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On Sept. 28, Greta Thunberg mocked world leaders when she reiterated their promises to an audience of young activists at the Youth4Climate event in Milan, Italy, saying: “Build back better, blah blah blah, green economy, blah blah blah, net zero by 2050, blah blah blah, climate neutral, blah blah blah… This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words. Words that sound great, but so far has led to no action.”
Two weeks later, in the run-up to COP26, considered by many to be a last-chance opportunity to make meaningful change on climate, Thunberg sat down in her Stockholm kitchen to talk about what she expects—and hopes—will come from the global event.
This is an excerpt of her conversation with NBC News’ Al Roker, in partnership with Covering Climate Now. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Al Roker: Last month, Italy, the Youth4Climate conference, you used the phrase, “blah blah blah,” which ended up going viral. Who were you addressing the “blah blah blah” to?
Greta Thunberg: Well, I think in general it was meant for people in power all around the world. I took authentic quotes from many world leaders, and then it became clear that I was actually just saying their words.
Roker: Greta, if you could fill in the “blah blah blah,” what words would you want to hear from these leaders?
Thunberg: I mainly wouldn’t want to hear words, because we’ve heard many words, and of course words are good if they lead to something, but as it is now, these words aren’t really leading to anything. As we have seen now for many, many decades and as we continue to see that there are words that replace action. Words that they use in order to be able to say that they are doing something, when they are in fact not.
Roker: Would you say that these world leaders aren’t really taking this seriously, that they’re giving more lip service than actual action?
Thunberg: It sure does seem like that, to judge from their actions and their words.
Roker: Can you point to any world leaders on the stage today that you think are taking this seriously, that their actions actually back up their words?
Thunberg: I think no one in that kind of position is today. Of course there are many individuals who want to do more and who are trying to push in any way that they can, but of course we are not seeing that any world leaders are taking sufficient action. If [they were], that would be great because the world could follow them. Just imagine what would happen if one country started to act as if it was an emergency. But unfortunately we are not seeing that today.
Roker: What do you think of what’s been happening here in the United States when it comes to climate change and policy?
Thunberg: Well it’s unfortunate, but it shows that what we had thought: that world leaders are not ready for climate action, whether it is in the U.S. or in Sweden or in China, whatever it may be. The emissions are still rising.
Roker: We saw what’s happened with COVID, and it was this global emergency. People have rallied and there’s billions of dollars being poured into this. Do you think that the climate emergency is being treated the same way, say, as a COVID emergency?
Thunberg: Well I think that you can objectively say that the climate crisis is not being treated as an emergency, especially when you compare to COVID in many parts of the world. The climate crisis is not being treated as an emergency, and it never has.
Roker: What would you say is the price of waiting? Every day that we wait, as opposed to globally, trying to take action, no matter how small or large?
Thunberg: Already we are seeing devastating effects of inaction and waiting. And if we continue to wait that will only get worse. We will lose many more lives and livelihoods and ecosystems. And many of these damages will be irreversible. It’s an active choice to not take action.
Roker: You raise an interesting point in that, I think a lot of this climate activity, a lot of this desire for climate action is being led by a lot of young people, people like yourself, because you are the ones who are going to inherit this planet. Do you think that the young people of the world are having an impact when it comes to climate?
Thunberg: I think that young people in the world are having a big impact and have had and have been having a big impact recently. Of course we don’t have the power to change things, we have the power to influence other people, to influence adults. Because we can’t do this ourselves. We need help with this; we are not the ones in charge. We need everyone in order to push for this.
Roker: When you look, Greta, at the world stage and what’s been going on, and you can be somewhat hopeless or helpless, are there bright spots that give you hope about this?
Thunberg: I think there are many, many bright spots. When I’m taking action, I don’t feel like I am helpless and that I can’t do anything, and that things are hopeless. Because then I feel like I’m taking action and that I’m doing everything I can, and that gives me very much hope, and especially to see all the other people all around the world, the activists who are taking action and who are fighting for their present and for their future. I find that incredibly hopeful, that people, so many people are willing to change and are ready for change.
Roker: Sometimes when you have a situation like this that is so large, people are almost paralyzed by it. What do you say to those who say, “Oh, this is too big. What difference can I make, as an individual? This has to be done on a, on a bigger scale at a government scale.” What difference does the individual make?
Thunberg: I think every activist has had many, many moments when they thought that “I can’t do anything, I can’t make a difference.” Of course, that includes me as well. But I think that we together have shown that that is not true. When people come together to organize, to mobilize, and to do campaigns that can have a massive impact it can change everything, it can change the public perception. So nothing is too small. I, and many other activists, started very, very small at home with just trying to reduce our carbon footprints, and then we became activists, and then we got into the streets. And now we are a network of millions of people globally who are every day in contact, and who are mobilizing and organizing marches, etc.
Roker: I’m sure you’ve seen video on social media and the news of this pipeline rupture off the coast of California, over 150,000 gallons of oil pouring into the Pacific Ocean. I remember just about when I was your age, seeing these things and thinking, “OK, they’ve got to do something about this.” And it seemed like it was getting better and now here we are all over again with wildlife being threatened, water quality, land. When you see something like that, what goes through your mind?
Thunberg: Unfortunately, I think that we have seen so many similar events that we have become kind of numb to these things, that we don’t really react in the way that we should. Because these things are happening so much all the time. But of course, I think that it’s such a clear sign that our society is not sustainable. It is really unsustainable in every possible way.
Roker: Do you think something like this is a wake-up call that we need to start transitioning from reliance on fossil fuels?
Thunberg: Definitely, it could and should be a wake-up call. As I said, there have been many, many similar events, and it feels like these should be a wake-up call, but so far they haven’t been. But maybe it’s an accumulative effect, that when we reach a point where we have experienced so many of these events, we’ve suddenly realized that we can’t go on like this. So I guess we’ve just got to continue to highlight these disasters when they happen, and hope that they can be a wake-up call, because it’s still very possible for them to be a wake-up call to change things.
Roker: And if people aren’t hearing that wake-up call, why do you think there is a disconnect, why aren’t they hearing that?
Thunberg: Because no one else is acting as if we are in an emergency. Humans are social animals, and we look to each other and copy each other’s behavior, and since everyone else around us is just acting as everything is normal, as if nothing is wrong, of course we will also act as if nothing is wrong.
Roker: Are you going to be attending COP26?
Thunberg: Yeah, I think I will be there in person.
Roker: How effective, in your opinion, are global climate conferences like this? Do they achieve anything, or is it more about symbolism and getting it out in front of people?
Thunberg: I think they have the potential of really changing things, since so many people come together to find “solutions,” whatever they consider them to be. But as it is now, it’s not really leading to anything, because it’s just blah blah blah; it’s just negotiations and empty talks, and these never-ending discussions, and they aren’t really leading to action. But it’s an opportunity to mobilize people to highlight this crisis, to show that we are in an emergency, and I think, that’s the opportunity that we are going to use to try to mobilize people around this.
Roker: What do you think it is going to take for that change to happen?
Thunberg: It’s a very big task that’s ahead of us. We need to change social norms, and we need to change what we perceive as the crisis, and what we perceive as being normal. But one thing that it will take is honesty. We need to be honest about what we are doing and we need to be brave in order to confront that, in order to be able to change things. And it will take the people who have a platform, whether it is media, people in power, or just people who are influential, that they use that platform to communicate that we are in a crisis. Because if we do not start to treat the crisis like a crisis, then the people around us will not understand that we are in an emergency. So that’s what we need to do.
Roker: Greta, what do you say to people who say, “Well, you know, for us to change the way we live and the way we create energy, the way we power our vehicles and our transportation, that’s going to be way too costly. We’re gonna see jobs lost, we’re going to see prices rise.” What do you say to those people?
Thunberg: I think it’s been a very successful narrative by climate delayers and business-as-usual activists to portray it as taking climate action would be a loss. Of course that’s not the case. And, of course, as we know by now, inaction will be much, much more expensive, and we will lose so, so much more than actually taking action. It’s strange that we are still having that discussion.
Roker: You’re a very young person. You’ve got your life ahead of you. Forecast for me, 10 years, where do you see us? Where do you see yourself?
Thunberg: I have no idea. As long as I’m doing everything I can, as long as we are doing everything that we can, I think we can just live in the moment, and then just try to change the future while we still can, instead of trying to predict the future.
Breanna Draxler is a senior editor at YES!, where she leads coverage of climate and environmental justice, and Native rights. She has nearly a decade of experience editing, reporting, and writing for national magazines including National Geographic online and Grist, among others. She collaborated on a climate action guide for Audubon Magazine that won a National Magazine Award in 2020. She recently served as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Northwest Science Writers Association. She has a master’s degree in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Breanna is based out of the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people, but has worked in newsrooms on both coasts and in between. She previously held staff positions at bioGraphic, Popular Science, and Discover Magazine.