The Thunberg Effect: Youth Climate Movement gains momentum in New York City

By: Allison Wood

In a 2018 Special Report, the International Panel on Climate Change warned that “there is only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.[1]

Enter: Greta Thunberg.

At age 16, Greta Thunberg is an internationally recognized climate activist. The teen, originally from Sweden, first garnered attention for organizing “school strikes for climate”, asking youth around the globe to skip school and urge politicians to take urgent climate action.[2]Her personal mission began on August 20, 2018 when she skipped school and protested alone in front of Sweden’s parliament.[3]Since then she has been a growing international force, and thanks to the aid of social media, her message quickly escaped the borders of Sweden as both her school strikes and advocacy efforts have become a global phenomenon.

As she continued the school strikes, Thunberg delivered a Ted Talk at a November 2018 TEDxStockholm event.[4]Then, in December of 2018, the then 15-year-old delivered viral remarks at the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations (UN COP24) in Poland.[5]She continued her work into 2019, meeting with the UN Secretary-General in June of 2019 in Austria, among other advocacy engagements.[6]

In August of 2019, Thunberg again made international headlines when she refused to contribute the greenhouse gas emissions of a trans-Atlantic flight and instead crossed the Ocean from the U.K. to the U.S. in a solar-powered, zero emissions sailboat.[7]Upon completion of her low-carbon journey, the UN sent 17 sailboats into New York Harbor (one for each of its sustainable development goals) to meet the teen.[8]Having safely arrived in New York City ahead of the September 21st UN Youth Climate Summit and September 23rd UN Climate Action Summit,[9]Thunberg plans to be heavily involved in the Global Climate Strike, taking place on September 20th.[10]

Thunberg’s “Superpower”

In addition to her non-trivial contributions to global climate awareness, Thunberg has also become an advocate for individuals with Asberger’s syndrome, recently going public with her own diagnosis.[11]While this has brought a renewed wave of attacks from both the media and her opponents, she has remained strong, calling the disorder her “superpower”.[12]In fact, according to experts, people with Asperger’s are “usually renowned for being direct, speaking their mind, and being honest”.[13]According to NPR, Thunberg is known best for speaking in “clear and powerful terms” when urging individuals to pay attention to growing climate concerns.[14]  Has Thunberg’s diagnosis in fact allowed her to articulate the impending dangers of the climate crisis in a crucially direct way?

What’s Ahead: Momentum and Strategy

In light of the Global Climate Strike today, New York City Public Schools have announced that they will not be penalizing students who wish to skip school in order to protest for climate action.[15]To help grow this momentum and support for the international climate movement, Thunberg plans to speak at the UN Summit and then travel throughout North and South America, attending the UN COP25 conference in December in Santiago, Chile.[16]

Last Friday, Thunberg joined protesters outside of the White House[17]where she made her strategy clear. When asked if she would speak with the Trump administration, she replied succinctly: “I don’t want to meet with people who don’t accept the science.”[18]

[1]Jonathan Watts, We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN, The Guardian, Oct. 8, 2018,

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report; See generally, Int’l Panel on Climate Change,Global Warming of 1.5°C (2018).

[2]Bill Chapel & Alisa Chang, Greta Thunberg To U.S.: ‘You Have A Moral Responsibility’ On Climate Change, Sep. 13, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/09/13/760538254/greta-thunberg-to-u-s-you-have-a-moral-responsibility-on-climate-change.

[3]Id.

[4]Greta Thunberg, Remarks at TedxStockholm, November 2018,  https://www.ted.com/talks/greta_thunberg_the_disarming_case_to_act_right_now_on_climate?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare

[5]Connect4Climate, Greta Thunberg full speech at UN Climate Change COP24 Conference, Youtube (Dec. 15, 2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFkQSGyeCWg.

[6]United Nations (@UnitedNations), Instagram (Jun. 4, 2019), https://www.instagram.com/p/BySck2fligB/

[7]CNN Travel, Greta Thunberg will sail across the Atlantic on a zero-emissions yacht for the UN climate summit, CNN, last updated Aug. 18, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/29/europe/greta-thunberg-sailboat-scli-intl/index.html

[8]Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg), Twitter, Aug. 28, 2019 https://twitter.com/GretaThunberg/status/1166791436538449922.

[9]Climate Action Summit 2019, United Nations, https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/(last visited Sep. 17, 2019).

[10]Umair Irfan, Greta Thunberg is leading kids and adults from 150 countries in a massive Friday climate strike, Vox, Sep. 17, 2019, https://www.vox.com/2019/9/17/20864740/greta-thunberg-youth-climate-strike-fridays-future.

[11]Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg), Twitter (Aug. 31, 2019), https://twitter.com/gretathunberg/status/1167916177927991296.

[12]Id.

[13]Alison Rourke, Greta Thunberg responds to Asperger’s critics: ‘It’s a superpower’, Sep. 2, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/02/greta-thunberg-responds-to-aspergers-critics-its-a-superpower.

[14]Chapel & Chang, supra note 2.

[15]Anne Barnard, Climate Strike N.Y.C.: 1.1 Million Can Skip School for Protest, last updated Sep. 17, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/16/nyregion/youth-climate-strike-nyc.html.

[16]CNN Travel, supra note 7.

[17]Chapel & Chang, supra note 2.

[18]Id.

Image from MSN

3 comments

  1. Wonderful article Allison! I did not know that the New York City public school system was allowing children to skip class and attend the climate strike back in September. Yet another example of New York being at the forefront of the environmental movement!

  2. It is nice to look back at this article and see all that has happened in the climate movement since. Greta Thunberg has inspired many young climate activists, while also rightfully acknowledging all of the indigenous and climate activists of color who pioneered the movement. Despite, the upsetting 9th Circuit decision in Juliana there is a lot to look forward to because the youth are very passionate about the movement.

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