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A teenage girl is leading thousands in protest against climate change

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Pip Cook
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A 16-year-old girl is inspiring a new generation of climate activists

Children all over the world skipped school today in strike, trying to raise awareness of climate change and put pressure on governments to take action to combat global warming.

Students in 40 towns and cities across the UK are thought to have missed lessons today, along with children from Australia, Belgium, Germany, the United States, Japan and more than a dozen other countries who are also said to have taken apart.

So who was behind the largest strike of schoolchildren in living memory? A 16-year-old girl from Sweden, of course. 

Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg started off as a lone campaigner outside the Swedish parliament in the summer of 2018, where she sat quietly every day until her country’s general election on 9 September. Greta refused to go to school, stating that she would sit in protest every day to draw attention to the climate crisis until her country started, in her own words, ‘treating climate change for what it is: the biggest issue we have ever faced.’

Greta sat outside the Swedish parliament for weeks

What began as one girl’s brave attempt to catch her government’s attention has grown into an international movement, and over the past few years Greta has addressed the likes of the UN and spoken at the World Economic Forum. At the international summit in Davos this year she addressed economic leaders via a video message to ask them to pledge to do everything in their power to tackle climate change - to ‘stand on the right side of history.’

Greta also gave a powerful TED talk last year, which has since been streamed by millions, and is due to travel to Brussels next week to speak at an event alongside the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker. The teenager will then go to Paris to join the school strikes now expanding across France, traveling by train as she’s opposed to the high carbon emissions of flying. In January, it took her 32 hours to reach the conference in Davos.  

The teenager was 15 when she spoke at the World Economic Forum

Speaking on behalf of Climate Change Now in an impassioned speech to the UN, Greta did not want to ask leaders for change – she wanted to tell them it was coming:

‘We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again. We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time. We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not.’

Since starting her solo climate protest, Greta has inspired tens of thousands of students all over the world to join her in walking out of school, and has herself attended protests all over Europe as well as at home in Sweden. Today’s strike was organised by YouthStrike4Climate, the UK Student Climate Network and the UK Youth Climate Coalition.

Greta is pleased that so many children from schools in the UK have joined her, praising fellow youngsters asreal heroes.’ She writes ’I think enough people have realised just how absurd the situation is. We are in the middle of the biggest crisis in human history and basically nothing is being done to prevent it. I think what we are seeing is the beginning of great changes and that is very hopeful.’

Greta’s activism has been hailed as extraordinary by seasoned climate change activists, who are astonished by what she’s managed to achieve in such a short time. Bill McKibben, the founder of campaign organisation 350.org, has called Greta’s movement ‘one of the most hopeful things’ to happen in his career, which spans more than three decades. ‘It throws the generational challenge of global warming into its sharpest relief, and challenges adults to prove they are, actually, adults,’ says McKibben. 

Greta, who disclosed in her TED talk that she was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome and a number of other learning difficulties when she was 11 years old, told the crowd ‘We can’t save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed. Everything needs to change, and it has to start today.’

In her TED talk, Greta explained why skipping school was her chosen course of action, bluntly stating ‘Why should I be studying for a future that soon will be no more? Why is no one doing anything whatsoever to save that future?’ She has been striking every Friday since the Swedish elections in September 2018, missing gym, geography and religion classes every week, which is a sacrifice for a girl who has publicly spoken of her love of school. She also explains that she has had to give up all of her hobbies, as her activism takes up so much of her time. ‘I used to play theatre, sing, dance, play an instrument, ride horse, lots of things.’

But the 16-year-olds dedication to her cause keeps her optimistic about the personal sacrifices it entails. ‘You have to see the bigger picture’ says Greta. She misses school, travels around the world and exposes herself to the scrutiny of millions if it helps bring about changes that will quite literally benefit the entire planet and humankind.

She is dedicated to getting her voice heard, whatever it takes, and the scale of today’s strikes show that this wholehearted approach is starting to make a real difference. ‘I have learned you are never too small to make a difference,’ says Greta. It seems we could all learn a thing or two from this truly remarkable girl. 

Images: Getty, Instagram

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