5 years of strikes for climate: where is Greta Thunberg now?

“Did you know Greta Thunberg has been arrested?” a friend asked me the other day, passing by the Rad Cam whilst a man with a pressure-washer removed the orange paint remains of a recent ‘Just Stop Oil’ protest. The protesters were removed by police and arrested following the event. The question took me by surprise, as I hadn’t heard the Swedish activist’s name mentioned in weeks, months perhaps. After rising to global fame for her ‘school strike for climate protests’, Greta has become one of the most well-known climate activists and has given speeches at COP24, the UN Climate Action summit, and the European and British parliaments. I took part in one of the climate strikes she inspired whilst I was in Sixth Form, skipping Friday lessons to travel to Bristol with a group of friends to take part in a march. We made our own cardboard placards with marker-pen statements and were joined by thousands of other students and young people voicing their concerns about the UK government’s complacency regarding climate change. 

At the end of last month, Greta posted a slideshow of images from a climate protest to her Instagram, with the caption: “For five years now we have been striking from school every Friday to protest and demand climate justice. We were born into a crisis that we did not create. It is shameful that the responsibility to act falls so disproportionately on children and youth because the people in power and adults fail to step up.” Looking back on the last five years, where has Greta Thunberg’s activism taken her? And what is she doing now?

Greta Thunberg began skipping school at the age of 15 to protest outside of the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm every Friday. Soon enough, by late 2018 her solo protests had grown into a global movement of young people with the hashtag #FridaysForFuture, and in 2019 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, which she has been nominated for every year since. In September 2019 she delivered an impassioned speech at the UN Climate Summit. “How dare you?” she said. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” In December of the same year, she called out world leaders’ lack of action over climate change at the COP25 summit, and became Time Magazine’s youngest-ever person of the year, much to the dismay of Donald Trump, who tweeted that her Time award was “so ridiculous”. 

In the 2020 pandemic, Thunberg turned the school climate strikes digital under the hashtag #ClimateStrikeOnline. She donated a $100,000 award she received from the Danish charity Human Act to UNICEF to buy soap, masks, and gloves to protect children from coronavirus. “Like the climate crisis, the coronavirus pandemic is a child rights crisis,” she said. In April she refused to attend COP26 over concerns about vaccine inequality. She said she would not attend the summit “unless everyone can take part on the same terms.” At the outbreak of war in Ukraine in 2022, she stood outside the Russian Embassy in Stockholm holding a sign that read “We stand with Ukraine”. In June she met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other European leaders to discuss the ecological impacts of the war.

…”Like the climate crisis, the coronavirus pandemic is a child rights crisis,”…

In January 2023, Thunberg was detained along with other activists by German police, while demonstrating at the coal mine Garzweiler 2, and was released the same day after an identity check. In June, Thunberg took part in a protest in Malmö and was charged by Swedish police for disrupting traffic and refusing to follow police orders. Thunberg said her protest was a form of self-defense against the threat to the climate caused by the fossil fuel industry. She was given a fine of 2,500 Swedish Krona (around £185). Within hours of her court conviction, Thunberg was again forcibly removed by police during a similar protest which blocked oil tankers on a road in Malmö. Thunberg’s second Swedish trial for disobedience ordered her to pay fines totalling 4,500 Krona (£334).

On the 18th of October, Thunberg was arrested during a rally protest in London where dozens of protesters gathered at the Hamilton, a five-star hotel that was hosting the Energy Intelligence Forum, formerly known as the Oil and Money Conference (also known as the “Oscars of Oil”) where bosses of Shell and Total were set to speak. Thunberg spoke at the rally, saying: “Behind these closed doors at the Oil and Money conference, spineless politicians are making deals and compromises with lobbyists from destructive industries – the fossil fuel industry.” Police officers asked protesters to move away from the hotel, and many were forcibly removed after they refused. Thunberg was released on bail, with her trial scheduled for the 15th of November. 

…”Behind these closed doors at the Oil and Money conference, spineless politicians are making deals and compromises with lobbyists from destructive industries.”…

More recently, Thunberg has been using her online platform to express her solidarity with the Palestinian people in Gaza, particularly in response to the recent escalation of conflict in the Gaza Strip. On the 20th of October, she shared an image on her Instagram account in which she is seen holding a sign that reads ‘Stand with Gaza.’ Furthermore, on October 27th, she shared another image capturing a Fridays for Future climate strike in Stockholm. In this picture, demonstrators are holding a banner that says ‘Free Palestine,’ alongside the well-known ‘Skolstrejk för klimatet’ (‘School strike for climate’) banner. Thunberg’s support for the Palestinian cause has stirred controversy with the Israeli government, resulting in the removal of any mention of her activism from their school curriculum.

In an earlier post, Thunberg’s ‘Stand with Gaza’ sign was accompanied by a toy octopus, which some interpreted as an anti-semitic symbol. Thunberg reuploaded the image without the octopus and wrote: “It has come to my knowledge that the stuffed animal shown in my earlier post can be interpreted as a symbol for antisemitism, which I was completely unaware of… The toy in the picture is a tool often used by autistic people as a way to communicate feelings. We are of course against any type of discrimination, and condemn antisemitism in all forms and shapes. This is non-negotiable. That is why I deleted the last post.”

Thunberg has had to defend herself against critics previously throughout her life, most recently at the beginning of 2023 when former Kickboxer Andrew Tate sent her a tweet mocking her climate commitment. He wrote: “Please provide your email address so I can send a complete list of my car collection and their respective enormous emissions,” which was accompanied by an image of himself pumping petrol into one of his vehicles. Thunberg’s reply quickly gathered thousands of retweets. “Yes, please do enlighten me. Email me at smalldickenergy@getalife.com,” she wrote.

Further criticisms of Thunberg involve her lack of concrete solutions to the climate crisis. For instance, Vladimir Putin has described her as a ‘kind, but poorly informed, teenager’, and British radio presented Julia Hartley-Brewer called her a ‘half-educated, autistic, doom-mongering eco-cultist’ in a tweet that was subsequently deleted. Despite these criticisms, Thunberg is widely credited with raising awareness of climate change amongst young people, often dubbed with the term ‘the Greta Effect’. It is worth noting that she is just twenty years old.

…Thunberg is widely credited with raising awareness of climate change amongst young people, often dubbed ‘the Greta Effect’…

Alongside her climate activism, Thunberg is also a famous autism activist. In an interview with The Guardian, she said: “Autism can be something that holds you back, but if you get to the right circumstance, if you are around the right people, if you get the adaptations that you need and you feel you have a purpose, then it can be something you can use for good. And I think that I’m doing that now.” 

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash