Don’t get me wrong. I think climate change is a dire threat and, unlike some curmudgeons, I think Thunberg provided a public service in calling attention to the threat. However, I find it preposterous to assert that Thunberg had a unique, transformative impact on public opinion in a way no other person has.
Before her breakthrough moment, her cross-Atlantic journey this August, concern about climate change was already very intense. A Gallup poll in March looked at trends in opinion on climate change going back to 2001. “Americans’ views about global warming have held steady in the past year near the high points reached in 2017 and 2018,” pollsters found. “Currently, about two-thirds acknowledge in various ways that global warming is a real problem.” In December 2018, Quinnipiac found, “A total of 69 percent of American voters are ‘very concerned’ or ‘somewhat concerned’ about climate change. Voters say 50-45 percent, including 65-32 percent among voters 18 to 34 years old, that climate change will have ‘a significant negative effect on the world’ in their lifetime.” In November 2018, 78 percent in a Monmouth poll said “the world’s climate is undergoing a change that is causing more extreme weather patterns and the rise of sea levels” while 69 percent favored “the U.S. government doing more to reduce the type of activities that cause climate change and sea level rise.”
That is consistent with current polling. In November, Pew Research reported, “About two-thirds of U.S. adults (67%) say the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change, and similar shares say the same about government efforts to protect air (67%) and water quality (68%) — findings that are consistent with results from a 2018 Center survey.”
If you want to pick activists who have changed politics or made a unique impact on the country or the world, look at the millions of protesters in Hong Kong, who week after week and month after month put their lives at risk to champion democracy and forced the Chinese communist government to relent on an extradition law. The Hong Kong protesters were Time magazine finalists, and frankly in the course of history will be seen as by far the most influential activists of 2019.
Likewise, two other finalists — the U.S. whistleblower and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — are leading the way to only the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history. The whistleblower unveiled the most egregious high crimes and misdemeanors in U.S. history, revealing facts that otherwise would never have come to light. (The esteemed witnesses in the House told the truth under oath, but they did not ring the alarm.) Pelosi has skillfully managed the impeachment process, arriving at two tightly drawn articles of impeachment based on a set of facts Republicans have yet to substantively dispute. Revealing a corrupt president? Impeaching him? Pretty consequential stuff.
Again, I do think Thunberg has heightened interest in climate change, but hundreds and thousands of scientists, activists and political leaders have been tilling the soil and moving the public on climate change for years now. When you want to talk about people who made a unique, indispensable contribution this year, I would choose the Hong Kong protesters, closely followed by the whistleblower and Pelosi. The latter three are defending an endangered phenomenon at a critical time — democracy.