Climate Change

Here's What's Wrong with Time Declaring Greta Thunberg Person of the Year

Teen activists are righteously angry—but righteous anger does not produce sound public policy.


The secular canonization of Greta Thunberg is complete: Time magazine has named her the 2019 Person of the Year, passing over candidates like the Hong Kong protesters or the Trump administration whistleblowers.

The designation is fairly arbitrary—how does one exactly quantify influence?—and shouldn't be taken too seriously (at least not after 2006). And though the tone of Time's article on Thunberg is very much hagiographical, the designation is not necessarily an endorsement of the winner: Adolf Hitler was Person of the Year in 1939. All this is to say that it really doesn't matter who wins Person of the Year, so nobody should be too upset that this year it's a 16-year-old climate-change activist.

And yet, the award does bolster the idea that Thunberg is someone whose righteous anger should be automatically translated into public policy. As Nick Gillespie observed in a piece about her activism, Thunberg is an avatar of "catastrophic thinking," and wrongly pushes a message of doom and gloom:

Greta Thunberg's histrionics are likely heartfelt but neither they nor the deplorable responses they conjure are a guide forward to good environmental policy in a world that is getting richer every day. For the first time in human history, half the earth's population is middle class or wealthier and the rate of deaths from natural disasters is well below what it was even a few decades ago. Protecting all that is just as important as protecting the environment and, more importantly, those two goals are hardly mutually exclusive.

After decades of treating children as little more than pets, the media now gives too much weight to the opinions of teen activists, particularly when they protest about issues like climate change, gun violence in schools, income inequality, etc. As Ilya Somin has written, young people—even ones who can credibly claim to have been especially harmed by some crisis—do not generally have special insights or strong knowledge of public policy. According to Somin:

The young, as a general rule, know less about government and public policy than other age groups. For that reason, they are also less likely to have valuable insights on how to address difficult issues. …

It would be a mistake to dismiss policy proposals out of hand, merely because of the age of their adherents. But it is also a mistake to ascribe any special political wisdom to the young. The fact that large numbers of young people support a political cause adds little, if anything, to its merits.

Thunberg is Time's Person of the Year, but that doesn't make her claims about the future of the planet any less wrong: We are not "in the beginning of a mass extinction," and the world is not going to end in the next 10-12 years barring the adoption of her radical ideas.

For more about teen activism, check out my book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump.