Greta Thunberg led a protest at the White House on Friday. But she wasn't looking to go inside — "I don't want to meet with people who don't accept the science," she says.
The young Swedish activist joined a large crowd of protesters who had gathered outside, calling for immediate action to help the environment and reverse an alarming warming trend in average global temperatures.
She says her message for President Trump is the same thing she tells other politicians: Listen to science, and take responsibility.
Thunberg, 16, arrived in the U.S. last week after sailing across the Atlantic to avoid the carbon emissions from jet travel. She plans to spend nearly a week in Washington, D.C. — but she doesn't plan to meet with anyone from the Trump administration during that time.
"I haven't been invited to do that yet. And honestly I don't want to do that," Thunberg tells NPR's Ailsa Chang. If people in the White House who reject climate change want to change their minds, she says, they should rely on scientists and professionals to do that.
But Thunberg also believes the U.S. has an "incredibly important" role to play in fighting climate change.
"You are such a big country," she says. "In Sweden, when we demand politicians to do something, they say, 'It doesn't matter what we do — because just look at the U.S.'
"I think you have an enormous responsibility" to lead climate efforts, she adds. "You have a moral responsibility to do that."
Thunberg is known for promoting school strikes among students concerned by climate change. On Aug. 20, 2018, she skipped school to protest by herself outside Sweden's parliament.
"I handed out fliers with a long list of facts about the climate crisis and explanations on why I was striking," she said in a Facebook post. She's since inspired student protests in dozens of countries.
Her fame has grown steadily, thanks to the clear terms in which she speaks about why people — particularly young people — must pay attention to Earth's climate. She gave a TED Talk about the issue last November; one month later, she made a powerful speech at a U.N. climate change conference in Poland.
"You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden, you leave to us children," Thunberg, who was then 15, told the grownups at the conference, in a video that's been watched millions of times online.
Asked when she became so passionate about climate change, Thunberg says it started before she was 10 years old, during a school lesson that, as she recalls, made the entire class very sad.
"We saw these horrifying pictures of plastic in the oceans and floodings and so on, and everyone was very moved by that. But then it just seemed like everyone went back to normal," Thunberg says. "And I couldn't go back to normal because those pictures were stuck in my head. And I couldn't just go on knowing that this was happening around the world."
She began researching the issue, reading about climate science and asking questions. Her sense of activism grew gradually — and at a time when she says she was dealing with depression. At the time, Thunberg was 11.
"How I got back from that depression was by telling myself I can do so much good with my life instead of just being depressed," she says.
She became an activist, attending marches and talking to people inside the environmental movement. When the pace seemed too slow, she hit on the idea of a school strike, and a new movement was born. But Thunberg is quick to note that much work remains to be done.
"Even though this movement has become huge and there have been millions of children and young people who have been school striking for the climate," Thunberg says, "the emission curve is still not reducing ... and of course that is all that matters."
In the past, Thunberg also has spoken about being diagnosed with Asperger syndrome — and how that has helped her.
"My diagnosis helps me helps me see things a bit more clearly sometimes," she says. "When everyone else seems to just compromise and have this double moral that's, 'Yeah. That's very important, but also I can't do that right now and I'm too lazy and so on.'
"But I can't really do that."
Thunberg continues, "I want to walk the talk, and to practice as I preach. So that is what I'm trying to do. Because if I am focused on something and if I know something and if I decide to do something, then I go all in. And it seems like others are not doing that right now. So yeah, it has definitely helped me."
Thunberg has now been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In the U.S., she plans to lead protests ahead of next week's U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York City. Her arrival in Washington helped kick off that plan.
"Protect our future!" young demonstrators chanted as they marched across the grass north of the White House. One girl held a sign reading, "Make Earth Cool Again."
The only things that seemed to slow Thunberg were the many admirers and journalists that thronged around her on the sidewalks around the White House. The crowd was repeatedly asked to move back, and the diminutive Thunberg was able to inch along, pausing occasionally to acknowledge a question or comment from passers-by.
"Thank you, Greta!" several onlookers shouted. Another yelled out, "We're all here for you — and the climate!"
After the protesters marched around the White House to the lower portion of the Ellipse, Thunberg delivered a short speech, speaking through a megaphone to tell the crowd she's grateful for their support and proud of them for coming to the march.
"This is very overwhelming," Thunberg said, noting the large turnout.
.@NYCschools will excuse absences of students participating in the #ClimateStrike on Friday 9/20. Students will need parental consent. Younger students can only leave school with a parent. https://t.co/hcBO1Cnb3m— NYC Public Schools (@NYCSchools) September 12, 2019
"Never give up," she told the protesters, adding, "See you next week, on Sept. 20."
The international protest that's planned for next Friday will likely be large. New York City's public school system recently announced that it will excuse the absences of any students who participate in the climate strike.
"Students will need parental consent," the school system said, adding, "Younger students can only leave school with a parent."
And if students elsewhere need an excused-absence note, Amnesty International Secretary General Kumi Naidoo has written a letter to more than 30,000 schools, urging them to allow their students to join the climate strikes.
Thunberg says that along with boosting people's awareness of the dangers of climate change, she wants them to use their voting power to elect leaders who will work to reduce carbon emissions and slow global warming.
When asked what her parents think of her activism and the demands on her time, Thunberg says, "Of course they are concerned that I am doing all this and and that I am not going to school."
The young activist adds, "I think they also see that I am happier now than I was before, because I'm doing something meaningful."
She's taking a gap year away from school to focus on her burgeoning youth movement.
Noting her parents' concerns about living a very public life and being out of school, Thunberg says, "I think they support me in at least some way. They know that what I am doing is morally right."
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Students holding signs that said denial is not a policy and raise your voice, not the sea chanted today outside the White House.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Business as usual is not enough. Business as usual is not enough.
...A crisis. Act like it. This is a crisis. Act like it.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Climate action.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When do we want it?
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Now.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Climate change has got to go. Hey, hey...
CHANG: A protest for climate action happens every Friday here. It doesn't usually draw more than a hundred people. But today, a small 16-year-old with a braid down to her waist was there.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Greta, Greta, Greta...
CHANG: Greta Thunberg started these weekly strikes for the climate last year in her home country of Sweden.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
GRETA THUNBERG: But I'm just going to say that I'm so incredibly grateful for every single one of you. And I'm so proud of you.
CHANG: The movement grew. She's now been invited to speak around the world. To get to the U.S., though, she chose to sail instead of taking a plane.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
THUNBERG: Never give up. We will continue. And see you next week on September 20.
CHANG: I met Thunberg today at the UN Foundation on Pennsylvania Avenue, practically right next to the White House. And I asked her if she wanted to meet with the people inside that building, many of whom are skeptical of climate science.
THUNBERG: I haven't been invited to do that yet. And honestly, I don't want to do that.
CHANG: Why not?
THUNBERG: Because I don't want to meet with people who don't accept the science.
CHANG: But don't you want to change people's minds?
THUNBERG: Yeah, but I think I'm doing that to others. And I - they don't need me to come there. If they want someone to change their mind, it should be scientists and professionals within this area. So I don't think I'm the one person to do that.
CHANG: Well, then how do you reach people who don't see climate change as an urgent problem? I mean, don't you even want to try?
THUNBERG: I don't specify in targeting certain groups. I just try to get my message across to everyone. And whoever listens listens. And of course, these people are maybe not the ones who willingly listens to this. But I think I'm just trying to influence the opinion...
THUNBERG: ...And - in general. And I think that once enough people realizes the urgency, then others will also have to adapt.
CHANG: How important do you think the U.S. is in combating climate change as a whole?
THUNBERG: Incredibly important. You are such a big country. In Sweden, we say when we demand politicians to do something, they say it doesn't matter what we do because just look at the U.S. So I think you have an enormous responsibility in leading this role, and I think you have a moral responsibility to do that.
CHANG: I am so curious, can you tell me how you first became passionate about climate change? When did it begin? How did you get so focused on this cause?
THUNBERG: I - it was in school when I was taught about the climate crisis and everything that was happening around the world.
CHANG: How old were you?
THUNBERG: I think I was 8...
THUNBERG: ...Nine, 7 maybe. I don't remember exactly. But I remember that, of course, made me very sad as every other child in my class. And we saw these horrifying pictures of plastic in the oceans and floodings and so on. Everyone was very moved by that. But then it just seemed like everyone went back to normal, and I couldn't go back to normal because those pictures were stuck in my head. And I couldn't just go on knowing that this was happening around the world. So then I started to read about it and inform myself about it, ask people and read books and articles. And I just started slowly to understand what was happening.
CHANG: And do you remember when it started clarifying for you that beyond reading about it and worrying about it that you as an individual could actually do something? When did that realization dawn on you?
THUNBERG: I don't think there was a specific moment. I had depression when I was 11, and then how I got back from that depression was by telling myself I can do so much good with my life instead of just being depressed.
THUNBERG: And so that was a way to get me out of that depression. And then I became a climate activist, started to attend demonstrations and marches and join organizations and contact people within these movements. But I just felt like things were still too slow, and so I decided to try something new. And that's when I started planning the school strike. And then I just decided to do it.
CHANG: I want to ask you about something a little more personal now. You have told people that you were diagnosed with Asperger's. You're on the autism spectrum. And you have said that that part of you has helped you take a leadership role on climate change. Tell me; why is that?
THUNBERG: My diagnosis helps me see things a bit more clearly sometimes when everyone else seems to just compromise and have this double moral that's - yeah, that's very important, but also, I can't do that right now, and I'm too lazy and so on.
THUNBERG: But I can't really do that because I want to walk the talk...
THUNBERG: ...And to practice as I preach. So that is what I'm trying to do because if I am focused on something and if I know something and if I decide to do something, then I go all-in. And it seems like others are not doing that right now. So yeah, it has definitely helped me.
CHANG: I love that. You believe it being on the autism spectrum helps you see things very starkly, very clearly and keeps you consistent about your message.
THUNBERG: Yeah, and keeps me focused as well.
CHANG: As you have evolved into this warrior, how have your parents reacted? Are they a little bit concerned (laughter) about your global trekking, or are they fully behind you? What do you - what would you say?
THUNBERG: I mean, of course they are concerned that I am doing all this and that I am not going to school, of course - now I've taken a gap here, but still. But I think they also see that I am happier now than I was before because I'm doing something meaningful. Because they see I am much more happier, so then, of course, they want me to do what makes me happy.
CHANG: Of course.
THUNBERG: And - but also, of course, they are concerned that I am so public and that I am not going to school, I've taken a gap year and so on. But I think they support me in at least some way. They know that what I'm doing is morally right.
CHANG: And they are seeing you smile a lot more these days, huh?
CHANG: That's wonderful to hear.
Greta Thunberg, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today. It was such a pleasure.
THUNBERG: Pleasure to talk to you, too. And thank you.
CHANG: While in the U.S., Thunberg will visit Capitol Hill, be at the UN Climate Summit in New York and from there, join youth from all around the world in a climate protest one week from today.
(SOUNDBITE OF EL PERRO DEL MAR'S "DARK NIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.