One year of Greta Thunberg, climate activist and magnet for hope — and hate

One year of Greta Thunberg, climate activist and magnet for hope — and hate
Copyright REUTERS
Copyright REUTERS
By Anne FleischmannAlastair Jamieson
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Greta Thunberg has inspired many, but is ridiculed by some who question if her sailing trip to America is as environmentally-friendly as it seems.


It has been one year since Greta Thunberg first went on strike at school. Since then, the teenage activist has become a role model for many, but a figure of ridicule to some who question whether her current sailing trip to America is as environmentally-friendly as it seems.

Since becoming a climate campaigner, the 16-year-old has adapted her lifestyle to her principles.

She is vegan and no longer buys new clothes. She travels by train.

In her travels, she is always accompanied by her supportive father, Svante. For a girl who is on the autism spectrum, the media attention she receives is unpleasant.

"[But] if I did not fight, I would feel bad,” she explained. “When I grow up, I want to be able to look back and say I did what was possible."

For her latest expedition, to climate conferences in the United States, she is on a yacht bound for New York, the Malizia II. You can track her journey, here.

Along with her father, she is accompanied by two professional sailors, Boris Herrmann and Pierre Casiraghi, as well as the cinematographer Nathan Grossman, who is making a documentary.

The team made a point of declaring their journey carbon-neutral.

However, a report in German outlet, Taz, says Thunberg is generating more greenhouse gases than if she had flown — because the boat will be brought back to Europe by other sailors who must fly to the US to meet it. Herrmann will fly back, causing another flight.

The debate has divided experts. But it has also illustrated the extent of global interest in the issues raised by a schoolgirl from Sweden.

Fridays for Future

It began with a sign reading "Skolstrejk för klimatet", or "school strike for the climate.”

On Instagram, 15-year-old Thunberg announced a strike until election day for the climate, because adults would not care about their future. On September 9, 2018, Sweden elected a new parliament.

But during the three-week strike, her protest became more and more popular. International media became aware of the protest.

Then Thunberg announced that she will continue to act every Friday, and called on others to join her. The hashtag #FridaysForFuture was born.

In the following weeks, more and more young people became excited about the cause. In December, Thunberg went to the UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, travelling with her father by electric car.

"You say that you love your children above all else. Yet you steal their future,” she told the conference.


UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres lent his support, calling climate change "a matter of life and death” for many.

Since then, she has spoken to EU officials, and met French President Emmanuel Macron. She has also met Barack Obama, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Pope Francis.


All the time, while giving her support to strikes in European cities from Paris to Rome and Berlin to Hamburg.

Yacht storm

But with her ubiquitous appearances has come more scrutiny. In particular, her yacht trip has prompted questions over whether it could be more harmful to the environment than simply taking a flight.

Is it simply a stunt? Euronews spoke to the team of skipper Boris Herrmann and two climate experts.

Holly Cova, Team Manager for Herrmann's crew, said the carbon footprint of all flights needed in the logistical operation of the Malizia II was offset. “We fully offset our carbon footprint for 2018, and we will do so in 2019 and beyond,” she says.

"Our solution is not perfect, but we are learning and taking steps in the right direction, we believe that compensation is better than doing nothing, and we hope that the journey that we proudly take along with Greta will help to raise awareness of this important issue.”


She adds: “We are inspired by Greta and wanted to help her along the way, the world has not yet found a way to make it possible to cross an ocean without a carbon footprint. Her challenge is our common challenge, and we need to focus on finding solutions.”

Gabriele Hegerl of the University of Edinburgh said: “Air travel makes a very big contribution to the carbon cycle, so it's good to raise awareness and seek alternatives, and the campaign has definitely encouraged people to think about their own air travel.”

Elmar Grosse Ruse, project manager Climate and Energy of the WWF Switzerland Foundation, says such debate and criticism was a “distraction tactic” from the important issues.

“Presumably she would be attacked even more if she had chosen the plane,” he says. By criticising "even the most absurd 'climate sins,” it ensures that "nobody talks about the actual demands for climate protection.”

He added: "With the sailboat trip she is documenting - irrespective of the actual climate balance - once again her honest endeavour to be climate-friendly when working for climate protection, thus inspiring and inspiring others."


Jörg Bendix, a professor at the University of Marburg, sees it similarly. To question the sailboat is "completely meaningless,” he believes.

"In the first place, it serves only the respective camps to discredit or to iconise a highly intelligent and admirable youth,” he says.

The real message is clear: "We have to change our way of mobility so that we emit as few greenhouse gases as possible." It's about much more than just the movement from A to B but about “the entire product cycles of transport and infrastructure as well as the avoidance of traffic."

"All the petty headlines on sailboat trips do not help us solve the basic questions at all, but are more damaging to the necessary mastering of the mammoth task ahead of us."

The boat returns to Europe without Thunberg — why?

Thunberg’s journey is emission-free, says Cova. The boat emits no emissions and does not use fossil fuel. And yet it is unavailable for her return journey.


"We are a racing team and must use this time to train as we would have if we had not made this trip,” she says. The team must train for The Ocean Race — a round-the-world sailing regatta that takes place every three years.

"We decided to travel to New York City on a very short notice, so two people have to fly to the US to bring the boat back in. We only have one boat so they can not easily cross over to meet them four crew members sail back the boat, these are logistical decisions that the Malizia team made on their own,” Cova explains.

Thunberg’s own press team did not respond to several requests from Euronews for comment.

Social media response

On social media, there has been a mixture of support and hostility over the sailing trip.

Arron Banks, co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign and British businessman, made an off-colour joke about accidents involving yachts in August.


Provocateur radio host Julia Hartley-Brewer wrote: “I've just booked some long-haul flights for my family to enjoy some winter sunshine on the beach at Christmas. Grade of guilt: 0%.”

Actor George Takei remarked that it was “sad” how many people “feel threatened by a teenager.”

And in any case, Thunberg has managed to bring climate change into the mainstream.

"So much media coverage, so much political action, so ecological voting behaviour we have never had - and all this now for many months, much longer than usual thematic cycles,” says a delighted Grosse Ruse of the WWF. “This shows that this is much more than eco-hype.”

Bendix also finds the influence of #FridaysforFuture "extremely pleasing.”


"It is difficult to assess whether a broader social consensus on climate change can be achieved under the increasing political-populist current," he says.

Among other things, it would need “real and broad political will to fight for climate protection” as well as "innovative spirit and willingness to take risks in industry to implement solutions against short-term profit interests.”

"It will probably take a generational change to succeed in all areas, perhaps one of Thunberg's greatest accomplishments," he says.

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