Greta Thunberg being named Time person of the year won't stop the climate crisis

Rivkah Brown

It speaks volumes of the store our society sets by a woman’s consent that, despite repeatedly saying she does not want awards over her climate activism, we gave Greta one anyway.

Not two months ago, Thunberg declined an environmental prize from the Nordic Council, because “the climate movement does not need any more awards”. Today she will no doubt be thrilled to discover that she has been nominated Time’s person of the year.

Thunberg joins Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Donald Trump in being deemed by the magazine to have, “for better or for worse… done the most to influence the events of the year”. In other words, the award is mostly meaningless, less a way of indicating which people matter than of reminding us that Time magazine still matters. Nevertheless, the nomination reveals a great deal about how the liberal media views the climate crisis.

Thunberg has taken advantage of a fickle news agenda set less by big issues than by big personalities (that of “an indignant teenager and a sudden burst of rebellion”, for example) in order to get our distinctly unsexy doom in the headlines.

What Thunberg did not foresee was that her media savviness would precipitate a nightmare scenario in which she became the headline, a heroic girl boss telling foreign dignitaries where to stick it to a death metal soundtrack. From warning world leaders “the world is on fire” to Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro calling her a “little brat”, Thunberg’s facility with words has not amplified her message – it has made her a meme.

This transformation of Thunberg by publications like Time from activist to influencer has gone a long way in voiding her politics, instead putting focus on her personality – I imagine, for example, that more people know she is autistic than know she spent last week at a UN climate conference. Even more dangerously, it has turned a bad news story – rising seas drown millions, wildfires incinerate ecosystems, “untold suffering” ensues – into a feel-good one about a bad-ass teen with a plan to save the planet. Rather than grief for a dying planet moving us to act, cheer at a young climate warrior acts as an opiate.

This is painfully ironic. According to Time, when the eight-year-old Thunberg first heard about global warming, she thought, “That can’t be happening, because if that were happening, then the politicians would be taking care of it.” This is precisely the kind of thinking the Great Man theory of history – one Time enthusiastically subscribes to – encourages, the kind of thinking that says that powerful people have everything in hand. But the powers-that-be are failing us – this, if we would only listen, is what Thunberg is saying.

I was listening when Thunberg spoke at last week’s UN conference. She sounded tired. Tired of the “inspiration” she has generated, and the inertia it has encouraged. The school strikes – the same Time’s editor cited among the reasons he nominated Thunberg – have “achieved nothing”, because they have failed to produce the drop in greenhouse gases they aimed to. Enough warm words, she told the almost 200 delegates gathered in Madrid (it would have been Santiago had Chile not declared a state of emergency in October; chaos that one of the conference’s organisers argues has been catalysed by the climate crisis): it is time for “concrete action”.

As we head to the polls, we would do well to heed her words. Thursday’s election will set the course not only of our country, but of our planet. If we do not vote in a government that will avert the climate catastrophe towards which the Conservatives are hurtling, Greta Thunberg is little more than a glossy magazine cover girl.

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