Greta Thunberg Visits GW to Receive Top Amnesty International Award

Activist urged children and adults to hold politicians accountable for the policies driving climate change.

Greta Thunberg received the Ambassador of Conscience Award from Kumi Naidoo. (Andy DelGiudice/Amnesty International)
Greta Thunberg received the Ambassador of Conscience Award from Kumi Naidoo. (Andy DelGiudice/Amnesty International)
September 18, 2019

By Ruth Steinhardt

When Greta Thunberg stepped onstage at the George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium to receive Amnesty International’s 2019 Ambassador of Conscience award on Monday, the 16-year-old activist was too short to reach the microphone until stagehands rushed out a step to boost her up.

But Ms. Thunberg’s small physical stature belies the enormity of the movement she has helped spearhead. Her weekly demonstrations outside the Swedish parliament, beginning a year ago, spotlighted the increasing urgency of the climate crisis and spurred the “Fridays for Future” school strikes by millions of students around the world.

“We, who together are the movement Fridays for Future, are fighting for our lives,” Ms. Thunberg said Monday. “But not only that, we are also fighting for our future children and grandchildren, for future generations, for every single living being on Earth whose biosphere we share, whose biosphere we are stealing, whose biosphere we are ruining. We are fighting for everyone.”

Ms. Thunberg is the 18th recipient of the Ambassador of Conscience Award, which is Amnesty International’s highest honor for advancing the cause of human rights. Past awardees include Colin Kaepernick, Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai.

Ms. Thunberg urged her audience to hold leaders and politicians accountable not only for the ecological consequences of their policies, but also for the humanitarian disasters that accompany those consequences, including famine, war and mass migration.

“Despite all the beautiful words and promises from our leaders, we are still moving in the wrong direction with unimaginable pace,” she said. “The world has never seen a human rights threat of this scope.”

While Ms. Thunberg said swift and drastic action is needed to prevent catastrophic climate change, she also said progress on the issue gives her hope for the future.

“I think there is an awakening going on,” she said. “Even though it is slow, the pace is picking up, and the debate is shifting.”

A range of speakers joined Ms. Thunberg at the award program, including youth activist Tokata Iron Eyes of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, actors Sophia Bush and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ms. Gyllenhaal’s 12-year-old daughter, Ramona Sarsgaard.

Ms. Gyllenhaal credited her daughter with her own activist awakening. Part of the reason children lead with clarity on the issue of climate change, she said, is not just that their lives will be most affected. It’s because they don’t use money, as adults do.

“The skewed, mind-numbing logic of greed that got us into this position hasn’t really infiltrated them yet, and they can’t understand why we aren’t doing anything,” Ms. Gyllenhaal said. “They can’t understand because it doesn’t make any sense.”

A panel of youth activists, including GW first-year student Khadija Khokhar, joined Ms. Thunberg and Ms. Bush onstage for a discussion of life within the movement against climate change. Panelists agreed that the sense of community with their peers was essential to maintaining both their impetus and their sanity.

“All nonviolent movements start with youth,” Ms. Khokhar said.

Amnesty International Secretary-General Kumi Naidoo agreed. “It is high time that we, as adults, did half as much as our children” to fight climate change, he said.

“These young leaders have laid down the challenge,” Mr. Naidoo said. “In an apathetic world drifting towards calamity, they have stood up as our collective conscience and said, ‘Enough is enough.’ Now it’s time for every single one of us to follow them.”

To that end, Ms. Thunberg encouraged her audience to join her and other young activists in their general strikes Sept. 20 and 27.

“Activism works,” Ms. Thunberg said. “So what I’m telling you to do now is to act, because no one is too small to make a difference.

“And just one last thing: See you in the streets.”

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