In her speeches and interviews, Thunberg seems to avoid use of the word I, instead starting her sentences with we or her preferred exhortation—you. Therein is the crucial paradox of Thunberg’s work: People around the world have declared her the leader of an international movement, but Thunberg sees herself as just one small piece, or perhaps just one small organism. As in all habitats, she does her part. She expects the rest of us to do ours.
The environment is a collective problem, and its preservation requires collective action. So Thunberg paints a picture of the devastation with her usual frankness. As temperatures increase around the world, the likelihood of extreme weather events goes up too. And in between hurricanes and tsunamis, polar ice caps continue to melt, and sea levels rise. Warmer waters also mean that coral reefs have started to die off, with entire species threatened in the process. Heatwaves are more frequent. Storms rage.
The news is grim, but the response is grimmer: With Donald Trump in the White House, the United States has signaled its intent to pull out of the Paris Agreement, an international compact signed with the support of more than 190 countries in 2015. Those nations have remained in the climate change accords, but their leaders haven’t quite made good on their promises, even as scientists estimate we have about a decade to implement drastic fixes worldwide just to stave off the crisis’s most catastrophic effects. In a 2018 report from the United Nations Environment Programme, researchers found that most G20 countries aren’t on track to meet their aims. In the meantime the children strike, eschew- ing hierarchical models of power and control in favor of consensus.
“We like to tell people our movement doesn’t have leaders,” says Isabelle Axelsson, 18, who has participated in climate protests in Sweden since December 2018. “Everyone plays such an important role.” Some, like Thunberg, are adept with social media and press. Some know how to marshal the masses into squares and plazas. Others liaise with experts, or document strikes to blast out on Twitter and Instagram. But each person shows up. First one at a time, then in the dozens, then in the thousands.
Thunberg has seen climate nihilism up close; the problem is too enormous to tackle, the adults tell her. We’re just individual people, powerless when compared with governments and corporations and moneyed interests. For most of our conversation, Thunberg is adamant but calm. But an edge creeps into her voice now: “There is so much at stake, you cannot just give up like that. You have to do everything you can, even if everything seems hopeless. You have to do it.”
She knows that most people don’t think in quite the same stark terms that she does, but on this point she can’t compromise. We have so little margin for error, and this is how she sees it: “We have this crisis, and either you listen to the science and accept this problem, or you don’t. Either you act on the crisis in line with the science, or you don’t.”
Less than 72 hours after Thunberg docked in NYC, she attended a local strike near the U.N. Within minutes of its scheduled start, it had to relocate down the street, local TV crews trailing behind. The crowd was bigger than expected and we’d run out of room. It was a perfect morning, with the sun out and the plaza packed with people. Little beads of condensation collected on reusable water bottles. In one corner, students started a new chant: “It’s too hot!” In car rides or at picnics or on the beach, it’s the child’s refrain, a whine. This time it sounded ominous.