To sail 3,000 miles across the Atlantic takes remarkable courage, but to traverse unpredictable seas on a zero-carbon yacht is a feat unlike many others. And for a teenager to make the epic journey? Is it possible? Yes. On August 28, 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, who refuses to fly because of its enormous carbon footprint, made her triumphant arrival into New York Harbor aboard the Malizia II, a sailboat powered by wind only. The petite young girl, who often wears her hair in one or two signature braids, was accompanied by a United Nation’s welcome flotilla of racing boats, their sails wrapped in bright pops of primary colors, each heralding one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
At the dock, Greta was received by throngs of cheering supporters as she stepped ashore. Speaking at a press conference upon arrival, Greta addressed the crowd saying she was there to spread awareness. “The climate and ecological crisis is a global crisis,” she stated, “and the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced. If we don’t manage to work together despite our differences, we will fail.”
Greta, who is in New York to participate in the United Nations climate talks in September, began protesting on her own last August: she skipped school to demonstrate outside the Swedish parliament with a sign that translated to “school strike for the climate.” Her school strike idea was inspired by students in the United States walking out of their schools amidst calls for gun control. Just as students in the U.S. were soon joined by others, Greta’s persuasive call for climate action brought fellow students, teachers, and parents to her side. Collectively, they engaged in regular protests and ongoing school strikes every Friday, now known as “Fridays for Future.” Greta’s demands for action have vaulted her onto the world stage. So too has her willingness to show her vulnerable side.
Greta, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s four years ago, speaks candidly about her disorder. She claims that being neurodivergent has helped her to become an intensely focused spokesperson for climate change. “I have a special interest,” she has explained, “It’s very common that people on the autism spectrum have a special interest.” At only 16-years-old, she is a child with a resonating voice. One that carries an urgent message: we must address climate change and we must address it now. People are listening.
As the founder of Women Who Sail, the largest online group of women sailors in the world, I followed Greta’s passage across the Atlantic with keen interest. Like Greta’s movement, my group started small, with eight members. Seven years later, we are 17,000 women strong. Our regional and topic-specific groups boast another 15,000 members. As a woman sailor and mother who once lived aboard a sailboat with my husband and two young kids, I found online sailing forums to be rife with misogyny and sexism. That’s when I decided to start Women Who Sail. Fellow women sailors were hungry for an alternative to existing online communities and quickly joined me, much like how many of today’s youth, and others embittered by our word leaders’ inaction, have rallied around Greta.
I remain fascinated with the support Greta is receiving. For decades, the world’s leading experts on the climate have been banging the drums of the precipice we are teetering on when it comes to the impending devastation ahead if we don’t address climate change. Yet, no single scientist has received the groundswell of support that Greta and her Fridays-for-Future campaign have received. Greta is not telling us anything that we don’t already know, but when she speaks, people sit up and take action. Movements like #MeToo and the Parkland Students with their fight for gun control show us that we are living in a time when women and children are crying out to be heard. What is it about Greta’s specific brand of activism that is forcing us to pay attention?
“When a 16-year-old can talk so clearly about the issue, it sort of underscores the “duh” of what’s happening to the climate,” explains Dr. Nancy Akalin, a clinical psychologist in San Luis Obispo, California. “Kids, in general, seem to have a way of innocently asking adults those very pointed questions, which makes us take a hard look at the honest and obvious answers… [Greta] points out the ignorance and lack of action [regarding climate change] in such a non-threatening way. There is no drama to react against.”
Maybe society realizes we are at the doorstep of the point of no return and we need a hero, or at the very least a miracle, to save us from ourselves. In 15th century France, the French were in need of such a hero. It was Joan of Arc who rallied their country to defend themselves against the English. The similarities between Greta and Joan are many: their youth, their beauty, their almost virginal purity, and their spirited calls to action. Like Joan, Greta’s fervor borders on the religious. She herself has stated, a la Joan and the battles she and her armies won, that we must act, “as if we were in crisis, as if there were a war going on.” Who better than a girl child to embolden, inspire, and (if not at the very least) shame us into action?
Perhaps I should focus less on the ‘why’ behind Greta’s tremendous support and instead rejoice that people are listening to her. “Climate change is the single most important issue facing society today,” says Dr. Helen Fricker, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography professor, who is a specialist in ice sheets, climate change, and sea level rise. “People are wondering what to do about it and here is this 16-year-old kid saying, ‘Let’s do this.’” Underscoring the support around Greta is more important than ever Fricker adds, “Greta is a glimmer of hope,” she says. What we need, “is a million more Gretas.”
When my group was asked to assist the United Nations welcome flotilla for Greta’s arrival into New York, we jumped at the chance. This lauded child-hero had chosen our preferred method of transportation — a sailboat — to come to America, and we were given the opportunity to welcome her. Our group has long used the hashtags #KidsOnBoats and #WomenWhoSail to normalize the sailing and liveaboard lifestyle for families, and Greta is the living embodiment of a kid on a boat — and a woman who sails.
Her inspiring arrival by sea is about more than just climate change. She is a beacon for women and children, and for those without a voice on the world stage. As a person living with Asperger’s, she is a model for how people can look beyond one’s disability to listen and to support a neurodivergent leader. Greta’s Asperger’s, her youth, and her piercing insistence that the world not look away have pushed her into modern-day sainthood. If it’s a saint we need to implement action on the climate crisis then Greta is the great saint of our time.