“I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the science,” says Greta Thunberg in the first episode of a new three-part documentary series about her life.
It is a message we have heard before from the 18-year-old. But in Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World, we follow the activist as she embarks on a year off school to learn more about herself, get hands-on experience of the consequences of climate change and further explore the science of global warming with the help of the world’s leading scientists.
Thunberg has been the figurehead for young climate activists across the world ever since she protested in front of the Swedish parliament building in 2018, aged just 15. Since then, she has inspired thousands of people and challenged policy-makers in her fight against climate change – her impact has even been dubbed “the Greta Thunberg effect”.
The first episode of the BBC documentary focuses on Thunberg and her father, Svante, in late 2019 as they travel through North America on their way to the UN COP25 climate conference in Chile. They stop at three key locations that reveal how the environment is changing as a direct result of warming temperatures.
First, they visit the Canadian Rockies to investigate why the once lush pine forests there are dwindling. The trees are dying, biologist Brenda Shepherd tells Thunberg, because rising temperatures are increasing the number of mountain pine beetles. Canada is the world’s fourth largest oil producer, employing over 170,000 people. But as a result, some areas of the country are experiencing increases in temperatures twice as fast as the rest of the world.
Thunberg emphasises the importance of balancing the trade-off between the strength of the global economy and the health of the planet – something she has repeatedly explained to politicians and industry players alike. To help drive this message home, the series is interspersed with impassioned scientists working across the field, as well as economists who examine what can be done to avert the worst of the climate crisis.
But the first episode suddenly resembles something out of a horror film when it introduces real footage of Californian wildfires which were among the deadly blazes that ravaged the west coast of the US between 2018 and 2020. Thunberg meets Julian Martinez, a survivor of the fires who emotionally recalls watching his home burn to the ground.
He narrowly escaped with his life, but many others weren’t so fortunate. And around the world, wildfires are destroying the lives of thousands of people, as seen in last year’s Australian bush fires.
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With just over a month until COP25, Thunberg receives news that the event is being relocated to Madrid following anti-government riots in Chile’s capital, Santiago. “I’ve been going halfway around the world the wrong way,” she says.
As Thunberg famously opposes air travel because of its excessive carbon emissions, she puts out a public call to help her cross the Atlantic Ocean by boat to reach the conference in time. Her call is answered on Twitter by a family sailing across the Atlantic in a carbon-neutral catamaran boat equipped with solar panels, a wind turbine and hydro-generators. We see her brave life-threatening storms on the 21-day transatlantic voyage. “It was a constant game of avoiding the next big storm,” she says.
These extreme weather events are caused in part by climate change, as sea temperatures rise and winds become stronger – something Thunberg experiences first-hand. After she safely reaches Madrid, the first episode finishes on the hard-hitting speech, fuelled by facts and figures, she gives to COP25 delegates in 2019. Thunberg often receives media attention for her emotional outbursts calling out politicians, but in this speech she focuses on the undeniable science she learnt from the scientists who appear in the episode.
The series continues to 2020, and we see how Thunberg is challenged by the covid-19 pandemic that has brought the world to a standstill. In a time when mass protests are unsafe, Thunberg investigates how we can all play a part in the fight against climate change closer to home – from rethinking our food choices to the clothes we wear.
She isn’t the only person who sees the pandemic as a crunch point. The documentary features Jillian Anable, a professor of transport and energy at the University of Leeds, UK, who feels our approach to covid-19 could inform future climate action. “We’ve had a global crisis and we’re in a situation where policy-makers have had to put the science at the forefront,” she told New Scientist. And indeed, the series clearly presents the scientific evidence and extremity of climate change, without getting caught up in the politics of decision-making.
Thunberg is an undeniable force to be reckoned with, but the documentary presents a more delicate side to her, making it clear that she still has a lot to learn. It can be difficult to demonstrate the urgency of climate change to those who see it as a threat for the distant future. But by showcasing Thunberg’s journey in learning about the science behind climate change, we see that the evidence presents itself every day.