Greta Thunberg, 16, a Swedish climate crisis activist, has been chosen by TIME as person of the year. Thunberg is the youngest individual to be recognized for this honor that has recognized the mighty and most influential people in the world for over a century.
“I could never have imagined anything like that happening,” Ms. Thunberg said, adding that she was “surprised” by the news.
Although she said she was “grateful” for it, she said the honor should be shared with others taking action against climate change. “It should be everyone in the Fridays for Future movement because what we have done, we have done together,” she said.
The activist’s rise started in August 2018, when she skipped school to protest climate change outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm, where she grew up. Since then, she has become an international fixture, speaking before the United Nations and meeting with numerous heads of state as well as the pope.
Thunberg gained international attention for excoriating world leaders for their inaction in the climate crisis in a viral speech she made at the UN Climate Action Summit in September. She criticized world leaders again at the COP25 conference last week.
“Thunberg has become the biggest voice on the biggest issue facing the planet—and the avatar of a broader generational shift in our culture that is playing out everywhere from the campuses of Hong Kong to the halls of Congress in Washington,” Time editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal wrote.
Thunberg has become a leading face of a movement that has inspired millions of other children in at least 100 countries to argue passionately for action against climate change.
Each year, TIME magazine features the most influential person, group, movement or idea of the previous 12 months. Last year, it was “The Guardians,” a group of journalists who have been targeted or assaulted for their work. In 2017, it was “The Silence Breakers,” the group of people who came forward to report sexual misconduct.
This marks the third year in a row in which Time has named a person who was not a world leader. President Donald Trump was Person of the Year in 2016 and Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel was recognized the year before that. The magazine has also featured unpopular figures like Adolf Hitler, Ayatollah Khomeini and Joseph Stalin as Person of the Year.
“We describe it as the person who influenced the years’ events most, for better or for worse. But I really think of it as Time is about the people and ideas that shape the world and Person of the Year is about the people who shaped the year,” Felsenthal told the media. “She was a solo protestor with a hand-painted sign 14 months ago. She’s now led millions of people around the world, 150 countries, to act on behalf of the planet,” Felsenthal said.
Time also announced winners of four new categories. Athlete of the year is the US women’s soccer team, entertainer of the year is Lizzo and business person of the year is Disney CEO Bob Iger.
After recognizing “The Guardians” last year, Time created a new category to recognize a different group of “Guardians” — those who took to the stand and risked their careers in the defense of the rule of law. The public servants in this category include the whistleblower, Marie Yovanovitch, Ambassador William Taylor, Fiona Hill, Lieut. Colonel Alexander Vindman and Mark Sandy.
Time chose to select category winners instead of recognizing runner-ups in part because the magazine is now independently owned and no longer a part of a conglomerate, Felsenthal told CNN Business. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne Benioff bought Time Magazine from Meredith Corp last year.
Thunberg’s moment comes just as urgent scientific reality collides with global political uncertainty. Each year that we dump more carbon into the atmosphere, the planet grows nearer to a point of no return, where life on earth as we know it will change unalterably. Scientifically, the planet can’t afford another setback; politically, this may be our best chance to make sweeping change before it’s too late.
Greta’s mother Malena Ernman is a leading Swedish opera singer. Her father Svante Thunberg is distantly related to Svante Arrhenius, a Nobel Prize–winning chemist who studied how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases the temperature on the earth’s surface.
More than a century after that science became known, Thunberg’s primary-school teacher showed a video of its effects: starving polar bears, extreme weather and flooding. The teacher explained that it was all happening because of climate change. Afterward the entire class felt glum, but the other kids were able to move on. Thunberg couldn’t.
She began to feel extremely alone. She was 11 years old when she fell into a deep depression. For months, she stopped speaking almost entirely, and ate so little that she was nearly hospitalized; that period of malnutrition would later stunt her growth. Her parents took time off work to nurse her through what her father remembers as a period of “endless sadness,” and Thunberg herself recalls feeling confused.
“I couldn’t understand how that could exist, that existential threat, and yet we didn’t prioritize it,” she says. “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.’”
In September, she arrived in New York after a 15-day sail across the Atlantic on an emissions-free yacht ahead of her speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit. She set sail again in November for Spain for the 25th United Nations Climate Change conference. “I decided to sail to highlight the fact that you can’t live sustainably in today’s society,” Thunberg told the media by phone before leaving the country. “You have to go to the extreme.”
Describing her journey on the boat across the ocean, TIME wrote: “For a moment, it’s as if Thunberg were the eye of a hurricane, a pool of resolve at the center of swirling chaos. In here, she speaks quietly. Out there, the entire natural world seems to amplify her small voice, screaming along with her.”
“We can’t just continue living as if there was no tomorrow, because there is a tomorrow,” she was quoted as saying during her 15-day sail, tugging on the sleeve of her blue sweatshirt. “That is all we are saying.”
The politics of climate action are as entrenched and complex as the phenomenon itself, and Thunberg has no magic solution. 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.
She has offered a moral clarion call to those who are willing to act, and hurled shame on those who are not. She has persuaded leaders, from mayors to Presidents, to make commitments where they had previously fumbled: after she spoke to Parliament and demonstrated with the British environmental group Extinction Rebellion, the U.K. passed a law requiring that the country eliminate its carbon footprint.
She has focused the world’s attention on environmental injustices that young indigenous activists have been protesting for years. Because of her, hundreds of thousands of teenage “Gretas,” from Lebanon to Liberia, have skipped school to lead their peers in climate strikes around the world.
Thunberg is known for expressing her anger and dismay with adults who are not, shall we say, on the same page. “Adults keep saying, ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope,’” Ms. Thunberg said in January at the World Economic Forum. “But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”