but with each and every action. She is inspiring millions, even as her words and actions disturb hundreds of thinkers, political leaders and top brass into action - and in many cases, irritation.

Who is Greta?

Born in January 2003, Thunberg is a Swedish teenager and now, a globally renowned environmental activist.

It all started in August 2018, when she took time off school to demonstrate outside the Swedish parliament, advocating for stronger climate action. Soon other young people joined the cause, organising similar protests within their own communities, leading to the formation of 'Fridays for Future'.

What I hope we achieve at this conference is that we realise that we are facing an existential threat. This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced. First we have to realise this and then as fast as possible do something to stop the emissions and try to save what we can save.

- Greta Thunberg at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference

After her speech at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference, the protest became a weekly fixture globally. Every Friday in a week, somewhere in the world, students protested against political leaders for inaction on climate issues. Fridays for Future chapters have been formed in countries across the world and there is a website that gives directions on how to go about a peaceful sit-down strike like the one Greta started with.

Youngsters are encouraged to share their Friday protests with the hashtags #FridaysforFuture and #Climatestrike. The organisation has also called the week from September 20 to 27 the Week for Future. 

Never too young to start

Greta Thunberg 1
In this file photo taken on September 6, 2019 Greta Thunberg (C) joins activists outside the United Nations during a protest against climate change in New York. Image Credit: AFP

Greta reportedly learnt about climate change when she was very young - at eight. In a book written by her mother Malena Emman -  a famous Swedish opera singer - accounts describe how the young girl then went through a spout of depression followed by a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome. 

Greta slowly spoke to her parents about her concerns and her fears about climate change. In an interview with the Guardian she said that her parents' change in attitudes showed her that she could actually make a difference.

Giving up aeroplanes

Greta and her family started with a drastic choice - no more aeroplanes. Why, any modern human would ask.

In today's world, flying has eased human travel immeasurably. Even within countries, 12-hour long trips are condensed to an hour or less - aeroplanes have contributed to the fact that the world is now truly a global village. If someone chose not to fly at all, long-distance international mobility would be seriously impaired or made difficult in terms of effort and time.

However, it is little known or cared about that aviation is the worst mode of transport for our environment. One round-trip flight from New York to San Francisco emits one-fifth of the greenhouse gases per passenger that the average American's car produces in a year. Not to mention the increasing concentration of domestic flights within countries.

For Greta's mom, the choice to limit flying meant a damper on her international career as an opera singer. For Greta, this meant practicing what she preached by travelling 65-hours by rail to and from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland and Stockholm in January.

I think it is insane that people are gathered here to talk about the climate and they arrive here in private jet(s).

- Greta at the WEF in Davos

Greta is now in the United States and she arrived on August 28 on a zero-emissions yacht from Plymouth, UK, to New York, US, in a 60 ft racing yacht. The zero-emissions yacht was equipped with solar panels and underwater turbines. The voyage lasted 15 days.

One girl and one poster, to millions around the world

At 15, in her first ever protest on a Friday off from school, Greta was alone and had a single poster. On September 20, a Friday just days from now, she will be joined by thousands of New York students as part of a "global climate strike" while millions are expected to join in on the day from their respective communities advocating for the cause across the globe.

New York authorities have given their blessing for the next strike on September 20, in which students from the city's 1,700 schools will participate. Environmentalists from around the world converge this week on New York for protests and an unprecedented youth summit aimed at pressuring global leaders at the UN to ramp up their carbon reduction commitments.

"New York City stands with our young people. They're our conscience. We support the 9/20 #ClimateStrike," Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio wrote on Twitter.

Greta's critics

Even a 16-year-old with noble intentions has critics.

"I have never seen a girl so young and with so many mental disorders treated by so many adults as a guru," Australian political commentator Andrew Bolt said in a Herald Sun column. This is isn't the first time Bolt has commented against climate change activists.

Greta turned the comment around, saying in a tweet, "I am indeed ”deeply disturbed” about the fact that these hate and conspiracy campaigns are allowed to go on and on and on just because we children communicate and act on the science. Where are the adults?"

In August, controversial politician Arron Banks put up an unpleasant comment about her yacht voyage to America saying, "Freak yachting accidents do happen in August... ". Later he respondedto outrage from tweeps saying it was all a joke and that 'lefties had no humour sense'. 

Not a weakness, a superpower

Greta was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome in 2012 which has been categorised as being on the autism spectrum. Tony Attwood, a world authority on Asperger’s, has said people diagnosed are “usually renowned for being direct, speaking their mind and being honest and determined and having a strong sense of social justice”. He also talks about a specific 'special interest' in children with the syndrome - much of the knowledge associated with the interest is self-directed and self-taught.

As for Greta's special interest, she has previously said in interviews that she now accepts the part of her that refuses to let go.

"Some people can just let things go, but I can’t, especially if there’s something that worries me or makes me sad," she said in an interview to Guardian. Her interest has moved millions of youth to address climate change across the globe. 

Why should we even care?

The Paris agreement, which Trump exited, saw countries pledge to limit the rise in the average temperature of the Earth to two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, and if possible 1.5 degrees Celsius.

To meet the 1.5 degrees goal, the world must achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and greenhouse gas emissions need to fall starting next year, according to a landmark report issued last October by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The numbers so far are bleak.

Carbon dioxide emissions were their highest ever level in 2018; July 2019 was the hottest month in history, and the last four years have been the Earth's hottest on record.

Meanwhile, NASA data showed ice at both poles shrank to the lowest ever levels in 2019.