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School Strike for Climate: Meet 15-Year-Old Activist Greta Thunberg, Who Inspired a Global Movement

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As government ministers from around the globe gather in Katowice, Poland, for the final days of the 24th U.N. climate summit, we speak with 15-year-old activist Greta Thunberg, who denounced politicians here last week for their inaction on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. She has garnered global attention for carrying out a weekly school strike against climate change in her home country of Sweden. “We need to change ourselves now, because tomorrow it might be too late,” says Thunberg. We are also joined by her father, Svante Thunberg, a Swedish actor.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll have Kevin Anderson on later in the broadcast, but we’re now joined by Greta Thunberg. She has been named one of Time magazine’s Most Influential Teens of 2018.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Greta. It’s wonderful to have you with us.

GRETA THUNBERG: Thank you for having me here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you sat outside the Swedish parliament in September every day, when all the other kids were in school. What made you decide to go to the Swedish parliament?

GRETA THUNBERG: Well, it started with a couple of youths in the United States refused to go to school because of the school shootings. And then someone I knew said, “What if children did that for the climate?” And then I thought—

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, you’re talking about the Parkland students, in Parkland, Florida—


AMY GOODMAN: —after the massacre there Valentine’s Day.

GRETA THUNBERG: And then, I thought that that was a good idea, that maybe it would make a difference. And then I tried to bring people with me, but no one was really interested, so I had to do it alone. But then—

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you just—

GRETA THUNBERG: The second day, people started joining me.

AMY GOODMAN: Why climate change? Why is that so important to you?

GRETA THUNBERG: Because what we do now, future generations can’t undo in the future. We are deciding right now how we want our future to look like.

AMY GOODMAN: And when did you decide climate change was the issue you wanted to devote your life to?

GRETA THUNBERG: I mean, I have read a lot about it. And one thing that I found very scary is tipping points, that once we reach tipping points, then there’s no going back. Then we start a chain reaction beyond our control. And that is very scary. And so that I thought, instead of worrying about how future might turn out, you should try to change it while you still can. So that’s what I wanted to do.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how have you changed your life, once you started to learn about climate change?

GRETA THUNBERG: I personally have stopped flying. I have stopped eating meat and dairy. I have—

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s take these one at a time. You stopped flying. So how did you get here to Poland? You live in Sweden.

GRETA THUNBERG: Yeah. We went here by electrical car.

AMY GOODMAN: How long did it take you to drive here?

GRETA THUNBERG: Two days, including one night at a hotel.

AMY GOODMAN: And why did you stop eating meat?

GRETA THUNBERG: Both of ethical reasons and by ecological reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: And what else have you done?

GRETA THUNBERG: I have a shop stop. It means that you don’t buy things, new things, unless it’s absolutely necessary.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you’re wearing, your sweatshirt today.

GRETA THUNBERG: Oh, this is a shirt from Hundar Utan Hem, Dogs Without Home, a Swedish organization which gives homeless dogs a home.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have dogs?

GRETA THUNBERG: Yes, I have two dogs. One is from there.

AMY GOODMAN: One is from that shelter?


AMY GOODMAN: So, how do you feel being here at the U.N. climate summit? How long have you studied the issue?

GRETA THUNBERG: We arrived here last Saturday. So, a little bit more than a week now we have been here. And I started reading about the climate crisis when I was maybe 9 years old. In school, my teachers, they told me about it. And I thought that it was very strange that humans, who are an animal species among others, could be capable of changing the Earth’s climate, because if that was the case and if it was really happening, we wouldn’t be talking about anything else, but that would be our first priority. But no one ever even mentions it. So I started reading about it. And the more I read about it, the more I understood it. And once you fully understand what it means, you can never go back.

AMY GOODMAN: So, it’s interesting you are sitting in front of the Swedish parliament every day for three weeks, considering most people think of Sweden as one of the most progressive when it comes to climate change.

GRETA THUNBERG: Yeah. We have a reputation of being very, very green, but Sweden is one of the top 10 countries in the world with the highest ecological footprint per capita. And we have very high emissions per capita. And so, we are not a role model.

AMY GOODMAN: The emissions have actually gone up in the last year?

GRETA THUNBERG: Yeah. We have just moved them overseas. Our actual emissions in the country may have reduced, but we have just moved our emissions overseas. We let other countries produce the stuff we consume.

AMY GOODMAN: Greta, how do you explain climate change to other kids?

GRETA THUNBERG: It depends on how old they are, but that we need to change now, because we are not living within the planetary boundaries, and we are risking future generations’ future by continuing like this. We need to change ourselves now, because tomorrow it might be too late.

AMY GOODMAN: What did the Swedish parliamentarians say as they would pass you each day, going up the stairs and down the stairs?

GRETA THUNBERG: Most of them ignored me. And then some of them came up to me and said that “You’re doing a good job,” but very few.

AMY GOODMAN: So, it started—you started getting a lot of attention?


AMY GOODMAN: Did people bring you food?

GRETA THUNBERG: Some. Some people.

AMY GOODMAN: Did that change what you ate?


AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break for music, and then we’re going to come back to this discussion. And we’ll not only be speaking with Greta Thunberg, but also with her dad, Svante. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with them in a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: That’s the classic tune “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, being sung by Swedish opera singer Malena Ernman, the mother of our guest, Greta Thunberg. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Greta is staying with us for the hour, 15-year-old climate activist, who came to the U.N. climate summit, where we’re broadcasting today, in Katowice, Poland, with her dad Svante, who is an actor in Sweden, her mother an opera singer. They came by electric car over two days, because she refuses to fly. She sat down in front of the Swedish parliament for three weeks in September, not going to school. After the Swedish elections, she went to school four days a week and continued her sit-in every Friday. Greta, thanks for staying with us. Svante Thunberg is also joining us right now. Svante, how has your daughter changed you?

SVANTE THUNBERG: Oh, in every possible way, I’d say. It started maybe four years ago. She was very sort of—she got herself in a position where she was learning a lot about the climate change. And she was finding out that everyone was saying one thing and doing the exact other thing. And that, she could not cope with. So, she fell into a depression. She stopped eating, stopped talking. And she fell out of school and stayed at home for almost a year. And my wife and I sort of—we stayed at home with her, of course, and we did everything—I stopped working completely, and we spent, you know, all our time with her.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you’re a well-known actor. Your wife is a well-known opera singer. And you both gave up your professions.

SVANTE THUNBERG: Yes. My wife is much more well known than I am. I gave up my career when she was born, actually, because my wife was working overseas. So I basically—


SVANTE THUNBERG: Yeah, I went to became a housewife instead. So, but I do act sometimes. But—

AMY GOODMAN: And you have two daughters.

SVANTE THUNBERG: Yes, we have two daughters. Beata, as well, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Greta, can you talk about that time—it sounds extremely painful—a few years ago when you stopped talking and stopped eating?

GRETA THUNBERG: Yes. I became very depressed. I fell into depression. And I—I mean, I didn’t—I didn’t think that it was—I was so depressed, I didn’t see any point of living, because everything was just so wrong. And I kind of saw—because I have Asperger’s syndrome, so I work a bit different. I see things black and white. And so, I guess I saw the world from a different perspective. So I saw what was wrong with the world. And I—

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean to have Asperger’s syndrome?

GRETA THUNBERG: That my brain works a bit different. And I usually don’t enjoy participating in the social game that the rest of you seem so fond of. And I don’t like lying. And I see things black or white.

AMY GOODMAN: And you focus with laser intensity on an issue.


AMY GOODMAN: Your issue, climate change. And, Svante, what did this mean for you? How have you raised your daughters to deal with the world and in this crisis when Greta stopped eating and was almost hospitalized?

SVANTE THUNBERG: Yeah. She made us realize that we were these parents, you know, standing up for human rights and refugees and right and wrong and all these things. And we were really fighting for that. And then she said, you know, “Whose human rights are you standing up for?” You know, when my wife, for instance, went to Japan to make concerts and being on Japanese TV—you know, very important. You know, it was a good reason to travel across the world to do that. But when she got home, you know, Greta sort of worked out how much—how many tons of carbon dioxide she had spent on that and how many people’s carbon budget that was living in West Africa, for instance. So, she basically, you know, confronted us with that. You know, “Whose human rights are you standing up for, when you are draining the world’s resources, the functioning atmosphere, for instance?” And so we basically realized, in the end, after a couple of years of her going on about it, that we had to change. You know, we had to stop doing these things. And that really had an enormous effect. She made her much more happy. And she changed a lot with that. So, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what made you decide to start eating again and start talking, Greta?

GRETA THUNBERG: I mean, I guess I thought that I could do so much with my life. I can—and what is the point of feeling like this, when I could actually do something good? And so, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Is your sister older or younger than you?

GRETA THUNBERG: She’s three years younger than me.

AMY GOODMAN: And how has she been affected by your choices?

GRETA THUNBERG: I mean, she has also stopped flying and so on. And she also cares about the climate and the environment. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And how has it changed the way you parent, Svante?

SVANTE THUNBERG: Well, it changed—my wife, I mean, she gave up her international opera career. She’s working out of Sweden now instead. And that was a big change for us. And obviously it’s changed a great many other sort of things. I had to go vegan. First vegetarian, then I had to go vegan. And I do miss the cheese, I have to—I must confess. But it’s—no, I mean—

AMY GOODMAN: So what did it mean to you to give up meat? And then—


AMY GOODMAN: And then cheese and dairy?

SVANTE THUNBERG: Nothing. It meant nothing. I mean, in the end, you know, we’re facing a dire catastrophe. But I just didn’t realize—

AMY GOODMAN: And why is it important? We asked Greta in the first segment why she became vegetarian.


AMY GOODMAN: And are you also a vegan, Greta?


AMY GOODMAN: So, Svante, what does that mean to you? Why not have a meat-based diet?

SVANTE THUNBERG: Well, because of the climate crisis. I mean, obviously, we are running out of a budget, OK? I mean, the budget is disappearing before our eyes, and we only have a couple of years—less than a couple years to bend the curve, you know, steep, steep down like a roller coaster.

And I think I didn’t have a—I didn’t have a clue about the climate crisis before, before she got us all interested in this. But once you start walking down that path, there’s no going back, and it changes your—I mean, your life is changed in every possible way once you realize, you know, the situation that we’re actually in. But I was so amazed that I wasn’t aware of it, you know, because I was very aware. I was reading all the papers and stuff. And I just didn’t realize where we were at.

AMY GOODMAN: What did it mean to you that your parents became vegan? Is your mother also a vegan, Greta?

GRETA THUNBERG: Yeah, she tries.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re teaching her. So what did that mean to you, how you changed your parents?

GRETA THUNBERG: I mean, that meant that they were actually listening to what I was saying. And, I mean, that was good to feel that someone is listening.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, Svante, you talked about basically climate equity, about how when you consume a lot, when the Western countries, like Sweden, are engaged in fossil fuel pollution—


AMY GOODMAN: —what that means for the developing world.


AMY GOODMAN: Greta, I’d like to ask you that question, this whole issue of climate equity.

GRETA THUNBERG: Yeah, I mean, since we have higher emissions per capita, we must reduce emissions more. And since we already have all of the infrastructure and everything that we need, we need to reduce our emissions much more, so that the developing countries can have a chance to build some of that infrastructure and so that the people there can have a chance to heighten their standard of living.

AMY GOODMAN: Also the effects of climate change—

GRETA THUNBERG: Yeah, that, of course, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —on other countries that can least afford to cope with the change. We’re talking with Svante and Greta Thunberg. Can you talk about your relatives? You are both the descendants of Svante Arrhenius, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, who first calculated the greenhouse effect caused by carbon dioxide emissions in 1896, known to some as the “father of climate change science.” Svante, you were named after him?

SVANTE THUNBERG: Yes, I was. My family named me after him, of my father did, because he thought, you know, that was very important. But the fact is, they didn’t have a clue why he got the Nobel Prize. You know, he was just a Nobel Prize winner.

GRETA THUNBERG: They just thought it was nice.

SVANTE THUNBERG: Yeah, it’s pretty nice, you know, a nice title. So, he thought—my father was born in 1925. He’s pretty old. And his grandmother’s cousin, I think, is Svante Arrhenius. So, yeah, it runs in the family. I was—you know, I didn’t realize, until I started reading up on the subject, but, yeah, that’s our relative, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Greta, you are now, when you’re not here at the U.N. climate summit—by the way, I want to point out, we’re in this building here in Katowice, the main conference center of this city, that is actually shaped like a coal mine. You know, everywhere around us is black, and you sort of descend down. I don’t know if you were aware of that. Also, right by the Poland exhibit, which is called “Black to Green”—did you see this?—are necklaces that have—made out of coal, hearts. There’s coal soap. It’s soap in the shape of coal. Maybe kind of celebrating coal. Very interesting, when we came to the Warsaw summit—and it’s the only country that has hosted the U.N. climate summit three times. It hosted it in Poznan, then in Warsaw, and now we’re in Katowice—Katowice, the heart of coal country in Poland. The coal company is clearly very prominent here. Your thoughts on that and what coal means for the world?

GRETA THUNBERG: I mean, it’s just crazy that we are here on the climate change conference, and it’s—I think it’s sponsored by a coal company. But we need to stop burning coal. As simple as that.

AMY GOODMAN: You are protesting every Friday outside the Swedish parliament now, from every weekday to just Fridays. Why Fridays?

GRETA THUNBERG: Why not? Fridays are good days. Friday is a good day to strike.

AMY GOODMAN: You call it a school strike. You’ve also been following and tweeting about other school strikes around the world.


AMY GOODMAN: How many have there been?

GRETA THUNBERG: Oh, I don’t know. Many. Tens of thousands of kids in Australia. Also strikes in Belgium, Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Finland, Denmark, Sweden, France, the Netherlands. I probably forgot something now, but, yeah, it’s a lot of places.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Greta, I’d like you to stay with us for the hour. And then we are also going to be joined by the well-known climate scientist Kevin Anderson. We’re talking with 15-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, here with her father Svante. Svante, thanks so much for joining us and for bringing Greta here.

SVANTE THUNBERG: Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: Greta, by the way, who addressed the world here at the U.N. climate summit. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with Greta Thunberg and Kevin Anderson in a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: “My Place on Earth,” sung by Malena Ernman, the famous Swedish opera singer, who also happens to be the mother of our guest today, 15-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg.

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