Greta Thunberg turns 17 today. Here’s how she started a global climate movement in just 18 months.

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Left: Greta Thunberg sits outside the Swedish parliament building in order to raises awareness for climate change on August 28, 2018 in Stockholm, Sweden. Right: eople protest during a Climate Strike march in San Francisco, California, September 20, 2019. MICHAEL CAMPANELLA/Getty Images and REUTERS/Kate Munsch

Today, the world’s most prominent climate activist turns 17.

In the last 18 months, Greta Thunberg “has succeeded in creating a global attitudinal shift, transforming millions of vague, middle-of-the-night anxieties into a worldwide movement calling for urgent change,” the editors of Time wrote in December, when they named her the magazine’s 2019 person of the year.

Thunberg launched the “Fridays For Future” movement – or School Strike for Climate (as it says in Swedish on her now-famous sign) – in 2018, encouraging students to skip school to demand action on climate change from their governments. That November, when she was in ninth grade, Thunberg staged a two-week strike outside the Swedish parliament, demanding that her government cut emissions by 15% a year.

She still spends every Friday on strike; Thunberg is on week 72, according to her Twitter.

In September, 4 million people joined her in that strike across 161 countries – the largest climate demonstration in history. Following that day of action, Thunberg gave an impassioned, tearful speech to world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit.

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean,” she said with tears in her eyes. “Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

Here’s how Thunberg rose to prominence as the face of a new movement.


“She has offered a moral clarion call to those who are willing to act, and hurled shame on those who are not,” Time magazine wrote of Thunberg last month.

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Time magazine’s person of the year 2019 cover. TIME

In response to Time’s recognition, Thunberg tweeted : “Wow, this is unbelievable! I share this great honour with everyone in the #FridaysForFuture movement and climate activists everywhere.”


Thunberg has been thinking about climate change — and the lack of action to curb it — since age 8. She has said she didn’t understand why adults weren’t working to mitigate its effects.

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Greta Thunberg began her youth climate strike movement in Sweden. Anders Hellberg

By age 11, Thunberg said, she became depressed by the seemingly impossible task of saving the planet.

In May 2018, Thunberg won a climate-change essay competition for the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. That was the genesis of her activism career. She started the School Strike for Climate effort three months later and launched her first protest three months after that.


Thunberg partially credits her Asperger’s syndrome for her fierce activist nature.

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Greta Thunberg speaks at the school strike demonstration ‘Fridays for Future’ in Berlin, Germany, July 19, 2019. Paul Zinken/dpa via AP

In an interview with BBC journalist Nick Robinson, Thunberg said that “being different is a gift.”

If she didn’t have Asperger’s, Thunberg added, she wouldn’t have become such a passionate activist. Thunberg has also tweeted about her condition, saying that Asperger’s is a “superpower.”


In December 2018, Thunberg spoke at the United Nations climate-change conference in Katowice, Poland.

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Greta Thunberg and her father, Svante, at a press conference during the COP24 summit in Katowice, Poland, in December 2018. Janek Skarzynski/Getty Images

“This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced,” she told UN secretary general António Guterres before that conference started. “First we have to realise this and then as fast as possible do something to stop the emissions and try to save what we can save.”


Three months later, in March 2019, Thunberg led more than 1 million students around the world as they walked out of Friday classes to protest inaction on climate change.

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Students march across Westminster Bridge as they take part in a climate protest in London, March 15, 2019. Matt Dunham/AP

Young people in more than 123 countries skipped school to demand more robust climate policies and the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions.


“We have only been born into this world. We are going to have to live with this crisis our whole lives,” Thunberg said in a speech in Stockholm during that global event.

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Protesters gather in Stockholm, Sweden, for the ‘Global Strike For Future’ demonstration on May 24, 2019. Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty Images

“We are not going to accept this. We are striking because we want a future and we are going to carry on,” Thunberg added, according to Reuters.


Thunberg was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in March 2019.

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Greta Thunberg in Vienna, Austria, May 2019. Reuters

She “has launched a mass movement, which I see as a major contribution to peace,” Norwegian MP Freddy André Øvstegård told The Guardian at the time. “We have proposed Greta Thunberg because if we do nothing to halt climate change it will be the cause of wars, conflict, and refugees.”

In the end, the award went to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who brokered peace between his nation and Eritrea.


A month later, Thunberg spoke with Pope Francis during the weekly general audience at the Vatican.

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Climate activist Greta Thunberg meets Pope Francis during the weekly audience at Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican Vatican Media/Reuters

The Pope strongly supports action to curb climate change.

“Thank you for standing up for the climate and speaking the truth. It means a lot,” Thunberg told him in April 2019.

“God bless you, continue to work, continue. Go along, go ahead,” he responded.


A week after that, Thunberg told UK parliament leaders: “Many of you appear concerned that we are wasting valuable lesson time, but I assure you we will go back to school the moment you start listening to science and give us a future.”

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Greta Thunberg meets with former Climate Change Minister Ed Miliband (third from left) and other UK politicians. Leon Neal/Getty Images

Thunberg has also met with UN leaders on numerous occasions and visited the French parliament as well.


Because air travel has a heavy carbon footprint, Thunberg refuses to fly. In Europe, she typically travels by train. But getting to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York in September 2019 posed a new challenge.

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Greta Thunberg and her cross-Atlantic crew mates: Svante Thunberg, Boris Herrmann, Pierre Casiraghi, and Nathan Grossman. Ricardo Pinto

A single round-trip flight between New York and California generates roughly 20% of the greenhouse gases your car emits in a year.


Thunberg enlisted the help of Boris Herrmann, who captains a schooner called Malizia II. The ship runs on solar power and underwater turbines (in addition to wind, of course), thereby emitting no carbon.

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Thunberg aboard the zero-emissions vessel Malizia II on August 16, 2019. Courtesy of Malizia II media

She completed the 13-day, cross-Atlantic journey with her father Svante, professional sailors Boris Herrmann and Pierre Casiraghi, and filmmaker Nathan Grossman in August.


While in the US, Thunberg sat down with Barack Obama.

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Greta Thunberg meets with Barack Obama on September 17, 2019. Screenshot/Obama Foundation

“Just 16, @GretaThunberg is already one of our planet’s greatest advocates,” Obama tweeted after their meeting.


She also met with members of the US House of Representatives to discuss climate-change policies. Instead of a prepared speech, Thunberg simply submitted a 2018 UN climate report.

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Greta Thunberg speaks during a joint hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis in Washington, DC, September 18, 2019. Alastair Pike/Getty Images

Thunberg’s remarks at the hearing lasted less than one minute.

“I don’t want you to listen to me,” she said. “I want you to listen to the scientists.”


On September 20, 2019, Thunberg led a worldwide climate strike that included 4 million people across 161 countries.

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Thunberg marched with a giant crowd through the streets of New York City on September 20, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Adults joined the ranks of young protesters in most major cities around the world. It was the biggest climate-change protest in history.

“We showed that we are united and we young people are unstoppable,” Thunberg said the following day.


At the UN Climate Action Summit a few days later, Thunberg chastised world leaders with tears in her eyes: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

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Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg speaks during the Climate Action Summit at United Nations Headquarters in New York, New York, September 23, 2019. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

“For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you are doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight,” she said.


After that speech, Thunberg joined 15 other young people from around the world to file a legal complaint alleging that five countries’ inaction on global warming violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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On September 23, 2019, at the UNICEF House in New York, Greta Thunberg announces a collective action being taken on behalf of young people everywhere facing the impacts of the climate crisis. Radhika Chalasani/UNICEF

The complaint was filed against Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey.

The UN treaty is 30 years old; children have been able to file legal complaints to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child since 2014.


Thunberg spent the next couple of months travelling throughout the US and Canada, meeting climate activists and environmental protesters.

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Greta Thunberg at a climate rally in Denver, Colorado on October 11, 2019. Reuters

Thunberg had planned to travel to Santiago, Chile to attend the COP25 climate conference last month, but the event was moved at the last minute to Madrid, Spain.


So Thunberg hitched an impromptu cross-Atlantic ride with an Australian couple, their 11-month-old son, and a professional sailor in November.

The boat arrived in Lisbon, Portugal on December 3, and Thunberg made it to Madrid on December 6, just in time for her speaking commitments at COP25.


On December 11, Thunberg addressed climate scientists in Madrid. “I am telling you there is hope. I have seen it. But it does not come from governments or corporations. It comes from the people,” she said.

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Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks with leading climate scientists at the United Nations COP25 climate summit in Madrid, Spain, December 11, 2019. Paul White/AP

Thunberg added: “We do not have to wait. We can start the change right now. We the people.”

Ivan De Luce contributed to a previous version of this story.