School’s out: Thunberg joins Italian pupils at the Fridays for Future rally in Turin in December
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inside me that perhaps this was a child being used to voice the concerns of her parents,” Anderson told me. “That changed. By the end of lunch I realised it was the other way round. It was Greta who had really made her parents think about these issues. She was well informed, articulate and was genuinely interested in the science and what to do about it.”
Anderson’s initial scepticism was understandable. The quiet, somewhat introverted teenager is easy to underestimate. But to a remarkable degree she alone has propelled her campaign from a solitary sit-in to a global force in 18 months.
She has no team of media advisers telling her what to say or how to say it. She is sometimes accompanied on her travels by Jangen, an old friend of Thunberg’s mother who until last year worked for the global PR agency Prime Weber Shandwick. But Jangen (who declined to be interviewed) insists that she helps only with logistics and that Thunberg shapes her own messages.
Thunberg also receives pro bonohelp from a couple of members of the Global Strategic Communications Council, a non-profit network of communications professionals concerned about climate issues. They field up to 100 requests a week for media interviews with Thunberg, and occasionally organise interviews and press conferences. They too insist that Thunberg decides which interviews to do and what to say.
Nick Robinson, the BBC presenter, interviewed her after she addressed a meeting at the Quaker Friends House in London’s Euston Road last spring. “I fully expected a bunch of minders to come in with her but she just walked in on her own,” he told me. “I was much more impressed than I expected to be in the sense it was not spun or controlled or anything.” Likewise, the BBC team that spent several hours recording her editing the Today programme in Stockholm just before Christmas found no PR advisers on hand – just Thunberg and her father.
A naturally sceptical environment correspondent on a national newspaper who covered her departure by yacht from Plymouth last August for the UN Climate Action Summit in New York the following month
Thunberg has propelled her lone sit-in into a global force was hugely impressed by the press conference she gave on the quay. For 30 minutes she stood alone amid several dozen journalists and answered their probing questions. “I witnessed her in the flesh and I can tell you no one was dictating her answers,” he said. “She’s absolutely sincere, extremely intelligent and incredibly poised. She’s the genuine article.”
Thunberg cooperates on an ad hoc basis with environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace, and addressed an Extinction Rebellion protest in London last year, but while such groups might on occasion help organise her public appearances she insists that “I am absolutely independent and I only represent myself”. The #FridaysforFuture school strike movement, which she inspired but does not aspire to lead,
is a grass-roots movement with little formal structure.
She writes all her own speeches. She seeks facts, checks drafts and explores simple ways of expressing complicated ideas with half-a-dozen well-respected climate change scientists – Anderson; Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a former vice-chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); Glen Peters, research director at Norway’s Cicero Centre for International Climate Research; Stefan Rahmstorf from Potsdam University; and Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
She discusses climate issues with the likes of Naomi Klein, the Canadian author and climate change activist, Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, and Bill McKibben, co-founder of the international climate change organisation 350.org. But there is no evidence that they are using or manipulating her. She generally approaches them, not the other way round, and she alone decides whether to include or omit their suggestions from her speeches. “She listens to what we say then makes her own judgement,” said Anderson.
Thunberg also reads avidly. She has consumed all the IPCC’s reports. When she sailed across the Atlantic last summer she took reams of reading material with her including US Democrats’ proposals for a Green New Deal, the Climate Justice Alliance’s “Just Transition Principles”, and the Greenpeace report Real Climate Leadership.
Her grasp of the science – and of governments’ failure to act on it over the past three decades – is “remarkable”, said Anderson, who feels as if he is talking to a junior academic colleague when he speaks to Thunberg, not a teenager.
“She understands the challenges of the climate crisis much better than most political or economic leaders,” said van Ypersele, a professor of climate science at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium. “I’m blown away by the accuracy of her words… She understands the immense risks that the accumulation of greenhouse gases poses to life on Earth. She does not confuse the ozone hole, air pollution or the daily weather forecast with the climate crisis. Few leaders can say the same.”
The scientists also rebut Trump’s charge that Greta is alarmist. Van Ypersele told me: “There’s a big difference between being ‘alarming’ and ‘alarmist’. The data is, of course, alarming, but that doesn’t mean it’s alarmist.” Anderson said: “She makes a very clear interpretation of what the science is saying and where we are heading, and about how we have fundamentally failed [to address that]. I think her message on that is absolutely spot-on.” t
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