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Explainer: Who is Greta Thunberg and how have grown-ups taken to this teenage climate activist?

SINGAPORE — Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old who is part of a new climate change movement among youth, has made headlines worldwide in recent days due to her impassioned speech at the United Nations (UN) Climate Action Summit.

Greta Thunberg (far right) attending the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, United States.

Greta Thunberg (far right) attending the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, United States.

SINGAPORE — Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old who is part of a new climate change movement among youth, has made headlines worldwide in recent days due to her impassioned speech at the United Nations (UN) Climate Action Summit.

In her speech on Monday (Sept 23), the Swedish girl from Stockholm berated world leaders for their lack of action towards climate change, stating that their failure to address the problem is a “betrayal” against young people. 

She said: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words… This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!”

Describing “eternal economic growth” as “fairy tales”, Greta ended her speech with a warning: “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you”. 

The responses to Greta’s words have been divided. Some have commended her courage to speak up on the world stage. Others, including United States President Donald Trump, have been less impressed, believing that her concerns are exaggerated and extreme.

TODAY takes a look at how the young activist rose to prominence. 

WHY SHE DOES WHAT SHE DOES 

Greta’s effort to draw attention to the crisis of climate change did not start this week.

Back in August last year, she walked out of class on Fridays to protest in front of the Swedish parliament about her government’s inaction over climate change.

In a TED talk she gave in November last year, Greta said that she had heard about climate change and global warming when she was eight years old. Learning about the dire reality of the issue — the lack of urgency and action against it — sent her into a depressive spiral at age 11. 

She was later diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Still, she refused to sit idly by and wait for governments to act. That was when she decided to go on a school strike. 

She was inspired by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in the US — they had refused to go to school to protest against the US government’s inaction on gun violence.

Greta tried to rally her peers to take part in the strike with her, but “no one was really interested”, she said. So she went on planning the school strike all by herself, she said in a Facebook post in February. 

She gave out fliers with a list of facts about the climate crisis and to explain why she was on strike.

Her actions inspired other students to follow suit. The Fridays for Future school strike movement has since spread to more than 100 countries, including Argentina, Australia and Taiwan. 

WHAT ELSE SHE DID TO SPREAD THE MESSAGE 

On Aug 28 this year, Greta arrived in New York City for the UN summit after sailing on board the emissions-free race boat Malizia II for two weeks from Plymouth, England.

Besides attending the summit, she also addressed the thousands of school strikers in Manhattan on Sept 20 — students who were supporting the global climate protests.

Her speech to them similarly addressed the inaction of world leaders, telling them that the “eyes of the world will be on them” at the UN summit taking place this week.

Last December, Greta already berated world leaders at the UN’s climate conference, saying: “Since our leaders are behaving like children, we (the young people) will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.

“We have to understand what the older generation has dealt to us, what mess they have created that we have to clean up and live with. We have to make our voices heard.”

WHAT HER CRITICS SAY 

While many have praised the teenager for her brave decision to speak frankly about the state of the environment in front of prominent world leaders, some have mocked and criticised her for her emotional reaction to the issue.

Among her critics was Mr Trump, who took to Twitter on Monday to say sarcastically: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” 

Greta retaliated against Mr Trump’s comments by changing her Twitter bio page to mimic his tweet.

A clip of Greta glaring at Mr Trump as he passed by her at the summit on Monday was also widely circulated online and has been turned into a meme. 

Other critics have tried to discredit her by suggesting that she has been manipulated to promote an agenda and have accused her of not penning her own speeches.

To these allegations, she said on Facebook: “There is no one ‘behind’ me except for myself… And yes, I write my own speeches”. 

She knows that what she says will “reach many, many people”, so she often asks for input from scientists to be “absolutely correct” that what she says is not inaccurate and to avoid being misunderstood.

WHAT SINGAPORE ACTIVISTS SAY

Some of the youth here have taken part in Singapore’s first climate action rally on Sept 21. The rally was held in line with the Global Climate Strike, which saw climate protests taking place all around the world last week.

Mr Aidan Mock, 24, one of the organisers of the climate rally, said that Greta’s speech was “an honest calling out of the failures of global leadership”. 

“It also highlights the fact that while governments across the world have recognised the crisis… there is no talk about restraining uncontrolled economic growth or dramatically changing any of our carbon emissions trajectories, even as the world around us continues to fall apart right before our eyes,” he said.

Mr Sivasothi N, 52, a senior lecturer from the Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore and one of the speakers at the rally, said that Greta’s speech was a “good wake-up call”.

It prompted him to reflect on whether he is doing enough to influence change at a higher level. 

Regarding the backlash that Greta has received, Ms Pamela Low, who is running the Singapore chapter of the global initiative Beyond Individual Action (for Climate Change), said that people should not focus on the negative comments thrown at her but to see it as an opportunity to “engage deeper” with those who disagree with the movement.

The 24-year-old student added: “We should be happy there’s backlash because it would invite more conversations with the other side and they are exactly who we need to engage. We should see it as an opportunity rather than an obstacle to what we are trying to achieve”.

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Greta Thunberg climate activist climate change

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