Greta Thunberg: Youngest TIME Person of the Year
Swedish climate-change activist Greta Thunberg is living proof that age is no barrier when it comes to making an impact. In 2019, her huge contribution to world affairs secured her an accolade from one of the most prestigious publications, claiming a record that had stood for more than 90 years.Back to Hall of Fame
Words: Rachael Greaves
In 2018, reports emerged from Sweden of a 15-year-old girl who had taken it upon herself to strike from school to make a stand on climate change. It wasn't long before Greta Thunberg (with her now iconic yellow anorak) was catapulted on to the world stage. Now a household name, Greta is determined not to let that momentum that she and her fellow campaigners in the "Fridays for Future" and "Global Climate Strike" movements go to waste.
While she is the first to insist there is far more work to be done, in recognition of the impact she has already had, Greta has been showered with plaudits (though not all of them she has accepted). On 23 Dec 2019, she became the youngest TIME Person of the Year, aged 16 years 354 days.
Born in 2003, Greta first became conscious of climate change at around the age of seven or eight. She was deeply affected by it, and became quite depressed by the current state of the world and what the future held. Wanting to be proactive and make a difference, she began campaigning at home, lobbying her own family to change their lifestyle. “At the start, the actions I took at home were very small, like turning off the lights," Greta told us in an exclusive interview. "My parents were a bit annoyed with me for doing that, but they saw that I enjoyed feeling as if I made an impact...”
Since 2018, Greta has dominated the global media, her crusade for the environment beginning with a month-long school strike, that kick-started the worldwide “Fridays For Future” movement. Her protest was in response to Sweden’s hottest summer in over 250 years. Her actions have inspired many other wide-scale protests. On 15 Mar 2019, 2,200 climate-change events took place over 125 countries simultaneously, drawing around 1 million supporters globally. Greta continues to inspire, encouraging young people to be catalysts for action at home: “Just keep bugging your parents or the adults around you. Be the person who dares to be uncomfortable and lead by example.”
Greta has not only made her mark by protesting on the streets with her fellow campaigners, but by making sure her voice is heard at some of the most prestigious conferences, including the United Nations COP 25 and Davos in Switzerland, hosted by the World Economic Forum.
Travelling to these engagements when she can using zero-emission transport such as yachts, Greta has made numerous speeches to government officials and other cultural figureheads. When meeting with world and religious leaders, she is never afraid to speak her mind. On her crusade, Greta has gained some very high-profile supporters including UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and other world leaders. After meeting her in person, former President US Barack Obama opined on Twitter that Greta was “already one of our planet’s greatest activists.”
On the flip side, she has had run-ins with a number of current leaders, including US President Donald Trump, Russian premier Vladimir Putin and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro. The new wave of climate-change movements of which Greta is a leading light have not been afraid to demand more action of politicians who have long advocated green policies either, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel (who herself was named TIME Person of the Year in 2015).
Since her first speech in 2018 at TEDxStockholm, Greta has convinced more than 75 countries worldwide to pledge to cut down greenhouse emissions to zero by 2050, though she is currently unsatisfied with the EU’s climate plans. She criticised the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic in a letter to the EU, arguing that it did not put emphasis on the environment: “It is clearer than ever that the climate crisis has never once been treated as a crisis… the longer we keep pretending that we are on a reliable path to lower emissions… the more precious time we lose.”
Beyond her induction to TIME's prestigious "Person of the Year" roster, Greta has been recognized for her work with a plethora of awards and honours, including a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2019 (though in the end this went to Ethiopia's prime minister, Abiy Ahmed). She also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Mons in Belgium.
She has however turned down a number of plaudits, including, perhaps surprisingly, the 2019 Nordic Council Environment Prize, stating that it was “very ironic, since [Fridays for Future] are protesting against governments' inaction. The Nordic countries' carbon footprint per capita are among the highest in the world.” She also stated that she felt “bit sick of getting award after award but no real action.”
In addition, Greta has received some slightly more unusual forms of accolade, including having three new species of insect named after her. For example, in Oct 2019, a newly identified beetle was named Nelloptodes gretae by Michael Darby of the Natural History Museum, in appreciation of her work for the environment. The scientist suggested that the beetle’s antennae were reminiscent of Greta’s iconic pigtails...
While Greta has no specific plans for the near future, she is continuing her activism from home during the Covid-19 pandemic. She has moved her protests from the streets to online, as while officially Sweden does not have lockdown restrictions, many including Greta have been following the advice of staying at home and social distancing. She has rebranded the events as “Talks for Future”, streaming them to like-minded activists across the globe every Friday.
When we asked where Greta sees herself in 10 years’ time, she wasn’t sure but did state that she hopes the work of climate-change activists like herself will be over, so that they can move on to something else; “All I know is,” she did offer, “that I would like to be somewhere and do something where I can help make the world a better place.”
Q&A with Greta Thunberg
Q: Do you remember the moment that you became aware of climate change? Was there a particular trigger?
A: I first learned about the climate and ecological crisis when I was in school. I was maybe seven or eight years old. I remember being told to turn off the lights, if no one was in the room, to save energy and to recycle packages and paper and to not throw away food. I think the reason why I got so interested in it was because no one else was. I thought it seemed very strange that this obvious crisis was not being treated as a crisis and basically no one even talked about it. Everyone just kept on going like before and I could not understand that. So, I started reading about it and then gradually understood what it really meant. And then you cannot "un-understand" it, it’s like you get stuck and have to do something about it.
Q: How did your parents react when you first told them your family needed to reduce its carbon usage when you were eight years old?
A: In the beginning, I just asked them what this was and what would happen, like any curious child. When they failed to answer my questions, I started reading by myself. I told them what I learned and just kept on talking about it. I think they became a bit tired of it. At the start, the actions I took at home were very small, like turning off the lights. My parents were a bit annoyed with me for doing that, but they saw that I enjoyed feeling as if I made an impact, even though it was very small.
Q: Any tips for young people who are looking to encourage greener practices in their own homes/schools/communities etc?
A: Just keep bugging your parents or the adults around you. Be the person who dares to be uncomfortable and lead by example. One thing you can do at home is to make a list of things your family can do at home to reduce your ecological footprint.
Q: Why do you think the “Fridays for Future” movement has captured so many people’s imaginations where previous campaigns have failed?
A: Well, you can’t put it like that. But I think it was the right thing to do with the right timing. I don’t know why and it’s something no one could have predicted. It’s just the very strong symbolism that young people are saying, “Why should I care about my future when you adults don’t, and why should a study for a future that is being stolen from me?” And this was something concrete that young people could do. We can’t vote, but you have to go to school. So this is our method for "disrupting" society.
Q: What do your family think of your new-found fame? Is it hard being in the media spotlight?
A: They, of course, worry that I’m such a big target, and that affects the entire family. But my parents also see that this means so much to me and that I feel happy knowing that I’m making an impact, and that also makes them happy, I guess.
Q: It’s no secret that you don’t see eye to eye with certain politicians on environmental policy… what do you think it will take to convince even the most ardent opponent to your cause?
A: I don’t care about “convincing” people. These aren’t things that you can choose to believe in or not. Either you understand and accept the science, or you don’t. I’m just communicating the science and trying to create awareness by informing people.
Q: Are there any countries doing a particularly good job in terms of their environmental policy?
A: Of course, no nation is in line with what needs to be done to keep the global heating below 1.5°C. You can, of course, argue that some are much worse than others, and that is true. But the point is that no one is doing enough since the general awareness is way, way too low.
Q: You rejected the Nordic Council Environment Prize in 2019 – can you tell us why?
A: Because it was from the Nordic governments, which is very ironic since we are protesting against governments' inaction. The Nordic countries' carbon footprint per capita are among the highest in the world. Also, I and the "Fridays For Future" movement has recently received so many prizes, and I was honestly a bit sick of getting award after award but no real action.
Q: How did it feel to become the youngest ever TIME Person of the Year?
A: I don’t know honestly, I still haven’t really taken it in. It’s like I haven’t been able to grasp anything that’s happened the last 18 months. But I really hope it will show young people that they can also have an impact, and that they shouldn’t be discouraged to speak up because of their age.
Q: What are your feelings about the fact that you’re only the fifth individual female to have received the TIME accolade since 1927?
A: That’s actually a shame. I was a bit shocked when I found that out. It really shows how women have been (and still are) treated differently. If there were one record you could set based on climate-change activism/policy, what would it be? Making as many people as possible understand the urgency of the climate and ecological emergency, because that would lead to people pushing for policies in line with the science.
Q: …and how about a record that isn’t connected to climate-change activism/policy?
A: I don’t know, competing and breaking records is not something that interest me that much. But maybe it would be something like rescuing the most amount of animals from being mistreated ever, or protecting the biggest area of natural ecosystems in the world.
Q: What was it like to meet Malala Yousafzai, a fellow young record-breaker who is not afraid to make waves?
A: It was an incredible experience; she is one of my biggest role models. For the first time ever I was actually “star struck”. We discussed all possible things, from our everyday lives to how the climate- and ecological crisis above all affects women living in poverty in the global south.
Q: How do you foresee the coronavirus impacting on the climate-change movement?
A: I, of course, have no idea. All we know is that we have to wait and see what happens. This is a global emergency and right now we need to help society and those in need.
More TIME Person of the Year records
The first TIME Person of the Year was US aviator Charles Lindbergh, in recognition of the first transatlantic flight that he piloted on 20–21 May 1927. He appeared on the cover of the 2 Jan 1928 special issue of TIME. Until Greta came along, Lindbergh also held the title of youngest TIME Person of the Year, having received the award at the age of 24 years 332 days.
At the other end of the spectrum to Greta, the oldest TIME Person of the Year is former Chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer (1876–1967). He was 77 years 364 days (one day shy of his 78th birthday) as of the cover date of his announcement issue on 4 Jan 1954.
The first female TIME Person of the Year was socialite Wallis Simpson (USA), on 4 Jan 1937. Her marriage proposal to King Edward VIII caused great controversy at the time – enough for the king to abdicate on 11 Dec 1936, after accepting her proposal. Greta is only the fifth individual woman to receive the title, following Queen Elizabeth II (1952), Corazon Aquino (1986) and Angela Merkel (2015).
Former Leader of the Republic of China, General Chiang Kai-shek, and his wife, Soong Mei-ling, were the first multiple recipients of the accolade in 1937. They both appeared on the cover of the 3 Jan 1938 issue.
Even non-humans have got in on the act. On the 3 Jan 1983 end-of-year issue, “The Computer” became the first inanimate object to receive the title of "Machine of the Year". The accompanying article focused on Apple's first PC with a graphical user interface (“Lisa”), which had been released on 19 Jan 1983.