Greta Thunberg leaves N America as new Europe adventures await

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks to AFP during an interview aboard La Vagabonde, the boat she will be taking to return to Europe, in Hampton, Virginia, on 12 November 2019. Photo: AFP
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks to AFP during an interview aboard La Vagabonde, the boat she will be taking to return to Europe, in Hampton, Virginia, on 12 November 2019. Photo: AFP

"Extremely educational" is how Greta Thunberg sums up her North American sojourn as she prepares to cross the Atlantic once more, this time bound back for Europe.

The 16-year-old Swede, who became world famous for founding the "school strikes for the climate," will set sail Wednesday morning, weather permitting, after 11 hectic weeks of criss-crossing the US and Canada, making headlines at every turn.

She excoriated world leaders at the United Nations, met former US president Barack Obama, received the keys to the city of Montreal and road tripped across the continent in a Tesla electric car lent to her by actor and ex-governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But what did she make of the impact of the UN summit, the weekly student strikes, the protests where millions packed the streets worldwide to demand action against anthropogenic climate change?

"It depends," she says in her usual matter-of-fact manner in an interview with AFP on board "La Vagabonde," a sailboat owned by a young Australian couple that will be her home for the next two to three weeks.

She is wearing an oversized black windbreaker emblazoned with the words "Unite Behind The Science" as heavy, freezing rain pounds the hull.

"In one way, lots of things have changed, and lots of things have moved in the right direction, but also in a sense we have gone a few more months without real action being taken and without people realizing the emergency we are in," said the high-schooler, who will return to her education next year.

She expresses her admiration for the people she met "who are living at the front line, and who are experiencing and living through the first consequences of the climate emergency" -- such as fellow teen Tokata Iron Eyes of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, who fought in vain to stop the construction of an oil pipeline on her homeland.

What did she learn from Obama? "It depends on how you define learning. I got an experience and he explained things to me, how it was to be in his position, how things work, and so on, so that, I guess."

Her assessment of the presidents and prime ministers she encountered at the UN, meanwhile, was less than stellar.

"World leaders and people in power, politicians ask me for selfies and ask other climate activists for selfies because they want to look good next to us and say, 'We care about the future of this planet, we care about future generations and young people today,'" she said, unsparingly.

She won't mention names, but says "it was quite a lot."

Even those countries that have committed to net zero emissions by 2050, such as the United Kingdom and New Zealand, are not doing "nearly enough," she insists, adding that the media must do a better job of communicating why these targets aren't sufficient to avert long-term climate disaster.

Asia in 2020 
When it comes to Donald Trump, dubbed by critics as the "climate-denier-in-chief," Greta suggests that, paradoxically, he may have helped galvanize the movement.

"He's so extreme and he says so extreme things, so I think people wake up by that in a way," she believes.

She preferred not to dwell on a video clip of her appearing to glower at Trump at the UN that went viral on social media, saying she was simply surprised to see him.

"I wondered why he was there because the thing was that he was not supposed to be there," she explained. "That was the news. So something must have changed his mind so that he showed up there."

Six souls will set out on La Vagabonde: Elayna Carausu, 26, and her partner Riley Whitelum, 35, together with their 11-month-old boy Lenny; 26-year-old professional British sailor Nikki Henderson, who was called upon to help, Greta, and her father Svante.

The elder Thunberg has accompanied his daughter throughout her journey and greeted journalists, but hasn't given any interviews on the trip, and Tuesday was no exception.

They set out early Wednesday from the pier where the "La Vagabonde" has been moored for the past week, the property of a retired couple who are passionate about sailing and who had offered the young Australians a free stopover -- before its most famous passenger was added to the manifest.

Greta plans to attend the COP 25 climate summit in Madrid, which starts in just under three weeks, before heading home to Sweden.

For 2020, "I don't have any plans right now," she says. Her school year starts in August.

That said, "if I get an invitation to go somewhere, I will definitely try to get to places I haven't been in already, especially places in Asia, and of course, meetings, like, world leaders gathering, if I get invited."

The seas are expected to be rougher on her return journey, given the season, but she says the prospect of harsh weather doesn't perturb her, as the boat's owners and skipper busy themselves with final preparations.

She shows reporters a cabin and the toilets, and says she doesn't suffer from seasickness -- at least she didn't last time.

She does correct, however, the reporter who makes the faulty assumption that she must also be used low temperatures. "I'm always cold," she says.