It's midsummer's eve in Stockholm and teen climate activist Greta Thunberg is nowhere to be seen. Petals and leaves blow about the footstalls at the city's parliament house, and stragglers from the day's festivities take selfies against its sun-struck façade. Every Friday for the past year, the 16-year-old has held vigil outside her country's parliament, demanding the government take action on climate change. She's spawned a global movement, mobilising tens of thousands of students to mount their own school strikes for climate. Just this morning she posted a picture of herself on Instagram; she was standing outside the parliament, a crown of midsummer flowers upon her head.
But I'm too late. It's the summer solstice, and I've spent too long celebrating this beloved Swedish tradition with locals on Djurgården Island. We've danced around the maypole and sung quirky folk songs in celebration of the sun and warmth – even as Thunberg protests against a relentlessly heating planet. By the time my ferry reaches the island of Gamla Stan, on which parliament house sits, she is gone. Heroes need their rest too, even on the longest day of the year, when the streets are alive with song and the sky won't darken. But no matter; she's been guiding me on my way.
Two weeks earlier, at the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, I stand amid a flurry of spirited posters donated by young people who gathered in Oslo in March 2019 to take part in the first global youth climate strike.
"I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues," says one.
"You'll die of old age, I'll die of climate change," says another.
"We stand with Greta," says a third.
This collection is part of KlimaLab, an interactive exhibition inspired by the movement Thunberg inadvertently spearheaded. It's a laboratory filled with interactive experiences inviting visitors to reflect on how climate change might threaten peace: a greenhouse made from mostly recycled objects where plants and knowledge are cultivated; a space where people can ponder messages left by others and add their own voices to the conversation; a wall filled with bright take-home cards which offer practical ways of reducing one's carbon footprint.
There's a poignant excerpt on display from the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech given by the first environmental activist to win the prize, the late Wangari Maathai.
"I would like to call on young people to commit themselves to activities that contribute toward achieving their long-term dreams," she says. "They have the energy and creativity to shape a sustainable future."
Fifteen years later, Thunberg – along with her countless followers – have heeded Maathai's call. And so, it seems, has Oslo: as I walk along the harbour promenade, I pass driverless electric buses, a new initiative aimed at further greening a city named the 2019 European Green Capital. I stop for lunch at Vippa Oslo, a funky fjord-side centre filled with food trucks reflecting the country's multicultural population and espousing an ecological philosophy. The food served here is sustainably sourced, waste is composted and there's not a plastic straw in sight.
Share bikes are lined up at the nearby Oslo Central Station. Travellers mill about the platforms, oblivious, it seems, to the billboard advertisements for local carrier Scandinavian Airlines begging for their patronage.
"Your reason for travelling is our reason to work towards zero emission," says one.
"Your reason for travelling is our reason for making travelling more sustainable," says another.
But the late afternoon rail service to Stockholm is full – a response, perhaps, to the Swedish philosophies of flygskam (flight shame) and tagskryt (train bragging), which encourage people to eschew flights and embrace greener modes of travel such as public transport, carpooling and train travel. Thunberg herself recently undertook a European awareness-raising tour mostly by train.
Yet to journey by rail is surely one of the lesser sacrifices one can make in the quest to halt global warming. In fact, this is a deeply soothing mode of transport, a slowing down of the voyage so that one's progress might be measured in real time rather than sped up in a frenzy of flight. Relaxing into my window seat, I watch an endless mosaic spooling by: sloping fields dotted with hay bales and gingerbread houses; a blue Cadillac surfing along a side-road; graffiti spattering corrugated sheds; wild lupins flashing by in a blur of purple.
There's a power outlet beside my seat so that I can plug in and work on the almost six-hour journey; but I'm distracted by the charming stations we stop at along the way, at these passengers disembarking and those taking their place. I totter along to the dining carriage where an impressive assortment of food and beverages is on sale (though I note, with disappointment, the lack of a complimentary water filling station; plastic bottled water is the alternative). But unlike air travel, there's no rigidity around dining or moving about. I can eat my supper at one of the tables in the bistro, or take it back to my seat. Either way, this is so much more civilised than juggling a food tray within the tight confines of an economy class row.
It's close to midnight by the time we pull into Stockholm's Central Station, and the endless summer light has faded. In the coming days, I'll discover a place whose mature approach to climate change was foretold in 1967, when it became the first country to establish an environmental protection agency. It will make perfect sense that this pioneering nation has produced an activist such as Thunberg – even one that protests against the government itself.
Emirates flies to Dubai from Sydney and Melbourne three times daily, with onward connections to Oslo and Stockholm. See emirates.com/au. Rail Europe's Scandinavia Pass starts from $318 per person. The train journey from Oslo to Stockholm takes just under six hours. See raileurope.com.au
Prices at Oslo's new boutique hotel, Amerikalinjen, start around $370 for a twin share superior room. See amerikalinjen.com. At Stockholm's Scandic Continental rates start at around $165 for a standard twin share room, including breakfast. See scandichotels.com
The Oslo Pass covers public transport in the city as well as entrances to major museums. See visitoslo.com/oslopass. Exhibition KlimaLab is on at Oslo's Nobel Peace Centre until 10 January 2020. See nobelpeacecenter.org/en. Vippa Oslo is open from Tuesday to Sunday. See vippa.no. The Stockholm Pass includes free entry to over 60 attractions including a wide range of boat and bus tours. See stockholmpass.com. Residence of Impermanence, an exhibition, by photographer Christian Houge, which examines the exploitation of earth's resources, is on display at Stockholm's Fotografiska until 24 November 2019. See fotografiska.com
FIVE OTHER WAYS TO REDUCE YOUR TRAVEL FOOTPRINT
The heavier the plane, the more fuel it uses; pack light and you'll reduce your carbon footprint. Start with an ultra-lightweight suitcase (try Antler's Oxygen range; antlerluggage.com.au) then judiciously edit your wardrobe and decant toiletries into small, reusable containers.
ORDER VEGETARIAN OR VEGAN
Livestock emissions make up a large chunk of total global greenhouse gas emissions, and a reduction in meat and dairy consumption is recommended by recent studies as an effective way of limiting one's environmental impact. Airlines are getting on-board: in January – known by vegans as 'Veganuary' – Emirates served more than 20,000 plant-based meals; and the Virgin Group (excluding Virgin Australia) announced last year that it is reducing the amount of beef it serves on its planes, trains and hotels in an effort to reduce emissions.
BUY CARBON OFFSETS
If you must fly (and Australians have little choice), buy accredited offsets from companies like Terrapass (terrapass.com) or Gold Standard (goldstandard.org), or with your airline. While carbon offsets won't absolve you of your emissions, the money spent will be invested in projects designed to mitigate them such as forestation schemes and landfill gas capture.
TAKE YOUR OWN BOTTLE AND CUP
Get into the habit of travelling with a water bottle and portable coffee cup and you'll slash your use of disposable containers. A word of caution: not all flight attendants are willing to fill portable cups; if this is the case, be sure to lobby the relevant airline when you return home.
Make environmentally responsible choices whenever possible: book eco-accommodation, turn off the hotel room aircon, re-use towels and bedding, eschew hotel amenities packaged in disposable plastic bottles, shop local, walk, ride or take public transport, say no to straws and always travel with reusable shopping bags.
Catherine Marshall was a guest of Rail Europe and Lindblad Expeditions.