The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Teen activist Greta Thunberg takes her youth climate campaign to Washington

“Hope is something you need to deserve,” the 16-year-old from Sweden said in an interview with The Post, as she continues her push for global leaders to take more aggressive action.

After taking a solar-powered boat from England to New York to attend the United Nations Climate Action Summit, Thunberg discussed what activists need to do. (Video: The Washington Post)

Barely a year ago, Greta Thunberg sat alone outside the Swedish parliament each week, holding a handwritten sign that read “School Strike for Climate.”

But by the time the 16-year-old arrived in the United States in late August after a two-week ocean voyage on a zero-emissions boat, she was an icon of the youth climate movement. She has published a book, given barn-burning speeches before audiences of the world’s political and business leaders and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. This coming Friday, she plans to lead a protest in New York ahead of a United Nations summit on climate action. Hundreds of thousands of students across more than 150 countries have said they plan to walk out of school in solidarity with her.

Before her latest strike, in front of the White House on Friday, Thunberg sat for an interview with The Washington Post. She spoke about how the climate debate is different in the United States, whether she considers herself an optimist and how she approaches the criticism that has accompanied her meteoric rise over the past year.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The Washington Post: Can you tell us how it has been with your first trip in the United States so far? What do you think of the way people talk about climate change here?

Greta Thunberg: People are very friendly, and everyone is so nice. Everyone is so eager to help.

But, of course, it’s different here. It feels like many people are debating about the climate crisis, which they are doing everywhere. But here, it’s like they even doubt facts. It’s like something you believe in, instead of being facts. Of course, it’s like that in a lot of other countries, as well. But maybe in the U.S., it’s a bit more.

WP: For you on this trip, how do you think of what success looks like? What are you hoping to accomplish, and what concrete actions do you want to see leaders take?

Thunberg: I don’t really have any concrete things I want to have accomplished, because then I would just be disappointed all the time. But I’m just trying to make as much difference as I can, especially in informing people, spreading awareness about the climate crisis. I think that is the key now, to inform people about this crisis. Because as it is, people are not aware.

Once enough people know about the urgency, then they will go together and push for political change.

WP: What has it been like meeting other young activists? Do you think that what you guys are doing is making a difference? Do you see people responding to it?

Thunberg: It’s incredible to meet all these activists around the world because we are so different in many ways. But we are fighting for the same cause. I have known many of these activists through social media. I’ve seen them in the news. And so it was very exciting to meet them in real life. I’m hoping to meet more activists today in Washington and also while I’m traveling across the continent.

WP: Do you think people are responding to teenagers? Do you think that people are listening to you?

Thunberg: I think that we have definitely made people open their eyes — at least some people. But we are not saying, “You need to listen to us.” We are saying, “You need to listen to the science and the scientists.” That is, at least, what I want.

We are trying to give the scientists a platform and speak on behalf of them. So, yeah, I definitely think we have reached some people.

WP: I’m curious whether you consider yourself an optimist at the end of the day. On the one hand, I assume you wouldn’t have done all you’ve done without real hope of changing the status quo. But you also talk a lot about the dire consequences of what we could face. Are you an optimist that the world will figure this out?

Thunberg: People sometimes ask me if I’m an optimist or a pessimist. I am a realist. If we do the change that is required, then we will prevent this from happening and we will succeed. But if we don’t, then there will be horrible consequences.

Hope is something you need to deserve — that you have actually done something. But definitely, we could do this. If we decided today that we were going to go through with [combating climate change], then we definitely could do that. But only if we choose to and if we take the measures required.

WP: What do you read? How do you educate yourself on what is going on and what scientists are saying?

Thunberg: In the beginning, it was quite hard because I didn’t know what to read. It was just hard finding the studies and to also interpret those studies into a language that I could understand at that age. But I guess I just slowly read everything I could and tried to understand, and then it just sort of opened up. Especially during this year, I have learned a lot more than I have learned ever before.

I have scientists contact me and say, “If you want to ask something, you can ask.” And I contact scientists and ask, “What does this mean?” To have things explained to me, that is very helpful.

WP: Have you learned anything from that process over the past year that you think is really important? Aside from the idea that this is a crisis, what stands out?

Thunberg: This was very striking to me — that people always talk about this “12 years left, 11 years left” to reduce emissions by 50 percent. Then I learned that that was for a 50 percent chance of staying below the 1.5 degrees [Celsius] of warming [above preindustrial levels]. And those figures are global, so they don’t mention the aspect of equity. Also, they don’t include many feedback loops and nonlinear tipping points.

So I think that all the numbers are sort of, like, compromised in a way. It feels like people don’t want to make people give up. They don’t want to be too pessimistic. They didn’t want to tell how it is.

WP: Do you worry about being too negative? That people will start to feel hopeless because it’s just too scary or too big?

Thunberg: That is what I have been told. That is what everyone is saying, especially in Sweden — that we cannot just say all these negative facts. We also have to tell positive facts so that people will not give up.

I think we just have to tell the truth. Of course, we have to tell the positive news. But we also have to tell the negative news. We have to tell it like it is, because we cannot just hide facts from people.

WP: Over the past year, you’ve had an incredible amount of people praising what you are doing and embracing you. You’ve also had an incredible amount of criticism and vitriol. How much of that do you pick up on, and how do you think about it and deal with it? You went from an anonymous teenager in Sweden to someone who is no longer anonymous.

Thunberg: It’s a lot of hate, of course, and conspiracy theories, and mocking me. I don’t really take it personal, because I know they are just so desperate, trying to find something to make me look bad. Because if I look bad, the climate movement will look bad.

It's sad to see all these people spending their time doing something like this when they could be doing some good instead. You could also see it as, since they are trying so hard to attack us, that means that we are making a difference. They see us as some kind of threat, and that means that we have actually succeeded in reaching people.

WP: Do you think there is something special about children or teenagers talking about these issues that both maybe draws people’s attention but also maybe draws people’s fear?

Thunberg: If a child or a young person talks about these issues, it’s more power in a way. We are not the ones who have caused this crisis. We just happen to be born in a world where there was this big existential crisis.

People feel very guilty when a child says, “You are stealing my future.” That has impact. And, of course, if it has impact, then people will want to try to silence that. People who don’t want this to be an issue, they try to silence that. It’s not just us young activists who are facing these hate campaigns, but also everyone who is outspoken about this.

WP: How do you respond to that?

Thunberg: I don’t respond to the hate. Because if I respond to hate with comebacks or try to explain every conspiracy theory and say, “No, this is not true,” then I will spend all my time doing that. So, instead, I will just ignore them because they don’t deserve my attention. That is what they are trying to do, to get me to talk about that and to care about that and spend my energy on that, instead of what is actually making a difference.

WP: You’ve been gone quite a while from home, and you've got a long way to go. What do you miss most about home?

Thunberg: I miss my sister and my dogs and my mother. And just everyday life, I guess. I miss school, because I love learning.