The sides of Greta Thunberg’s life we don’t always see

Greta Thunberg is a name known by millions of people around the world.

Even before her 18th birthday, her work as a climate change activist saw her making speeches which resonated far beyond her homeland of Sweden, inspiring others to re-examine their relationship with the planet.

A new three-part BBC documentary; Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World looks at the 12-month break she took from school to concentrate on her activism. Not only do the cameras follow her giving speeches and meeting experts on climate change and its effects, there is also an opportunity to see Greta’s life away from the international stage.

If you’ve ever wondered how to combine being a teenager with a drive to stop global warming, here are some moments to look out for across the three episodes.

Spending time with Dad

Getting the climate change message across to billions of people around the world is a big job, especially when you’re a teenager. For parts of the documentary, Greta is accompanied by her dad, Svante, who keeps a close eye on her while staying in the background during her public appearances.

As has happened to so many young people around the world, Greta had to go into lockdown at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. She spent a lot of time with dad at their home in Stockholm.

Greta with her dad, Svante, in the Canadian Rockies during her year of campaigning

And if you think globally famous campaigners don’t need to worry about their parents embarrassing them, you may be reassured to know it’s not the case.

While showing the contents of her dad’s wardrobe, Greta says: “He has two leather jackets. And he’s a vegan.” Then she laughs: “So I say, ‘you can’t wear that when you are with me’.”

But we shouldn’t be too hard on Svante. The yellow raincoat which we see Greta wearing in so many pictures? That belongs to him too.

Everyone needs their space

Since emerging on the world stage, Greta has addressed crowds of thousands, and walked through them too, where lots of people ask for selfies and she patiently poses for them. That can be daunting for anyone, but Greta - who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, at the age of 12 - has never enjoyed having lots of people around her. Before taking a year out to campaign, Greta attended a specialist school where there were only five other people in the class.

Away from the crowds, Greta finds great comfort in being around animals. We see her visiting riding stables to take care of the horses.

She says: “This is a very special place, this is a place where I have always felt good. People with autism have difficulties spending time with people so the animals become a substitute for that.”

We're all learning, all the time

Greta Thunberg is so closely associated with the movement against climate change, perhaps we expect her to know everything on the subject.

But as we see on the documentary, Greta is like so many of us, learning all the time. This means meeting experts on subjects including glaciers, dairy farming and reindeer herding. In the Canadian Rockies, the hydrologist Professor John Pomeroy explains how the dust and soot from forest fires that create dark patches on glaciers are causing them to heat up and melt at a faster rate than before.

Greta, centre, with Professor John Pomeroy, front left, and his team on a glacier in Canada

Her reaction? “I knew things were bad and I have read about these kind of things a lot, but to really be here and to stand on a glacier and to hear from you, who has so much experience… it makes you realise, it’s for real.”

Being an activist can still come with its confusing moments too. In one sequence, Greta is unsure over which avocado at her local supermarket has the more preferable carbon footprint. Should she buy the one from Kenya, or Tanzania?

This one could call for an atlas, some string and a calculator.

Meeting your heroes

Greta also has the opportunity to sit down and speak with Sir David Attenborough, to find out more about his years studying the planet.

When she asks how people of her generation can convince their elders to make changes, he says: “My generation has made a mess of things, we’ve known that it’s happening and we’ve done nothing. Well, next to nothing.

Greta and Sir David Attenborough in conversation about climate change

“We have to make major changes to the way we live and that’s why you’ve done such a lot, you really have. You’ve spoken for the generation that’s going to have to look after this.”

He adds: “I’ve been bleating about this for a long time but the big changes came when you spoke. That’s brought hope.”

Every teenage activist has to have some fun

The world has seen Greta make speeches, protest outside government buildings and speak to some of the most influential people on the planet, but in this documentary, we see her let her hair down too.

Greta relaxes on a sleeper train during her year of campaigning

Her 17th birthday falls en route to another destination on her campaign trail, which is the perfect excuse to dance like no-one is watching at their train table. It’s also the first time Greta travelled without her dad, going with a family friend instead. That first step is something many young people will take, especially if they leave home for college or university. Fortunately, Greta says she didn’t feel homesick.

As her year off ends, Greta then has to pack her rucksack for a return to school.

After a year of solid campaigning, one impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak, it also seems like a welcome break. She says: “Studying is what I like most, to have normal routines, because the last year has been very chaotic.”

Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World begin on BBC One at 9pm on Monday 12 April. Episiodes will also be available to view on BBC iPlayer.

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