Time. 2019. Person of the year - Greta ThunbergSource: Time
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.
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.
“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.
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.
In May 2018, after Thunberg wrote an essay about climate change that was published in a Swedish newspaper, a handful of Scandinavian climate activists contacted her. Thunberg suggested they emulate the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who had recently organized school strikes to protest gun violence in the U.S. The other activists decided against the idea, but it lodged in Thunberg’s mind. She announced to her parents that she would go on strike to pressure the Swedish government to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Her school strike, she told them, would last until the Swedish elections in September 2018.
Thunberg’s parents were less than thrilled at first at the idea of their daughter missing so much class, and her teachers suggested she find a different way to protest. But Thunberg was immovable. She put together a flyer with facts about extinction rates and carbon budgets, and then sprinkled it with the cheeky sense of humor that has made her stubbornness go viral. “My name is Greta, I am in ninth grade, and I am school-striking for the climate,” she wrote on each flyer. “Since you adults don’t give a damn about my future, I won’t either.”
On Aug. 20, 2018, Thunberg arrived in front of the Swedish Parliament, wearing a blue hoodie and carrying her homemade school-strike sign. She had no institutional support, no formal backing and nobody to keep her company. But doing something—making a stand, even if she was by herself—felt better than doing nothing. “Learning about climate change triggered my depression in the first place,” she says. “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.” Her father said that after she began striking, it was as if she “came back to life.”
On the first day of her climate strike, Thunberg was alone. She sat slumped on the ground, seeming barely bigger than her backpack. It was an unusually chilly August day. She posted about her strike on social media, and a few journalists came by to talk to her, but most of the day she was on her own. She ate her packed lunch of bean pasta with salt, and at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, when she’d normally leave school, her father picked her up and they biked home.
On the second day, a stranger joined her. “That was a big step, from one to two,” she recalls. “This is not about me striking; this is now us striking from school.” A few days later, a handful more came. A Greenpeace activist brought vegan pad thai, which Thunberg tried for the first time. They were suddenly a group: one person refusing to accept the status quo had become two, then eight, then 40, then hundreds. Then thousands.
By early September, enough people had joined Thunberg’s climate strike in Stockholm that she announced she would continue every Friday until Sweden aligned with the Paris Agreement. The Fridays for Future movement was born. By the end of 2018, tens of thousands of students across Europe began skipping school on Fridays to protest their own leaders’ inaction. In January, 35,000 schoolchildren protested in Belgium following Thunberg’s example. The movement struck a chord. When a Belgian environmental minister insulted the strikers, a public outcry forced her to resign.
By September 2019, the climate strikes had spread beyond northern Europe. In New York City, 250,000 reportedly marched in Battery Park and outside City Hall. In London, 100,000 swarmed the streets near Westminster Abbey, in the shadow of Big Ben. In Germany, a total of 1.4 million people took to the streets, with thousands flooding the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and marching in nearly 600 other cities and towns across the country. From Antarctica to Papua New Guinea, from Kabul to Johannesburg, an estimated 4 million people of all ages showed up to protest. Their signs told a story. In London: The World is Hotter than Young Leonardo DiCaprio. In Turkey: Every Disaster Movie Starts with a Scientist Being Ignored. In New York: The Dinosaurs Thought They Had Time, Too. Hundreds carried images of Thunberg or painted her quotes onto poster boards. Make the World Greta Again became a rallying cry.
Her moral clarity inspired other young people around the world. “I want to be like her,” says Rita Amorim, a 16-year-old student from Lisbon who waited for four hours in December to catch a glimpse of Thunberg.
In Udaipur, India, 17-year-old Vidit Baya started his climate strike with just six people in March; by September, it was 80 strong. In Brasilia, Brazil, 19-year-old Artemisa Xakriabá marched with other indigenous women as the Amazon was burning, then traveled to the U.N. climate summit in New York City. In Guilin, China, 16-year-old Howey Ou posted a picture of herself online in front of city government offices in a solo act of climate protest; she was taken to a police station and told her demonstration was illegal. In Moscow, 25-year-old Arshak Makichyan began a one-man picket for climate, risking arrest in a country where street protest is tightly restricted. In Haridwar, India, 11-year-old Ridhima Pandey joined 15 other kids, including Thunberg, in filing a complaint to the U.N. against Germany, France, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey, arguing that the nations’ failure to tackle the climate crisis amounted to a violation of child rights.
In New York City, 17-year-old Xiye Bastida, originally from an indigenous Otomi community in Mexico, led 600 of her peers in a climate walkout from her Manhattan high school. And in Kampala, Uganda, 22-year-old Hilda Nakabuye launched her own chapter of Fridays for Future after she realized that the strong rains and long droughts that hurt her family’s crops could be attributed to global warming. “Before I knew about climate change, I was already experiencing its effects in my life,” she says.
The activism of children has also motivated their parents. In São Paulo, Isabella Prata joined a group called Parents for Future to support child activists. Thunberg, she says, “is an image of all of this generation.”
It all happened so fast. Just over a year ago, a quiet and mostly friendless teenager woke up, put on her blue hoodie, and sat by herself for hours in an act of singular defiance. Fourteen months later, she had become the voice of millions, a symbol of a rising global rebellion.
On Dec. 3, La Vagabonde docked beneath a flight path to Portugal’s largest airport. Thunberg and her father stood on the deck, waving to the hundreds of people that had gathered on a cold, sunny day to welcome them back to Europe. Above their heads, planes droned, reminders of how easily Thunberg could have crossed the ocean by air, and of the cost of that convenience: the roughly 124,000 flights that take off every day spill millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. “I’m not traveling like this because I want everyone to do so,” Thunberg told reporters after she walked, a little wobbly at first, onto dry land for the first time in weeks. “I’m doing this to send a message that it is impossible to live sustainably today, and that needs to change.”
Taking her place in front of a bank of television cameras and reporters, she went on. “People are underestimating the force of angry kids,” she said. “We are angry and frustrated, and that is because of good reason. If they want us to stop being angry then maybe they should stop making us angry.” When she was done speaking, the crowd erupted in cheers.
Her speeches often go straight to the gut. “You say you love your children above all else,” she said in her first big address at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Poland last December. “And yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.” The address went viral almost immediately. Over the course of the past year, she has given dozens of similar admonitions—to chief executives and heads of state, to thought leaders and movie stars. Each time, Thunberg speaks quietly but forcefully, articulating the palpable sense of injustice that often seems obvious to the very young: adults, by refusing to act in the face of extraordinary crisis, are being foolish at best, and corrupt at worst. To those who share her fear, Thunberg’s blunt honesty is cathartic. To those who don’t, it feels threatening. She refuses to use the language of hope; her sharpest weapon is shame.
In September, speaking to heads of state during the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg pulled no punches: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” she said. “How dare you.”
Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland who served as the U.N. climate envoy ahead of the Paris climate talks, spent years arguing that climate change would destroy small island nations and indigenous communities. The message often fell on deaf ears. “People would just sort of say, ‘Ah yeah, but that’s not me,’” she tells TIME. “Having children say, ‘We have no future’ is far more effective. When children say something like that, adults feel very bad.”
Cutting through the noise has earned Thunberg plenty of detractors. Some indigenous activists and organizers of color ask why a white European girl is being celebrated when they have been working on these same issues for decades. Thunberg herself sometimes appears frustrated at the media attention placed on her, and often goes out of her way to highlight other activists, especially indigenous ones. At a press conference in Madrid just before the mass march, she implores journalists to ask questions “not just to me,” but to the other Fridays for Future organizers on stage with her. “What do you think?” she asks the others, in an effort to broaden the conversation.
Some traditional environmental groups have also complained that the radical success of a teenage girl playing hooky has overshadowed their less flashy efforts to write and pass meaningful legislation. “They want the needle moved too,” says Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a veteran climate leader. “They would just want to be the ones that get the credit for moving it.” On the record, no major environmental group would say anything remotely negative.
Some of her opponents have attacked her personally. Online trolls have made fun of her appearance and speech patterns. In Rome, someone hung her in effigy off a bridge under a sign reading Greta is your God. In Alberta, the heart of Canada’s oil-drilling region, police had to step in to protect her after she and her father were followed by men yelling, “This is oil country.” Maxime Bernier, leader of the far-right People’s Party of Canada, tweeted that Thunberg is “clearly mentally unstable.” (He later walked back his criticism, calling her only a “pawn.”) Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed Thunberg entirely: “I don’t share the common excitement,” he said on a panel in October. President Donald Trump mocked her sarcastically on Twitter as “a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.” After she tweeted about the killings of indigenous people in Brazil, the country’s President Jair Bolsonaro called her an insulting word that roughly translated to “little brat.” Thunberg has taken those criticisms in stride: she has co-opted both Trump and Bolsonaro’s ridicule for her Twitter bio.
It’s not always easy. No one, and perhaps particularly a teenage girl, would like to have their looks and mannerisms mocked online. But for Thunberg, it’s a daily reality. “I have to think carefully about everything I do, everything I say, what I’m wearing even, what I’m eating—everything!” she tells TIME during a train ride to Hamburg, Germany, last spring. “Everything I say will reach other people, so I need to think two steps ahead.” Sitting next to her father, she scrolls past hateful comments—the head of a Swedish sportswear chain appeared to be mocking her Asperger’s—then shrugs them off. So many people have made death threats against her family that she is now often protected by police when she travels. But for the most part, she sees the global backlash as evidence that the climate strikers have hit a nerve. “I think that it’s a good sign actually,” she says. “Because that shows we are actually making a difference and they see us as a threat.”
It’s hard to quantify the so-called Greta effect partly because it’s mostly been manifest in promises and goals. But commitments count as progress when the climate conversation has been stuck in stasis for so long. In the U.S., Democrats have long given lip service to addressing global warming even as they prioritized other issues, while many Republicans have simply denied the science altogether. In countries now establishing a middle class, like China and India, leaders argue they should be allowed to burn fossil fuels because that’s how their richer counterparts got ahead.
Those debates end up papering over what is an urgent challenge by nearly every measure. Keeping global temperature rise to 1.5°C would require elected officials to act both immediately and dramatically. In the developed world, a rapid transition away from fossil fuels could sharply raise gas and heating prices and disrupt industries that employ millions of people. In the global south, reducing emissions means rethinking key elements of how countries build their economies. Emissions would have to drop 7.6% on average every year for the next decade—a feat that, while scientifically possible, would require revolutionary changes.
But the needle is moving. Fortune 500 companies, facing major pressure to reduce their emissions, are realizing that sustainability makes for good PR. In June, the airline KLM launched a “Fly Responsibly” campaign, which encouraged customers to consider abstaining from non-essential air travel. In July, the head of OPEC, the cartel that controls much of the world’s oil production, called climate strikers the “greatest threat” to his industry, according to the AFP. In September, workers at Amazon, Facebook and other major companies walked out during the climate strikes. And in November, the president of Emirates airline told the BBC that the climate strikers helped him realize “we are not doing enough.” In December, Klaus Schwab, the founder and CEO of the World Economic Forum, published a manifesto calling on global business leaders to embrace a more responsible form of capitalism that, among other things, forces companies to act “as a steward of the environmental and material universe for future generations.”
Hans Vestberg, the CEO of the telecom giant Verizon, says that companies are feeling squeezed about climate from all sides. “It’s growing from all the stakeholders,” he says. “Our employees think about it much more, our customers are talking much more about it, and society is expecting us to show up.”
Governments are making promises too. In the past year, more than 60 countries said they would eliminate their carbon footprints by 2050. Voters in Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria and Sweden—especially young people—now list climate change as their top priority. In May, green parties gained seats in the European Parliament from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and more. Those victories helped push the new European Commission president to promise “a Green Deal” for Europe. In the U.S., a recent Washington Post poll found that more than three-quarters of Americans now consider climate change a “crisis” or a “major problem.” Even Republican lawmakers who have long denied or dismissed climate science are taking note. In an interview with the Washington Examiner, Republican House minority leader Kevin McCarthy acknowledged that his party “should be a little bit nervous” about changing attitudes on climate.
At the individual level, ordinary people are following Thunberg’s example. In Sweden, flying is increasingly seen as a wasteful emission of carbon—a change of attitude captured by a new word: flygskam, meaning “flight-shame.” There was an 8% drop in domestic flights between January and April according to Swedavia, which runs the nation’s airports, and Interrail ticket sales have tripled over the past two years. More than 19,000 people have signed a pledge swearing off air travel in 2020, and the German railway operator Deutsche Bahn reported a record number of passengers using its long-distance rail in the first six months of 2019. Swiss and Austrian railway operators also saw upticks on their night train services this year.
The Greta effect may be growing, but Thunberg herself remains unmoved. “One person stops flying doesn’t make much difference,” she says. “The thing we should look at is the emissions curve—it’s still rising. Of course something is happening, but basically nothing is happening.”
Last spring, before she became a global icon, Thunberg enjoyed a semblance of calm and privacy. Now it’s bedlam wherever she goes. On the night train from Lisbon, she hides in the on-board kitchen to escape the lenses of dozens of cameras; when she is finally able to sneak into her cabin, she uses the moment of peace to write in her journal. When her train arrives in Madrid the next morning, the platform is again packed cheek-to-jowl with television cameras and reporters. Before stepping off the train and facing the pack, she wonders out loud how she can navigate the chaos. Even after she makes it inside the U.N. climate summit, she’s swarmed. Photographers jostle through throngs of teenagers in green face paint chanting “Gre-TA, Gre-TA!” while others erupt in a spirited call-and-response: “What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!”
A few yards away from the commotion, in one of the official conference spaces, a speaker stands in front of a handful of other adults and chuckled. Behind her, a screen shows a Power-Point presentation: “How do we empower young people in climate activism?”
Thunberg’s lonely strike outside Sweden’s Parliament coincided with a surge of mass youth protests that have erupted around the world—all in different places, with different impacts, but fueled by a changing social climate and shifting economic pressures. In Hong Kong, young activists concerned by Beijing’s tightening grip on the territory sparked a furious pro-democracy movement that has been going strong since June. In Iraq and Lebanon, young people dominate sweeping demonstrations against corruption, foreign interference and sectarian governance. The Madrid climate summit was moved from Chile because of huge protests over economic inequality that were kicked off by high school students. And in the U.S., young organizers opposed the Trump Administration on everything from immigration to health care and helped elect a new wave of equally young lawmakers.
The common thread is outrage over a central injustice: young people know they are inheriting a world that will not work nearly as well as it did for the aging adults who have been running it. “It’s so important to realize that we are challenging the systems we are in, and that is being led by young people,” says Beth Irving, 17, who came from Wales to demonstrate for sweeping changes on climate policy outside the U.N. summit. Thunberg is not aligned with any of these non-climate youth movements, but her abrupt rise to prominence comes at a moment when young people across the globe are awakening to anger at being cut a raw deal.
The existential issue of climate puts everyone at risk, but the younger you are, the greater the stakes. The scale of addressing climate change—the systemic transformation of economic, social and political systems—-animates young progressives already keen to remake the world. Karin Watson, 22, who came to the climate summit as part of a delegation from Amnesty International Chile, describes a tumultuous, interconnected and youth-led “social explosion” worldwide. She cannot disentangle her own advocacy for higher wages from women’s rights and climate: “This social crisis is also an ecological crisis—it’s related,” she says. “In the end, it’s intersectional: the most vulnerable communities are the most vulnerable to climate change.”
In the U.S., Jaclyn Corin, 19, one of the original organizers of the March for Our Lives anti-gun violence movement, framed the challenges at stake. “We can’t let these problems continue on for future generations to take care of,” she says. “Adults didn’t take care of these problems, so we have to take care of them, and not be like older generations in their complacency.”
These disparate youth movements are beginning to see some wins. In Hong Kong, after months of sometimes-violent protests by young people resisting Beijing’s authoritarian rule, the pro-democracy parties won major victories in the local elections in November. In the U.K., young people are poised to become one of the most decisive voting blocs, and political battle lines are drawn by age as well as class. One poll shows that more than half of British voters say the climate crisis will influence their votes in the coming elections; among younger voters, it’s three-quarters. In Switzerland, the two environmentalist parties saw their best results ever in the elections in October, and much of that support came from young people who were voting for the first time. In the U.S., the Sunrise activists have helped make climate change a central campaign issue in the 2020 presidential election. In September, the top 10 candidates for the Democratic nomination participated in a first-of-its-kind prime-time town hall on the issue.
“Young people tend to have a fantastic impact in public opinion around the world,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told TIME. “Governments follow.”
On Dec. 6, the tens of thousands of people flooding into Madrid to demonstrate for climate action pour off trains and buses and sweep in great waves through the heart of the city. Above their heads, the wind carries furious messages—Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear; You Will Die of Old Age, I Will Die of Climate Change—and the thrum of chants and drumming rise like thunder through the streets. A group of young women and teenage girls from Spain’s chapter of Fridays for Future escort Thunberg slowly from a nearby press conference to the march, linking their arms to create a human shield. Once again, Thunberg was the calm in the eye of a hurricane: buffeted and lifted by the surging crowd, cacophonous and furious but also strangely joyful.
It takes them an hour just to reach the main demonstration. When Thunberg finally approaches the stage, she climbs in her Velcro shoes to a microphone and begins to speak. The drums fall silent, and thousands lean in to listen. “The change is going to come from the people demanding action,” she says, “and that is us.” From where she stands, she can see in every direction. The view is of a vast sea of young people from nations all over the world, the great force of them surging and cresting, ready to rise.