In an amazing move that celebrates not only activism but youth activism, Time magazine has named climate activist Greta Thunberg as its Person of the Year.
It’s not hard to see why. This teenage girl has galvanized the world around the message that a climate crisis is coming and political leaders need to have the will to do what’s necessary to stop climate change from destroying our world.
Greta Thunberg started her campaign alone, a solitary student camped out in front of the Swedish Parliament with her hand-painted sign “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (School Strike for Climate). Soon that number grew to a few students, and then to thousands, until finally 4 million people joined the global climate strike on September 20, 2019. She distributed flyers with facts about extinction rates and carbon budgets. “My name is Greta. I am in ninth grade, and I am school-striking for climate,” she wrote on every flyer. “Since you adults don’t give a damn about my future, I won’t either.”
“The politics of climate action are as entrenched and complex as the phenomenon itself, and Thunberg has no magic solution,” Time wrote. “But she has succeeded in creating a global attitudinal shift, transforming millions of vague, middle-of-the-night anxieties into a worldwide movement calling for urgent change.”
Thunberg has called out political leaders, up to and including U.S. President Donald Trump, for their inaction (and backwards action) on climate change. She has urged American voters to use their power at the ballot box to elect officials who care about climate change and have the political will to do what’s needed. She understands the privilege she has as a white girl from an upper middle-class family in a nation without political strife and with a solid safety net, and she uses that privilege to center indigenous activists who have been protesting for years.
“She is a reminder that the people in charge now will not be in charge forever, and that the young people who are inheriting dysfunctional governments, broken economies, and an increasingly unlivable planet know just how much the adults have failed them,” Time wrote.
According to Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, a U.S. youth advocacy group pushing for a Green New Deal, “She symbolizes the agony, the frustration, the desperation, the anger—at some level, the hope—of many young people who won’t even be of age to vote by the time their futures are doomed.”
“When you are a leader and every week you have young people demonstrating with such a message, you cannot remain neutral,” French President Emmanuel Macron told Time. “They helped me change.”
When Greta Thunberg first learned of the impending environmental catastrophe by seeing the effects of climate change in a video presentation when she was just 11 years old, she fell into a deep depression, refusing to eat or even leave her house. “I couldn’t understand how that could exist, that existential threat, and yet we didn’t prioritize it,” Thunberg said. “I was maybe in a bit of denial like, ‘That can’t be happening, because if that were happening, then the politicians would be taking care of it.’”
But, she said, “Learning about climate change triggered my depression in the first place. But it was also what got me out of my depression, because there were things I could do to improve the situation. I don’t have time to be depressed anymore.”
Thunberg doesn’t pull any punches when she addresses world leaders, either. At a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, she told heads of state, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?”
And the Greta Thunberg effect, as it’s becoming known, has actually caused government officials and business leaders to act. Hans Vestberg, CEO of Verizon, said, “[The pressure] is growing from all stakeholders. Our employees think about it much more, our customers are talking much more about it, and society is expecting us to show up.”
Her activism has led to political changes in Europe. Green parties gained seats in the European Parliament from the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and other countries. Even Republican House minority leader Kevin McCarthy said that his party “should be a little bit nervous” about changing attitudes on climate.
“Young people tend to have a fantastic impact in public opinion around the world,” said U.S. Secretary-General António Guterres. “Governments follow.”
Despite all the mocking and trolls, and even the typically childish tweets about her from Donald Trump, Thunberg stands strong. This young girl, who wears her hair in braids and dresses in hoodies and comfortable clothes, may not be glamorous but she has galvanized a generation, and she fully deserves to be Time’s 2019 Person of the Year.
Photo by Liv Oeian / Shutterstock.com