Dec 11, 2019

Greta Thunberg is TIME's 2019 Person of The year


Greta Thunberg sits in silence in the cabin of the boat that will take her across the Atlantic Ocean. Inside, there’s a cow skull hanging on the wall, a faded globe, a child’s yellow raincoat. Outside, it’s a tempest: rain pelts the boat, ice coats the decks, and the sea batters the vessel that will take this slight girl, her father and a few companions from Virginia to Portugal. 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 says, tugging on the sleeve of her blue sweatshirt. “That is all we are saying.”

It’s a simple truth, delivered by a teenage girl in a fateful moment. The sailboat, La Vagabonde, will shepherd Thunberg to the Port of Lisbon, and from there she will travel to Madrid, where the United Nations is hosting this year’s climate conference. It is the last such summit before nations commit to new plans to meet a major deadline set by the Paris Agreement. Unless they agree on transformative action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world’s temperature rise since the Industrial Revolution will hit the 1.5°C mark—an eventuality that scientists warn will expose some 350 million additional people to drought and push roughly 120 million people into extreme poverty by 2030. For every fraction of a degree that temperatures increase, these problems will worsen. This is not fearmongering; this is science. For decades, researchers and activists have struggled to get world leaders to take the climate threat seriously. But this year, an unlikely teenager somehow got the world’s attention.Climate activist Greta Thunberg photographed on the shore in Lisbon, Portugal December 4, 2019
Climate activist Greta Thunberg photographed on the shore in Lisbon, Portugal December 4, 2019Photograph by Evgenia Arbugaeva for TIME
Thunberg began a global movement by skipping school: starting in August 2018, she spent her days camped out in front of the Swedish Parliament, holding a sign painted in black letters on a white background that read Skolstrejk för klimatet: “School Strike for Climate.” In the 16 months since, she has addressed heads of state at the U.N., met with the Pope, sparred with the President of the United States and inspired 4 million people to join the global climate strike on September 20, 2019, in what was the largest climate demonstration in human history. Her image has been celebrated in murals and Halloween costumes, and her name has been attached to everything from bike shares to beetles. Margaret Atwood compared her to Joan of Arc. After noticing a hundredfold increase in its usage, lexicographers at Collins Dictionary named Thunberg’s pioneering idea, climate strike, the word of the year.
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.
“This moment does feel different,” former Vice President Al Gore, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his decades of climate advocacy work, tells TIME. “Throughout history, many great morally based movements have gained traction at the very moment when young people decided to make that movement their cause.”
Thunberg is 16 but looks 12. She usually wears her light brown hair pulled into two braids, parted in the middle. She has Asperger’s syndrome, which means she doesn’t operate on the same emotional register as many of the people she meets. She dislikes crowds; ignores small talk; and speaks in direct, uncomplicated sentences. She cannot be flattered or distracted. She is not impressed by other people’s celebrity, nor does she seem to have interest in her own growing fame. But these very qualities have helped make her a global sensation. Where others smile to cut the tension, Thunberg is withering. Where others speak the language of hope, Thunberg repeats the unassailable science: Oceans will rise. Cities will flood. Millions of people will suffer.

TIME 2019 Person of the Year: Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg is the face of a global youth-led climate movement

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TIME ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR: LIZZO“I want you to panic,” she told the annual convention of CEOs and world leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January. “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

Thunberg is not a leader of any political party or advocacy group. She is neither the first to sound the alarm about the climate crisis nor the most qualified to fix it. She is not a scientist or a politician. She has no access to traditional levers of influence: she’s not a billionaire or a princess, a pop star or even an adult. She is an ordinary teenage girl who, in summoning the courage to speak truth to power, became the icon of a generation. By clarifying an abstract danger with piercing outrage, Thunberg became the most compelling voice on the most important issue facing the planet.

Along the way, she emerged as a standard bearer in a generational battle, an avatar of youth activists across the globe fighting for everything from gun control to democratic representation. Her global climate strike is the largest and most international of all the youth movements, but it’s hardly the only one: teenagers in the U.S. are organizing against gun violence and flocking to progressive candidates; students in Hong Kong are battling for democratic representation; and young people from South America to Europe are agitating for remaking the global economy. Thunberg is not aligned with these disparate protests, but her insistent presence has come to represent the fury of youth worldwide. According to a December Amnesty International survey, young people in 22 countries identified climate change as the most important issue facing the world. 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.
“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,” says Varshini Prakash, 26, who co-founded the Sunrise Movement, a U.S. youth advocacy group pushing for a Green New Deal.
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.
Next year will be decisive: the E.U. is planning to tax imports from countries that don’t tackle climate change; the global energy sector faces a financial reckoning; China will draft its development plans for the next five years; and the U.S. presidential election will determine whether the leader of the free world continues to ignore the science of climate change.
“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.” Leaders respond to pressure, pressure is created by movements, movements are built by thousands of people changing their minds. And sometimes, the best way to change a mind is to see the world through the eyes of a child.
Thunberg is maybe 5 ft. tall, and she looks even smaller in her black oversize wet-weather gear. Late November is not the time of year to cross the Atlantic Ocean: the seas are rough, the winds are fierce, and the small boat—a leaky catamaran—spent weeks pounding and bucking over 23-ft. seas. At first, Thunberg got seasick. Once, a huge wave came over the boat, ripping a chair off the deck and snapping ropes. Another time, she was awakened by the sound of thunder cracking overhead, and the crew feared that lightning would strike the mast.
But Thunberg, in her quiet way, was unfazed. She spent most of the long afternoons in the cabin, listening to audiobooks and teaching her shipmates to play Yatzy. On calm days, she climbed on deck and looked across the vast colorless sea. Somewhere below the surface, millions of tons of plastic swirled. Thousands of miles to the north, the sea ice was melting.
Thunberg approaches the world’s problems with the weight of an elder, but she’s still a kid. She favors sweatpants and Velcro sneakers, and shares matching bracelets with her 14-year-old sister. She likes horses, and she misses her two dogs, Moses and Roxy, back in Stockholm. Her 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.

Thunberg writes in her journal on the train as she travels from Lisbon to Madrid for a U.N. climate conference
Thunberg writes in her journal on the train as she travels from Lisbon to Madrid for a U.N. climate conferenceEvgenia Arbugaeva for TIME
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.’”
At first, Thunberg’s father reassured her that everything would be O.K., but as he read more about the climate crisis, he found his own words rang hollow. “I realized that she was right and I was wrong, and I had been wrong all my life,” Svante told TIME in a quiet moment after arriving in Lisbon. In an effort to comfort their daughter, the family began changing their habits to reduce their emissions. They mostly stopped eating meat, installed solar panels, began growing their own vegetables and eventually gave up flying—a sacrifice for Thunberg’s mother, who performs throughout Europe. “We did all these things, basically, not really to save the climate, we didn’t care much about that initially,” says Svante. “We did it to make her happy and to get her back to life.” Slowly, Thunberg began to eat and talk again.
Thunberg’s Asperger’s diagnosis helped explain why she had such a powerful reaction to learning about the climate crisis. Because she doesn’t process information in the same way neurotypical people do, she could not compartmentalize the fact that her planet was in peril. “I see the world in black and white, and I don’t like compromising,” she told TIME during a school break earlier this year. “If I were like everyone else, I would have continued on and not seen this crisis.” She is in some ways grateful for her diagnosis; if her brain worked differently, she explained, “I wouldn’t be able to sit for hours and read things I’m interested in.” Thunberg’s focus and way of speaking betrays a maturity far beyond her years. When she passed classmates at her school, she remarked that “the children are being quite noisy,” as if she were not one of them.

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