“She became the biggest voice on the biggest issue facing the planet this year, coming from essentially nowhere to lead a worldwide movement,” Time Editor in Chief Edward Felsenthal said on NBC’s “Today” show.
Thunberg represents a broader phenomenon of young people pushing for change, Felsenthal said, pointing to the Parkland, Fla., high school students who became a leading voice on gun control as well as another finalist for 2019 Person of the Year, the Hong Kong protesters who have spent months in the streets urging democratic reform.
Time’s other finalists were three people at the center of the impeachment proceedings against President Trump: the president himself, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the anonymous whistleblower whose complaint helped set the impeachment inquiry in motion.
Thunberg — who scolded a United Nations assembly of the powerful in the fall, declaring “How dare you” — was named Person of the Year while she was giving another speech at a U.N. climate summit in Madrid.
This time, she did not reject the accolade, but shared credit with “climate activists everywhere.”
Time’s Person of the Year distinction is not necessarily a positive award. Rather, it is one that recognizes “the man, woman, group or concept that has had the most influence on the world during the previous 12 months.” Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, for instance, was named Time’s Man of the Year in 1938.
Felsenthal wrote that Time’s choice of Thunberg “says as much about the moment as it does about her,” describing the Person of the Year tradition as springing from a historical lens that emphasizes people at the top of major organizations and “at home in the corridors of power.”
“But in this moment when so many traditional institutions seem to be failing us, amid staggering inequality and social upheaval and political paralysis, we are seeing new kinds of influence take hold,” he said.
He marveled on “Today” at Thunberg’s rapid rise from little-known “solo protester” to beacon of change in the past year. She spent last summer sitting alone outside the Swedish parliament with a handmade sign declaring her “school strike for climate."
That isolated action grew into a movement as Thunberg inspired students around the world to leave their classes in massive demonstrations. And she electrified young and old with her viral words for leaders at this year’s U.N. summit.
“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here,” she said. “I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you have come to us young people for hope. ”
Time’s pick drew praise from others who say the threat of climate change demands immediate, serious action. “Brilliant decision,” tweeted activist and former vice president Al Gore.
“Greta embodies the moral authority of the youth activist movement demanding that we act immediately to solve the climate crisis,” Gore said. “She is an inspiration to me and to people across the world.”
Brilliant decision for @TIME to choose @GretaThunberg as its Person of the Year. Greta embodies the moral authority of the youth activist movement demanding that we act immediately to solve the climate crisis. She is an inspiration to me and to people across the world.— Al Gore (@algore) December 11, 2019
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton also lauded the choice, noting Thunberg’s words that “change is coming, whether you like it or not.”
Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, included the teenager in their new book highlighting “gutsy women.”
I couldn't think of a better Person of the Year than @GretaThunberg. I am grateful for all she's done to raise awareness of the climate crisis and her willingness to tell hard, motivating truths.— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) December 11, 2019
As she said today: "Change is coming, whether you like it or not." #gutsywomen pic.twitter.com/ltCoo9NbS2
Not everybody celebrated the pick, though.
The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., criticized Time on Twitter, saying the magazine passed over “the Hong Kong Protesters fighting for their lives and freedoms to push a teen being used as a marketing gimmick.”
Thunberg has been successful in pushing climate change up the global agenda, Felsenthal said Wednesday. “She’s taken this issue from backstage to center,” he said.
This year, there were no runners-up for Person of the Year selected from the four other finalists. Instead, Time highlighted people as influential in their fields.
Entertainer of the year went to singer and cultural force Lizzo. An athletic honor went to the U.S. women’s soccer team, with Felsenthal highlighting star Megan Rapinoe, who is known for activism as well as her prowess on the field. Disney chief executive Bob Iger was recognized as the businessperson of the year with nods to his company’s box office success and work launching streaming service Disney Plus. And a “Guardians of the Year” title recognized the “public servants” who have played a role in impeachment proceedings against Trump.
Time has chosen a Person of the Year since 1927, though the distinction originally was called Man of the Year.
Last year, Time’s Person of the Year was “the Guardians” of the truth, four individuals and one group — all journalists — who helped expose “the manipulation and the abuse of truth” around the world. Among them: Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist who was killed inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.
“The Guardians” also included the staff of the Capital Gazette, whose Maryland newsroom was attacked by a gunman; Maria Ressa, chief executive of the Rappler news website who has been made a legal target for the outlet’s coverage of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte; and journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were jailed in Myanmar for nearly a year for their work exposing the mass killings of Rohingya Muslims.
In 2017, Time recognized “the Silence Breakers,” the women (and some men) who came forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault and helped force a nationwide reckoning. Among them were Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan, the actresses whose stunning accusations against movie executive Harvey Weinstein helped lead to his downfall; and activist Tarana Burke, creator of the #MeToo movement, along with the Hollywood star who amplified it on social media, Alyssa Milano.
The 2018 selection of “the Guardians” marked the second year in a row Time named a group of people, rather than one person, for the honor.
Trump has had an on-again, off-again love affair with Time, often angling for the honors it hands out and criticizing the magazine as irrelevant when he feels snubbed. The president told a reporter last year he could not imagine anyone but himself being named 2018 Person of the Year. Ultimately, the magazine selected the journalists.
Alex Horton, Amy B Wang, Lindsey Bever, Abby Ohlheiser and Eli Rosenberg contributed to this report.