By Maggie McGrath
Greta Thunberg is not your typical listee on the Forbes Most Powerful Women rankings.
She is not an elected official, like German chancellor Angela Merkel. She is not a CEO or founder of a company, like Susan and Anne Wojcicki (of YouTube and 23andMe, respectively). Nor is she a perennial entry on one of Forbes’ wealth lists, like Forbes 400 mainstay Oprah Winfrey or Celeb 100 star Taylor Swift.
What Thunberg is: influential in ways that people three and four times her age are not.
The now-16-year-old started making headlines in her home country, Sweden, when in August 2018 she began boycotting school on Fridays; instead, she’d stand outside of Parliament holding a sign reading “skolstrejk för klimatet,” or “school strike for the climate.” Later that year, she captured international attention with her speech at a UN conference for climate change.
“You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes,” she said at the time. “We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.”
And it particularly belongs to young people, so many of whom have taken Thunberg’s words to heart. On September 20, 2019, students around the world staged the largest climate change protest in history, with some 4 million people participating in 2,500 events in more than 160 countries on all seven continents. And after eschewing air travel for its effects on the environment—in Europe, Thunberg takes the train, and to get across the Atlantic Ocean in the fall, she sailed—aviation experts have started to cite “the Greta effect” when looking to explain a slight decline in air travelers.
Every year, the Forbes list of the 100 Most Powerful Women prioritizes ranking women who have a revenue stream, gross domestic product or assets under management at their disposals. The methodology considers the population a woman leads, or global employee count. Thunberg has none of these things, but she does have her voice. And that voice helped her dominate the third and final piece of our methodology: media mentions. This year, Thunberg had more unique press clippings than all but two other women on the power list: Merkel and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Thunberg wields soft power so effectively that she was reportedly a 2019 finalist for the Nobel Peace Prize, making her one of the youngest nominees for the honor.
It is for this reason that she has earned the No. 100 spot on the 2019 list of the most powerful women in the world. Power is in the eye of the beholder, and there are plenty of people who will argue she deserves a different number; some will say higher, and others would certainly say lower. What’s clear is this: She alone cannot reverse the damage humans have done to the earth, but her steely resolve and stinging rhetoric are impossible to ignore.
“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing,” she said during her United Nations speech this past September. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”