The man who discovered Greta
Greta Thunberg is Time magazine’s "Person of the Year 2019.” The Swede Ingmar Rentzhog remembers how he first became aware of the young climate activist in August 2018 and how he thinks about her today.
My interview subject already suspects that our conversation will revolve around Greta Thunberg. He throws his head back in exasperation. Ingmar Rentzhog, 40, comes from Östersund, northern Sweden. The youngest of seven children, Rentzhog grew up on his family’s small farm. He has always loved nature, he tells me. “But I wasn't an environmentalist. I was a computer geek,” who started programming at the age of eight.
At Uppsala University, Rentzhog enrolled in mathematics and computer programming, which he was not supposed to complete. At the same time, he started as an intern at a Nordic investment bank where he remained. Because he understood the problems of both finance and communication, he quickly formed a team to integrate solutions. In 2004, he split off and founded his own consulting firm, Laika Consulting AB, for financial companies.
Thirteen years later, Rentzhog came to believe that the "climate crisis" had to be solved quickly. Two events were decisive. In 2012, he became a father for the first time (today, he has three children) which, by his own account, made him more conscious of the future. Then, in 2016, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. When Rentzhog watched Trump’s televised victory speech, he spied a "dig more cole" banner in the audience. Rentzhog tells me, "After all, Trump was honest and immediately canceled the Paris Climate Agreement. All the other world leaders are just pretending to do something."
He then thought about what he could do himself. He founded the social media network "We don't have time" to create a platform to discuss solutions based on scientific facts.
Now, Rentzhog is sitting at a huge conference table in Zurich where he has met with potential investors in his company. After 22 meetings in three days, we meet before he departs on a train back to Stockholm. Rentzhog grabs a glass of water before we start.
Mr. Rentzhog, in August 2018, you discovered Greta Thunberg. How did this happen?
When I set up our "We don't have time" network in 2017, we were active on other social media channels to attract more people to us. We used technology to broadcast a "No Fly" conference with highly prestigious speakers. That was in April 2018. We reached half a million people in over a hundred countries. So, we were internationally known long before Greta. Why I passed by the Parliament was because, the week before, I heard about a school strike.
A climate strike?
Yes, I wanted to see that. I did not yet know who Greta was. A colleague from work joined me as a photographer. The Parliament building was near our office. We would have passed close by anyway.
What did you expect there?
That there was not just one person sitting there. But there was only one. That really surprised me. It was interesting that it was not just a classic climate demonstration. That students in Sweden wanted to skip school was new and made me curious.
So curious that you brought a photographer with you?
I am a networker. I work with the media and distribute content. I thought I could write a blog about it. Therefore, the photographer. But in front of the building was not the expected group, not angry students. There was no crowd, no children and adults with signs, like usual.
Describe the scene.
It was so surrealistic. I remember approaching Parliament, everyone rushing to work stressed out. This street is very busy in the morning. Then, there is this really little girl sitting in front of the Parliament door. And nobody was interested. There were even people who looked away as if a beggar was sitting there. The girl held her sign, the "skolstrejk för klimatet" [school strike for climate] sign. And there were papers in front of her.
What did they say?
"We children don't usually do what you grown-ups tell us to do. We do as you do. And since you don't give a shit about my future, I don't give a shit either.”
Yes. On the back there were scientific statements about climate change. I read them — all correct, I remember that. Then, I talked to her. She surprised me. Normally people who demonstrate and strike are very sociable, announce their message and want attention. Such people are usually extroverted. However, the girl was totally shy – and very polite.
What did you talk about?
I asked where her friends were. She said she didn't have any school friends. I felt very sorry for that. The whole scene was so symbolic: There sits this lonely girl with her sign, on whose shoulders the climate crisis, the entire future of mankind, is weighing – and nobody pays attention. That made me very sad. The picture stuck in my head.
Therefore, you posted on Facebook? You wanted to help?
That morning, I was very upset. Just before I discovered Greta, I had to leave my son crying in the day care center. That was not a good start to the day, and then this scene comes in front of the Parliament building. I ask Greta if we could take a photo and a short video for social media and read her own text in front of our camera.
What was her message?
That she doesn't go to school because grown ups don't give a damn about her future. That's an incredibly strong message. I mean, why does a child go to school? Just because of the future. But Greta’s text was in Swedish; our network in English. So, I asked her if she could translate it into English. She did it immediately and recited it in one go. Her English was perfect! I thought, "Huh, what?" I didn't expect that. I was very impressed.
What happened next?
We went to our office. My colleague wanted to edit the film later. It wasn't so special for him. But I couldn't let go and started writing a Facebook post, not for our network, not on our company profile, but on my private account. I described my morning from A to Z, the way I felt. I posted a picture of Greta and her sign. It immediately went viral. I had no clue that this was the beginning of today's Greta Thunberg.
Why did a 15-year-old Swedish girl trigger a worldwide climate debate? Why was it Greta?
There are many reasons for that. Number one is time and place. In Sweden, we had a crazy summer in 2018. It was super hot. It practically never rained, four months in a row, from May to August. We had between 25 and 35 degrees [77 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit] – that's a lot for Sweden. In the beginning, everybody liked it. In the end, they were worried. When the people returned from the summer holidays, everyone talked about the climate. Everyone! Not only the climate activists. When you saw a picture of a little girl, you knew: "Hey, we have a crisis."
In 1992, the twelve-year-old Severn Cullis-Suzuki spoke at the climate summit in Rio (Weltwoche 44/2019). She was called, "The girl who silenced the world for five minutes."
Her speech was fantastic. I saw her.
There is also a girl in China (Weltwoche Nr. 24/2019), as well as in Germany. Does it have to be a girl?
I don't think so. Of course, it was this image of the "lonely girl in front of parliament" that has made it into our hearts. But it was the timing that made Greta great. If she had gone on strike in another year, that wouldn't have happened. If it hadn't been so hot, maybe she wouldn't have done it either.
Would all this have happened if you hadn't spread the picture?
Yes, of course. I was not decisive. The question is what would have happened if Greta hadn't gone on strike. I honestly believe that we would have seen another leader. People see that the weather is unusual. Nobody talks about it. Someone had to crash the party authentically. With Greta, it wouldn't have worked if she had flown jets from one climate conference to the next.
So, it could have been a 16-year-old ”Gustav”?
Absolutely. That has nothing to do with gender. It didn't have to be a child either.
How decisive was her slogan, "Skolstrejk för klimatet"? It has cult status.
This extremely strong message was very important. But almost equally important was her stubbornness. Greta is incredibly stubborn. Her manifestation was unique, like a never ending demonstration. She's still on strike today. She's a huge talent.
You recruited her as a "Youth Advisor." She used to be a youth advisor to your foundation board.
Yes, but that wasn't a PR gag. We were concerned about the climate crisis. With Greta, I met someone who cares about it just as much as I do. It was only then that I met her family, and we stayed in touch. That doesn't mean that we visited each other privately. We talked on the phone from time to time.
Also with her parents?
Yes, of course. She is still a minor. Look, climate change is about the future. And in our organization, we didn't just want adults, which is why we included climate-friendly children as "advisors." Back when we asked Greta Thunberg – that was in October 2018 – she wasn't internationally famous anyway.
When was Greta's breakthrough for you?
In December, after her speech in Katowice. Clearly.
How did Greta get to this climate conference? Were you involved?
One of our board members, Stuart Scott, is committed to the UN. He gave her access to the conference and went there with her.
And in the speech, did you help her?
No. I had nothing to do with her speeches, never. Greta is incredibly talented to express herself even though she is introverted. She is unique. I'm sure she wrote her speeches herself, absolutely. If she wasn't where she is today, she could be a brilliant speech writer.
The child should never have gone public, critics say. Greta suffers from Asperger syndrome.
I believe that every parent knows what is best for their own children. I don't think Asperger is a handicap. It is a gift to see the world differently.
Her mother, an opera singer, even calls Greta's condition her "superpower." Greta's father is an actor. Do her parents use their daughter for their own ambitions?
Those who really recognize the climate crisis will do everything necessary to do something about it. I mean everything, all human life on earth, is at stake. I don't think Greta's parents are using their daughter for the cause. But I know that they are supporting her work. And I don't see anything wrong with that.
When you discovered Greta, she was 15 years old. You drew attention to her. Because of you, she spoke in Katowice and became the face of a worldwide movement. For her enemies, she became a target. She is even threatened with death. Did you ever have the feeling that you threw a girl into a shark tank? Do you feel guilty?
She wanted that. It wasn't us who took her where she is now. At that time, I had no idea that the world was a shark tank. Now, I know.
Greta, as a martyr, sacrificed for the climate crisis?
What Greta does is her own free will. I couldn't control her, nobody could. If you want to control someone, don't choose Greta. She always goes her own way.
Greta accuses politicians of stealing her childhood. Do you feel responsible as her discoverer?
No. I was only responsible for the people knowing about Greta. I wanted her to be listened to. If you really recognize the climate crisis, your question doesn't matter. Of course, Greta did a tremendous job and made sacrifices to spread a message. But she will not solve the climate crisis on her own, as it is often forgotten. As a journalist, you should rather ask questions about the climate crisis and what to do about it. Everyone only sees Greta talking about the collapse of the earth. You are younger than me. Look in the mirror and ask yourself what you can do. That is the point.
Are you jealous that it is Greta and not you who has become world famous?
Oh, Jesus, no!
Finally: What if one of your children followed in Greta's footsteps?
Every day, I work hard to give hope to the next generation.
So, that it doesn't need another Greta?