Greta Thunberg Hopes 2021 Brings a Climate ‘Awakening’: ‘We Have Failed’ Thus Far

Like most teenagers, Greta Thunberg has spent 2020 mostly indoors, attending classes online and waiting for the day she can return to school in person.

Unlike most teenagers, though, she’ll be kicking off 2021 with the world watching as she continues to advocate for the fight against climate change, this time alongside the Dalai Lama in a panel on Saturday.

“It's a really symbolic event because the panelists are so different,” Thunberg tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “The Dalai Lama, of course, and then activists and scientists. Many different kinds of voices should be an interesting combination.”

Thunberg, who celebrated her 18th birthday earlier this month, has come a long way since she was a 15-year-old striking solo outside the Swedish parliament during school. In the years since, her activism has taken on a life of its own, inspiring hundreds of similar climate strikes around the world as part of the Fridays for Future campaign, and even earning her the title of Time’s Person of the Year in 2019.

But international fame hasn’t changed the message that made her a household name in the first place: the earth is dying, and in the new year, we need to focus more than ever on tackling the crisis with a sense of urgency.

“My hope for 2021 is that we see an awakening when it comes to the climate and environment, [and] that we start to treat this crisis like the crisis it is,” she says, “and understand what needs to be done— understand that we have failed and that we need to take real bold action right now, that we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Among the actions being taken is President-elect Joe Biden’s promise that the U.S. will rejoin the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Thunberg calls the move a “crucial step,” but emphasizes it’ll only work if it’s the start of something greater — and that plans such as Biden’s campaign promise to have the U.S. reach net-zero emissions no later than 2050 need to improve, as they exclude crucial factors.

“We need to make sure that right now, we don’t relax and fall back asleep because we think, ‘Oh, the U.S. is back in the Paris Agreement, now things will turn out okay.’ We need to continue pushing even harder now,” she says. “You could argue that [the emissions plan] is better than nothing, but announcing these kinds of distant hypothetical goals and targets that don’t actually do something today … it sends a signal that things are being done and that action’s being taken when it’s not.”

For more on Greta Thunberg, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

While the coronavirus pandemic this year uprooted life for everyone, it posed a unique challenge for Thunberg, whose Fridays for Future campaign had evolved into largely in-person gatherings, a momentum that came to a grinding halt in March.

Though she calls it a “frustrating” snag, Thunberg says her mission hasn’t wavered, and her goals remain the same as they always have been.

“I had to adjust to it just like everyone else has, I’m not unique in that sense,” she says. “You can’t sit and be depressed or be annoyed at how the world is because you can’t do anything to change it. We have just continued like before. We just continue because we know what’s at stake, we know that we can’t give up. We know that giving up is not an option.”

Looking forward, Thunberg stresses that it’s more important than ever to hunker down and focus on the issue at hand while keeping the various lessons 2020 has wrought at the forefront.

“There are no good lessons to learn from this pandemic, no positive aspect of it. But if it’s one thing that it has shown us, it is that we can treat a crisis like a crisis,” she says. “And it has also shown us that we are not living sustainable, and also the importance the science. That we cannot, we will not, make it without listening to science.”

The panel, hosted by the Woodwell Climate Research Center and the Mind & Life Institute, will livestream on Saturday at 10:30 p.m. EST on Mind & Life’s website and Facebook, as well as on the Dalai Lama’s website and Facebook.

It’ll focus on explaining the crisis of climate feedback loops — which strengthen or weaken the impact of climate factors — and will be grounded in a new series of educational films narrated by Richard Gere called Climate Energy: Feedback Loops.

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