Greta Thunberg is Time's 2019 "Person of the Year"

The Swedish climate change activist is the youngest person to ever earn the coveted distinction at 16 years old

By Matthew Rozsa
December 12, 2019 2:34AM (UTC)
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Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is pictured after disembarking from the catamaran La Vagabonde at the Santo Amaro docks in Lisbon, on December 3, 2019. (Photo by CARLOS COSTA / AFP) (Photo by (CARLOS COSTA/AFP via Getty Images)

Time magazine announced Wednesday that it has chosen Greta Thunberg as its 2019 "Person of the Year."

Thunberg, who at 16 is the youngest person to ever earn the coveted distinction, was described by Time’s editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal as part of a rising generation of “leaders with a cause and a phone who don’t fit the old rubrics but who connect with us in ways that institutions can’t and perhaps never could.” 


Felsenthal’s essay discusses the importance of addressing man-made climate change and Thunberg’s historic efforts to raise awareness. But it also connects Thunberg’s climate strike to “the student-led protests on the streets of Santiago, Chile, to the young democracy activists fighting for rights and representation in Hong Kong to the high schoolers from Parkland, Fla., whose march against gun violence Thunberg cites as an inspiration for her climate strikes.”

Although Felsenthal does not mention Thunberg’s autism, a lengthier article by Charlotte Alter, Suyin Haynes and Justin Worland does so as a vehicle for explaining both her passion for addressing climate change and her unique form of advocacy. 

“She has Asperger’s syndrome, which means she doesn’t operate on the same emotional register as many of the people she meets,” the three authors write. “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.”


They add, “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.”

One particular quote from a Thunberg speech is used by the authors to highlight how the young activist has become the voice of a generation. 

“People are underestimating the force of angry kids. We are angry and frustrated, and that is because of good reason,” she once said.“If they want us to stop being angry then maybe they should stop making us angry.” 


The article also discusses ways in which Thunberg’s opponents have demeaned her, from ridiculing her physical appearance to taking swipes at her autism. 

As this author (who is on the autism spectrum) wrote in September, “For fellow autists like me, this makes her both a source of inspiration and a role model. For conservatives wishing to knock her down a peg, needless to say, it’s a perceived weakness and an opening for exploitation and ridicule. Unfortunately, I wasn't surprised when I heard that Thunberg was being bullied for having autism. When you're on the spectrum, being bullied comes with the territory.”

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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