- Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist, was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her pioneering work organizing the “Fridays for Future” youth climate protests.
- Thunberg is scheduled to speak at the United Nations climate action summit in New York City in September.
- However, the Swedish teenager refuses to fly in airplanes because of their carbon footprint. So to reach New York, Thunberg plans to sail across the Atlantic on a zero-emissions sailboat.
- The skipper of that boat, Boris Herrmann, told Business Insider about why he volunteered to help Thunberg and what her journey will be like.
The world’s most famous climate activist doesn’t fly.
Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old from Sweden who was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, is the world’s leading youth voice on the climate crisis. In August 2018, she launched the “Fridays For Future” movement, which encourages students around the globe to skip school to demand action on climate from their governments.
Because airplane travel has such a heavy carbon footprint – a single round-trip flight between New York and California generates roughly 20% of the greenhouse gases your car emits in a year – Thunberg refuses to board any airplanes. In Europe, this means she typically travels by train.
But to reach the UN Climate Action Summit in New York next month – where Thunberg is scheduled to speak with international leaders about the growing threat of climate change – the activist has recruited an unlikely partner: competitive German sailor Boris Herrmann.
Thunberg announced last week that she'll be sailing across the Atlantic on a schooner named Malizia II, with Herrmann at the helm. The ship runs on solar-power and underwater turbines (in addition to wind, of course), thereby generating electrical power with zero carbon emissions.
Following that journey, Thunberg plans to travel throughout the US, Canada, and Mexico, then attend the annual UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Santiago, Chile in December.
"During the past year, millions of young people have raised their voice to make world leaders wake up to the climate and ecological emergency. Over the next months, the events in New York and Santiago de Chile will show if they have listened," Thunberg said in a press release. "Together with many other young people across the Americas and the world, I will be there, even if the journey will be long and challenging."
An environmentally friendly alternative to air travel
Thunberg's protest is aptly timed.
July was the hottest month ever recorded in human history. This year is on pace to be the third-hottest on record, according to Climate Central, and 2018 was the fourth-warmest (behind 2016, 2015, and 2017). Last year was also the very hottest year on record for the world's oceans.
Thunberg's activism has vaulted her onto the world stage: In December 2018, she accused assembled leaders from nearly 200 countries at the UN climate change conference in Poland of "behaving like children."
"This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced," she told UN secretary general António Guterres.
Three months later, Thunberg led more than 1 million students around the world in a climate change protest. Young people in more than 123 countries skipped school to demand more robust climate policies and the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions.
To get to this year's UN summits, Thunberg was determined to find a plane-free, zero-emissions mode of travel. The aviation sector accounts for 2% of annual global greenhouse-gas emissions. A 747 aircraft emits more than 21 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per mile traveled.
So Thunberg put a call out on Twitter in search of a solution to this ethical quandary.
Herrmann had seen Thunberg speak at a "Fridays for Future" demonstration in Hamburg, Germany, and he offered his team's sailing services.
"Greta was thankful, polite, humble, very informed, and asked a lot of detailed questions about safety," Herrmann told Business Insider.
A 38-year-old professional sailor, Herrmann has raced across the Atlantic and sailed around the world multiple times. Thunberg, on the other hand, has little sailing experience, so Herrmann said the trip will require mental preparation on her part. The journey will involve two weeks of potentially rough seas and cramped quarters.
"I'm very impressed by her courage to try it out and her ability to accept the lack of comfort that goes with traveling without emissions," he said.
What Thunberg's 3,000-mile journey will be like
Thunberg and Herrmann's 3,000-mile journey will start in the southeastern UK and terminate in New York. (Thunberg will likely take the train to the UK from her home in Stockholm.) The trip will take about 13 days - they'll go north towards Greenland then down the coast of eastern Canada and New England.
Also aboard the Malizia's will be Thunberg's father, a filmmaker to document the trip, and Herrmann's colleague and fellow sailor Pierre Casiraghi.
The Malizia has no showers, no kitchen, and no air conditioning. The group will dine on on freeze-dried or vacuum-packed meals.
Herrmann's team isn't charging Thunberg for this journey, and he said he even cancelled two big practice sessions for the opportunity to sail her.
"I'm happy about Greta's youth movement," he said. "They're much more realistic about the [climate] problem, and concerned as a generation as much as the older generation should be, but isn't."
Thunberg, for her part, took a sabbatical year from school to attend the UN events and travel around the Americas in between.
The Malizia, which means "the wily one" in the Monegasque language, is 60 feet long and 20 feet wide. The sailboat relies on 8 square-meters of solar paneling that cover its deck for power during the day, and turbines at night. (It has motors and generators onboard in the case of emergency.)
Casiraghi told the New York Times that only a handful of zero-emissions vessels like Malizia II exist.
Herrmann said he and Casiraghi will handle all sailing duties on the 8-ton racing boat and keep an eye out for hurricanes as well (that risk is why the group is sailing north).
"I am conscious about Pierre's and my responsibility. We will make sure she will reach New York in the safest way possible," Herrmann said in a press release.
After she arrives in New York and attends the UN summit, Thunberg's plan is to travel around the US, Canada, and Mexico to meet with "people most impacted by the climate and ecological emergency, climate activists, and decision-makers." She'll then to make her way to Chile for the December UN conference via trains and buses.
Thunberg hasn't yet announced how she'll get back to Europe - Herrmann and Casiraghi are doing a quick about-face after dropping her off. But during the UK-to-US journey, Herrmann plans to teach Thunberg a bit about sailing - how to check the weather, trim the canvas, and help with the Malizia's maneuvers.
"She's clearly very intelligent, and I'm sure she'll be a quick learner," he said.
Perhaps, one day, Thunberg may be able to sail herself around. But first comes the cross-Atlantic voyage.
"I haven't experienced anything like this before," Thunberg told the Associated Press. "I think this will be a trip to remember."