Why Greta Thunberg Was the One who Changed Everything

Christopher Vitale
Sep 27, 2019 · 7 min read

Something Big is Happening.

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Last Friday, September 21st, more than 4 Million people in 163 countries on all 7 continents left their schools and workplaces to strike for the minor cause of, you know, saving the planet. It was the largest climate protest in history.

But it started with 1.

1 continent. 1 country. 1 young girl. More on that in a bit.

My question is, what took so long? It’s not like climate change is a secret. Despite major corporations and one president’s wishes, we have known since the 70’s the dire circumstances that we face if we don’t get our collective shit together when it comes to CO2 emissions. Shell Corporation even released a documentary in 1991 with information about earth’s rising temperature and sea levels due to the production of fossil fuel. So why haven’t we been able to gather the necessary amount of energy to spark a global movement toward sustainability when our entire existence is at stake?

It’s simple in my opinion: It’s just not a good story.

Where is the anecdote we can point to clearly showing the unlikely hero? Where is the clear and immediate danger that we can feel in our bones? It’s almost… too big.

According to the revolutionary Green & Brock’s theory of Transportation psychology, when people lose themselves in a story, their attitudes and intentions change to reflect that story. The mental state of narrative transportation can explain the persuasive effect of stories on people. Humans change their behavior because of a strong feeling, not thought. We generally follow our hearts over our heads.

Climate change has no one central cause. It has victims, but the catastrophic events and extinctions occurring do not have one big climate change monster to point the finger at. The causes are many, nuanced and often formless. In some ways, invisible. So we generally tell the story in terms of numbers. Statistics. And tell me a more boring story than one starring numbers and statistics.

The closest thing we had to a climate movement was when Al Gore produced the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006. The documentary showed some astounding graphs and numbers illustrating what was ahead for the earth if we didn’t make major changes toward sustainable development. The documentary received an Oscar, Al Gore won the Nobel Prize and was certainly successful in increasing awareness, alarming many to the huge challenge we face as a species.

But Al Gore is not Greta Thunberg.

At the time of release, Al Gore was a middle aged politician famous for being a Vice President to Bill Clinton and losing the Florida recount and thus, the presidency, to George W. Bush in 2000. In many ways, just or not, Gore has the face of the oppressor — older, straight-laced, wealthy capitalist — rather than the oppressed.

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And more importantly, “An inconvenient truth” lacked a compelling story. It was Al Gore literally standing in front of graphs with numbers and statistics. Even though the numbers that those graphs showed were indeed existentially ominous, they were still just, well, numbers.

And our minds need stories. Powerfully human, emotional, invigorating stories.

It’s the reason we’ll closely follow the murder case in which a celebrity like OJ Simpson is accused and feel terrible for the victims. Meanwhile, around 5 Americans are murdered daily, mostly without notice outside of their community. Or why a natural disaster like the recent hurricane in the Bahamas will garner millions of dollars in donations while countries like Yemen and Libya live each day in dire need of clean water receiving a fraction of the support.

The story is just more captivating. And thus we feel it more.

Enter Greta.

Greta’s journey began with a strike on August 20th, 2018. Part of her legend is that, despite her efforts to recruit her classmates, she was alone. She sat outside Swedish parliament with a sign containing the now famous words “SKOLSTREJK FOR KLIMATET” (School Strike for Climate). A 15 year-old Swedish girl skipping school for 21 straight days to protest the need for policy directed at the climate crisis. This was especially impressive because Greta generally isn’t the most expressive person. She has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and selective mutism, mental illnesses that cause anxiety and depression especially in youth. And Greta was no exception to these symptoms, at one point not attending school for a period when she was 11 due to depression. And the climate crisis played a big role in her feelings.

In August of 2019, a year after that first strike gathered momentum and grew at a rapid pace, Greta was invited to speak to Congress and UN representatives in the US during what has been dubbed “Climate Week” Adding to her already growing legend, she decided to make the transatlantic trip aboard a 60 ft, emission-free sailboat to avoid the Carbon emissions that come with flying. Sailing along with her was her father. Her Mother, a successful opera singer in Sweden, has given up touring to reduce her carbon footprint and work with the climate movement at home. Greta has substantially changed the lives of those around her.

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A week after arriving came the most important day in the history of the climate movement, September 20th, 2019. When the Fridays for Future movement expanded from that first lonely strike to a casual 4,000,000(!) protestors of all shapes and sizes world wide. Thanks to her resolve and the rapid spread of her message via social media, the story of the great Greta Thunberg hit a tipping point and spread like wildfire.

Why? In my opinion, because Greta’s face alone tells an important story: There is an entire generation facing an existential crisis caused by the inaction of the generations that preceded them. And they are pissed off.

I caught on 3 or 4 months ago. I’m not even sure how. I think someone brought her up in conversation and I followed her on instagram. Over time, seeing her posts, and the spread of the Fridays for Future Movement, I began to feel inspired myself. I had been interested in sustainability but like most, only in convenient ways: avoiding single use plastic, bringing my own mug to the cafe, even switching to a vegetarian diet. Enough to believe I was doing my part but I didn’t truly feel the urgency of the movement until Greta entered my life.

She is the perfect symbol for this movement. What you would think is a shy and unassuming teenage girl getting up in front of the world leaders and publicly shaming them:

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“Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people, to give them hope,” Thunberg said at the Economic World Forum, “But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”

Wow. Just that quote alone affects me more than any of the 20 ft high graphs in “An Inconvenient Truth”.

And I think many people, young and old had the same moment of “Oh shit” that I had. We can no longer just bring our own bags to the super market. 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from not only corporations, but just the top 100 Fossil Fuel Corporations. I believe personal lifestyle changes are vital in order to shift your mindset and make sure you become the change that you want to see, but the next step is major policy change. That will not come without a loud and powerful movement. The movement now has a story, a face, a hero and her name is Greta Tintin Eleonora Ernman Thunberg.

The Numbers:

I mentioned that the numbers aren’t as important as the story when it comes to persuasion, but they are still important and helpful to understand what’s happening. So, here are the most important ones:

2.7 — Degrees in Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius). This is the maximum increase in global temperature above preindustrial levels before we hit an irreversible tipping point at which many severe effects of climate change will take place according to United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018. We are currently at a 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit increase since 1880.

45% — How much we must reduce our carbon emissions by 2030 in order to have a chance. And carbon emissions must reach net zero by 2050.

85% — How much of our energy production must be renewable by 2050 and we need to completely eliminate the use of coal now.

3,000,000 — The amount of square miles, or roughly the size of Canada, in which new forests must be planted.

What Can you do?

There are so many actions you can take that any Google search will present. I think the most important thing is to shift your mindset. Start experimenting very small, what can you change in your daily life to move toward a more sustainable way? How can you incorporate climate action into your news stream or social media timeline? This will plant the seeds in your mind to help you start thinking bigger: How can your home be more sustainable? your workplace? your city? and on and on.

The important thing is that you start with one. Like Greta.

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