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Climate activist Greta Thunberg on the power of a movement

Since arriving in the U.S. by boat to participate in the UN Climate Action Summit, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has led crowds in both New York and Washington with a call for greater action against climate change.

Thunberg first captured the world’s attention in August 2018 after she skipped school to sit on the steps of Swedish parliament, demanding that political leaders do more to address the environment. Since then, Thunberg has successfully spread her eco-activism message on social media and inspired young people all over the world to lead school strikes in protest.

“We are the future. We are those who are going to have to adapt from this crisis,” Thunberg told PBS NewsHour’s William Brangham.

More highlights from the interview: 

  • On the urgency of climate change: “Many people seem to have this double moral. They say one thing and then do another thing. They say that the climate crisis is very important and yet they do nothing about it,” Thunberg said. “If I want to do something, then I go all in. I walk the walk. Walk the talk…I want to practice as I preach.”
  • On the hope that political leaders will address climate change: “I think people are just simply unaware of the situation and people are not feeling the urgency. I think that once we start treating this crisis as an emergency, people will be able to grasp the situation more.” Thunberg added: “All of these climate movements that have played out during the last year, or years, is proof of that. I don’t think anyone could have predicted the school strikes and the Fridays for Future movement to become so big and many other movements as well.”
  • On the concern that small scale eco-activism will distract from broader policy changes: “Of course, we focus on these isolated problems. We talk about, ‘People need to eat less meat’ …and then someone else says, ‘No, it’s much more effective if everyone stops flying,’ and so on,” Thunberg said. “We need to focus on all of these things. Of course, individual change doesn’t make much difference in a holistic picture…but we need both systemic change and individual change.”
  • How being on the autism spectrum influences her worldview: “Humans are social animals. We follow the stream and since no one else is behaving like this is a crisis, we see that and we think, then I should probably behave as they do,” Thunberg said. “I’m on the autism spectrum. I don’t usually follow social coding and so therefore I go my own way.”
  • On what Thunberg wants people to take away from her movement: “Everyone can make a huge difference. We should not underestimate ourselves, because if lots of individuals go together then we can accomplish almost anything. So that’s what I want people to take away from this.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A growing number of Americans are worried climate change is a real crisis. That is one of the findings of a new poll by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

    It found that eight in 10 Americans believe human activity is fueling climate change, and nearly 40 percent now consider it a crisis, a significant jump from just five years ago. Yet fewer than 40 percent also believe that they will have to make major sacrifices to tackle the problem.

    But young people across the world are now mobilizing to push for urgent action.

    William Brangham spoke today with the Swedish teenager who's helped galvanize this movement.

    Our story is part of a special initiative called Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to enhance coverage of the climate story.

  • Protester:

    What do we want?

  • Protesters:

    Climate action!

  • Protester:

    When do we want it?

  • Protesters:

    Now!

  • William Brangham:

    The younger generation came to the White House today demanding that the grownups inside stop acting like children.

    They said, acknowledge that climate change is a crisis and act accordingly. Among the crowd was 16-year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden. In the past four years, Thunberg, who has mild autism, has helped drive this youth climate movement.

    She repeatedly called out world leaders for their climate inaction, like here at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Poland.

  • Greta Thunberg:

    We have come here to let them know that change is coming, whether they like it or not, the people who rise to the challenge. And since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.

  • William Brangham:

    And here, at the World Economic Conference, the yearly gathering of the wealthy elite in Davos, Switzerland.

  • Greta Thunberg:

    At places like Davos, people like to tell success stories, but their financial success has come with an unthinkable price tag. And, on climate change, we have to acknowledge that we have failed.

  • William Brangham:

    Across Europe, Thunberg has helped spur demonstrations that are called Fridays For Future, where schoolkids leave class to draw attention to climate change.

    Thunberg arrived in the U.S. last month after crossing the Atlantic on a solar-powered sailboat. She won't fly because of air travel's carbon output. She's participating in climate events leading up to the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week, where climate activists are planning mass rough protests on Friday.

    I sat down with Thunberg today, and begin by asking her how she first learned about climate change.

  • Greta Thunberg:

    I was completely unaware of everything, like everyone else. And I learned about this in school.

    And I learned the basics, that the planet was warming because of increased greenhouse gas emissions, and that would lead to — that the global temperature would rise, there would be more extreme weather, and so on.

    And I just thought that, if it's really as serious as they are saying it is, then why isn't it being discussed more? Why isn't it being a higher priority?

    So I started to read about it more and more. And then I started to understand how acute it actually was and is.

  • William Brangham:

    Why do you think it is?

    Because a lot of other people read those same studies and understand those same facts, and yet they don't see it as the crisis that you see it as. Why do you think other people don't appreciate it that way?

  • Greta Thunberg:

    I don't know. Many people seem to have this double moral that they say one thing and then do another thing, that they say the climate crisis is very important, and yet they do nothing about it, and like cognitive dissonance.

  • William Brangham:

    Cognitive dissonance.

  • Greta Thunberg:

    Yes.

    And if I know something, if I want to do something, then I go all in and I, like, walk the walk, walk the talk, because I want to practice as I preach.

  • William Brangham:

    You have helped galvanize young people all over the world to care about this.

    Do you have a sense as to why young people in particular have so embraced this movement?

  • Greta Thunberg:

    It is probably because we are the ones who are going to be affected by this crisis the most.

    And, for many, it seems so distant, but, for us, it seems less distant, because we are the people who are going to live in the future. We are the future. We are those who are going to have to adapt from this crisis. And so that's why I think a lot of people seem threatened about this, a lot of the young people, more than adults.

  • William Brangham:

    There is seemingly so much evidence around us. We see wildfires, droughts, heat waves, intensifying storms, melting in the Arctic and the Antarctic, extinction of species.

    And yet, as we were discussing, the evidence is there before us, but it does seem that the sense of urgency is not as intense as you feel it ought to be.

    And I'm just curious why you think that is.

  • Greta Thunberg:

    I mean, of course, it could be many different things, but I think it is because humans are social animals. We follow the stream.

    And since no one else is behaving like this was a crisis, then we see that and we think, then I should probably behave as they do. But…

  • William Brangham:

    Just go on with life as usual.

  • Greta Thunberg:

    Yes.

    But, for me, I have — I am on the autism spectrum, and I don't usually follow social coding. And so that's why I go my own way. And I think that is a very strong reason why people just continue, because they don't see anyone else reacting to this.

  • William Brangham:

    You think your autism in some sense has given you an insight into this or a way to act in response to this that others may not have?

  • Greta Thunberg:

    That could be, definitely.

  • William Brangham:

    As you know, we have a president here in the United States, who seems dismissive of the science of climate change, and a political party, a major political party, that goes along with that.

    He pulled out of the Paris climate accords. But even the nations that did acknowledge the severity of the problem and signed on to the Paris accord, even those nations are really not living up to their commitments.

    So, given that, why do you have hope that we will, as a global society, react?

  • Greta Thunberg:

    I think that people are good. People are not evil, at least not everyone, most people.

    And so I think people are just simply unaware of the situation and people are not feeling the urgency. I think that, once we would start treating this crisis as an emergency, people will be able to grasp the situation more.

    All these climate movements that have played out during the last year or years is proof of that. I don't think anyone could have predicted the school strike and Friday For Future movement to become so big, and many other movements as well.

  • William Brangham:

    You took a solar-powered boat to come here, because I know you're trying to reduce your own carbon footprint by not flying at all anymore.

    Is there a concern that, if people are too focused on individual actions, like eating less meat or not flying as often, that they might be distracted from the much larger policy changes that you're talking about? Is that a worry that you have?

  • Greta Thunberg:

    Of course, that we focus on these isolated problems, that we talk about people need to eat less meat or something, if people focus on that, and then someone else says, no, it's much more effective if everyone stops flying and so on.

    And then someone says, no, we need to — to…

  • William Brangham:

    Drive electric cars.

  • Greta Thunberg:

    Yes, or shut down the coal power plants.

    And — but we need to focus on all of these things. And, of course, individual change doesn't make much difference in a holistic picture, but it influences others around you.

    We need both system change and individual change.

  • William Brangham:

    If people are listening to you, what one thing would you like them to take away from this? What one thing would you like them to do?

  • Greta Thunberg:

    Everyone can make a huge difference.

    We shouldn't underestimate ourselves, because if — if lots of individuals go together, then we can accomplish almost anything.

    So, that's what I want people to take out from this.

  • William Brangham:

    Greta Thunberg, thank you very much.

  • Greta Thunberg:

    Thank you so much.

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