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Teen Activist Will Avoid Greenhouse Gas Emissions On Her Way To U.N. Summit


A 16-year-old Swedish activist is crossing the Atlantic Ocean to attend a U.N. climate summit in New York. But Greta Thunberg is not flying here. She's sailing. She wants to avoid the greenhouse gas emissions that come with taking a commercial jet. Now, it's that kind of action - her kind of action - that has convinced teenagers around the world to get involved in climate change activism. NPR's Jeff Brady has the story.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: A year ago, Greta Thunberg began skipping school to protest by herself outside Sweden's parliament, demanding adults do more about climate change. This August, she's been on a sailboat in the Atlantic Ocean.


GRETA THUNBERG: We're currently doing between 20 and 25 knots. Last night, we hit 30 knots. And we are about 300 miles away from Nova Scotia. And it's very rough. There are very high waves.

BRADY: Thunberg documented her two-week trip on social media with daily posts. She says she first learned about climate change when she was 8 and became very concerned about the future of humanity. In this TED Talk from last November, Thunberg says, at 11 years old, she became depressed and stopped talking and eating.


GRETA: Later on, I was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, OCD and selective mutism. That basically means I only speak when I think it's necessary. Now is one of those moments.


BRADY: Thunberg says being on the autism spectrum is a gift because she thinks it helps her see issues more starkly. If greenhouse gas emissions are changing the climate, then the only answer is to stop emitting greenhouse gases, she says. Here's Thunberg speaking last December at the U.N. climate conference in Poland.


GRETA: We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground. And we need to focus on equity. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself.

BRADY: Thunberg has critics. Some have been cruel, even referring to her mental health issues. Australian conservative columnist Andrew Bolt called Thunberg, quote, "the deeply disturbed messiah of the global warming movement." Thunberg shot back on Twitter that she is deeply disturbed by hate and conspiracy campaigns. More moderate critics say Thunberg's simple solutions avoid the complexities that come with addressing climate change. Still, many teenagers around the globe are attracted to Thunberg's message, and they're showing up in the streets.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) When the Earth we need is under attack...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Stand up. Fight back.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) What do we do?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Stand up. Fight back.

BRADY: Last March, this climate protest in Philadelphia was inspired by Thunberg's school strike. It was one of many around the world. Just about every U.S. state had an event, even in politically conservative areas like central Oregon. Seventeen-year-old Freddy Finney-Jordet organized a school strike on a street corner in downtown Bend, Ore. He says he's inspired by Thunberg's determination.

FREDDY FINNEY-JORDET: She kind of looks in the camera and has this sort of look of, I'm doing this. Nobody can stop me.

BRADY: Finney-Jordet says, in the past, gun control and LGBTQ issues were his priorities.

FREDDY: After that protest, which I - first, I thought was going to be kind of a one-off thing for me, I started taking a look at exactly how severe the climate crisis was. And that's been my focus ever since.

BRADY: Greta Thunberg is scheduled to address the U.N. next month for a climate action summit. She'll join protests tied to that event. Then she plans to visit Canada and Mexico before traveling to Chile for a climate conference in December. Her family says she's taking a sabbatical from school this year to focus on her climate activism.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.


Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.