There is genuinely no precedent in the modern history of geopolitics for the climate activist Greta Thunberg.
Four and a half years ago, she began “striking” outside of Swedish parliament — a single teenager with a single sign. She was 15. In just a few months, she had made her mark at the United Nations climate conference in Poland: “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is,” she told the assembled diplomats and negotiators, “even that burden you leave to us children.”
By the time she spoke at Davos that January, excoriating the world — “I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is” — she had become the face of the global climate movement, giving it an entirely new generational life and scale. She led weekly marches across the globe that drew millions of people through 2019 and helped force the world’s most powerful people to at least pay lip service to what they now called a climate crisis.
I first met Thunberg in the middle of that maelstrom, when she came to New York in 2019 by boat to help stage two large climate strikes as bookends to the U.N.’s climate week. A lot has changed since then, and then again, a whole lot hasn’t. Thunberg is 20 now. Countries accounting for almost 90 percent of the world’s emissions and G.D.P. have made net-zero pledges. Renewable energy is skyrocketing, though fossil fuel use has only plateaued — perhaps even peaked — but it is a long way down from 40 gigatons (50 if you include methane) to zero. Current policies still point to a global average temperature rise above three degrees Celsius this century, more than double the more ambitious goals enshrined by the Paris agreement in 2015. And now Thunberg has published her third book, called “The Climate Book,” a curated tour of the state of the emergency and how to think about it from more than 100 contributors. (I wrote an essay for it drawing lessons from the experience of the pandemic.)
In early February I spoke with Thunberg, who was in Sweden, over Zoom, about why she believes it is now a trickier time to be a climate activist than when she began, why it’s no longer sufficient to listen to the scientists, the necessity of systems change and whether she still believes in the basic goodness of people. The conversation has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
We first met in 2019.
That was a time …
What’s changed, if anything, since then?
It seems like the world is getting more and more grim every day. The concentration of CO₂ is now higher in the atmosphere and causing more and more extreme weather.
But there are also positive things that have changed. We have more people now who are mobilized and who are in the climate movement, in the fight for the climate and social justice.
So I guess that’s a good thing. But we have to be able to zoom out and see that we are still moving in the wrong direction. The things that people said back then that they were going to do, they still haven’t done, which proves, or which shows us, that it was just empty promises and really not taking it seriously, unfortunately.
You say more people are mobilized. From where I sit, it felt like there was a rising tide of public protest and awareness in 2019 into early 2020. But the energy also feels a little dissipated, a little less front and center, after the pandemic.
Well, obviously, we had to stop doing everything that we did. That halted the momentum. And as you say, we know now that people are worried. It might not show on the streets because we still have to regain that momentum. But there is a more common sort of general level of concern among people. Of course, that doesn’t really mean anything unless that is translated to concrete action.
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So what do people still need to understand, as you see it? What is the awareness gap now?
People often ask me why I am still so concerned, because things seem like we’re moving in the right direction. And then when I tell them the things that are happening, the things the governments are doing and the things that corporations are doing, people are shocked when they hear about those things — every single one. And so I think that if more people got to learn about and got to know about these things that are actually happening — where the world is actually heading — I think that there would be more outrage.
What things do you have in mind?
Just some of the simplest data. We can still see that the global emissions of greenhouse gases are increasing.
There have been some indications we may have reached peak fossil fuel use, but I think few people understand just how far a peak is away from zero. All it means is that we may have succeeded in not doing more damage to the future of the climate this year than we did last year. We’re still doing more than was ever done in a single year in the history of humanity at any point before, say, 2020.
Global temperature is still increasing. Governments and corporations are still financing and investing in fossil fuels. We are still expanding fossil fuel infrastructure all over the world. We are still expanding on Indigenous land, violating basic human rights.
Four or five years ago, you were really emphasizing that we need to listen to the scientists. Is that still sufficient?
No, of course not. In the beginning — well, “in the beginning” — people have been campaigning about this for decades. But when I began, I said we need to listen to the scientists because people were still treating the climate crisis as something debatable. And now — at least in the discourse — we’ve kind of settled that. It is a crisis. Even scientists and even heads of state are saying that this is an emergency.
Yeah, exactly. They’re saying it. And they’re saying that they’re listening to the science. But they’re obviously not. So where do we go from there? We also have to listen to the people who are actually living in the climate crisis, living on the front lines. That’s something that’s become more and more relevant for me.
It’s been the same for me. When I first started worrying about these issues, I thought most reflexively in terms of our common shared fate as humanity, as a planet, and a lot less about the unequal distribution of responsibility and impacts.
Exactly. I was a nerd — I viewed the world in data and numbers, so that was my way of communicating. And of course, that’s not the ideal way of communicating facts like these.
Do you think that it was a mistake for people like us to focus on shared global fate rather than all the inequitable ways that climate impacts will be distributed? Do you think that was myopic?
Yeah, I would definitely have done it differently now. But back then I was very young and didn’t really know. I can’t really blame myself. But it has built a kind of narrative that it’s the children that are being impacted. And even though we said many times that it’s mostly people living in the Global South, the sort of message that got out was that the children are going to suffer from the climate crisis and now the children are rebelling.
If I let myself be somewhat optimistic about the course that the world is on, I imagine that we land somewhere between two and two and a half degrees Celsius of average warming. But that is a level that the nations of the Global North can endure, though they will be disrupted, and it is a level of warming that nations of the Global South will have a much harder time enduring.
I think that’s definitely true. And our ambitions and our actions would look completely different if the tables were turned — instead, the ones who are empowered, the ones who are making these decisions, are the ones who are going to be least hurt by it.
It’s interesting also to think about in terms of your own advocacy. In the first year or so, it seemed to me that there was almost an eagerness in the world’s wealthy nations to feel guilty. But the next stage is a lot harder: What are we going to do about it?
Yeah, definitely. I do think that we need to drastically wake people up for them to be able to change later. But also I think that there’s a misconception that, at least for my part, that I’m speaking directly to the world leaders to try to convince them.
Of course, I don’t go to United Nations conferences or whatever to try to persuade the rulers of the world, the rich people in the world, to somehow change their mind. I don’t think that they would listen to a Swedish schoolgirl. What I’m trying to do is by speaking to them to reach the public. Because I don’t think that the changes we need now are going to come from the people in power. I think that they’re going to come from outside when enough people are demanding change.
I assume you don’t believe those changes are afoot.
We’ve gone through a period of awakening, of climate alarm, and the era of climate denial is effectively over. And it seems like we’ve entered a new phase, dominated by normalization, where even people who know about what’s coming have baked it into their expectations of the future, and by false hope, as you’ve often talked about. How do we get past that?
I mean, we don’t know. Because we’ve never faced anything like this before. All we can do is try to navigate within this very new landscape of existential crisis that we are very, very rapidly approaching and many of us are already living in. So we are trying difficult methods to try to avoid getting stuck in those traps, like false hope. But how we’re going to do that — I don’t think anyone knows. If anyone did, then everything would be much simpler.
In a lot of ways it does seem to be a more complicated moment to be a climate activist than when you began. In the United States, we had the I.R.A., which is insufficient but is a major step forward. In Britain, we have Extinction Rebellion taking a turn toward mass mobilization and away from alarmist disruption. We have all that new awareness, a lot of new renewable power, and a whole lot of new renewable investment.
But it sounds like what you’re saying is that we actually still need the tools that were so vital four or five years ago to force people to look starkly at the state of the story, to wake up even those who may think they are already awake.
More or less, yes. But of course, it depends on who you are. For me, living in my bubble of activists, it may seem like people know where we’re heading, people know what’s happening, people care. But when I move outside that bubble into the real world, then it strikes me every time that people are really living in denial. There’s still no sense of urgency whatsoever, anywhere.
When we spoke about some of these issues a few years ago, you said that one of the reasons that you felt that awareness had to be so central to any advocacy was that you didn’t think — or maybe couldn’t think — that people were evil. And because of that, you said, you believed that if they knew of course they would act. Now we have a lot more knowledge but perhaps only a little more action.
I still think that we have to hope for the best in people. And if there’s one thing that I’ve learned from being an activist these last five years now, it’s that many, many people want to do good. Most people want to do good. But in “our society” or whatever — Our Society™ — people don’t know how to do that. We don’t know how to do good because we are raised with a sense of needing to make a career, needing to achieve this and that. And under those circumstances, of course, people are going to fight for themselves, they’re not going to strive for the common good, especially not for people living on the other side of the world, unfortunately.
In the book, you wrote: “We still need to answer some fundamental questions. What is it exactly we want to solve in the first place? What is our goal?” How would you answer those questions now?
Right now it seems like the people in power just don’t want to solve the climate crisis. They want to find “solutions,” whether they’re good or not, that enable us to continue now as we have been, that allow them to continue staying in power and to satisfy their greed. That’s not what I think that we should be striving for. I think that we need to make sure that no one’s well-being is at the expense of someone else. But that’s not what our current people in power seem to want.
Can we limit damages without changing that fundamental dynamic of exploitation, which predates the climate crisis?
I don’t think we can.
David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), a writer for Opinion and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth.”