11. JAMES HANSEN
For sounding the alarm on climate change, early and often.
Director, Goddard Institute for Space Studies | New York
“Global warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening,” James Hansen wrote in a New York Times op-edthis year. Using his stature as NASA’s top climate scientist, Hansen has arguably done as much as anyone to sound this alarm, forcefully and unequivocally arguing that climate change is the work of humans long before other scientists were willing to say so. A self-described “reticent Midwestern scientist,” he may not look like a radical protest figure, but when it comes to the climate, Hansen is a latter-day Abbie Hoffman. After Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc across the Eastern Seaboard in October, an American public distracted for years by the troubles of the Great Recession finally seemed to awake to the destructive potential of a changing climate — which Hansen had been warning of for decades.
Since publishing some of the seminal studies on the effects of greenhouse gases in 1981, he has steadily ratcheted up the pressure on public officials to take his dire warnings seriously. Last year, the 71-year-old was even arrested in front of the White House after imploring President Barack Obama, via megaphone, to reject the Keystone XL pipline “for the sake of your children and grandchildren.” Nor was it the first time the outspoken scientist has found himself on the wrong side of the law. He has been censored by NASA, attacked by conservatives, and denounced by other climate scientists for his advocacy. But Hansen continues to speak widely about a threat he compares to a large asteroid headed for the Earth. Just in the last few months, as Arctic sea ice shrank to its lowest levelyet, he published a study finding that as much as 13 percent of the planet’s surface has suffered from extreme heat in recent summers, up from less than 1 percent before 1980. We doubt Hansen is happy to see his theories confirmed.
12. ANGELA MERKEL
For refusing to give up on the dream of a united Europe.
Chancellor | Germany
More than half the countries in the European Union have changed leaders since the region’s sovereign debt crisis erupted three years ago, but Angela Merkel has not only remained in charge — as the steward of Europe’s largest economy, she has become the continent’s chief crisis manager. And Merkel, long known as “Frau Nein” for opposing efforts to bail out Europe’s troubled south, finally seemed to embrace that leadership role in 2012, prescribing a mix of austerity measures, structural reforms, and fiscal integration. She has tacked on mandatory spending cuts to aid packages forGreece, Ireland, and Portugal and spearheaded a historic EU deficit-reduction treaty. All along, the much-misunderstood Merkel has insisted on solving the regional crisis with more Europe, not less.
Yet she has done it by deftly catering to the frugal instincts of her political base. “We all have to resist the temptation to finance growth with increased debt yet again,” Merkel cautioned in June. A month earlier, France had elected François Hollande, who supports the very solutions — stimulus spending and collectivizing eurozone debt — that Merkel opposes. Caught between European leaders’ renewed focus on growth and domestic opposition to bailouts for Germany’s debt-saddled neighbors, Merkel finally backed a new European rescue fund and the European Central Bank’s plan to buy the debt of troubled eurozone countries.
What all her moves have in common is a relentless determination to resolve Europe’s gravest crisis since World War II by deepening the continent’s economic and political union, not unwinding it. Inspired to pursue politics by the fall of the Berlin Wall and EU architect Helmut Kohl, Merkel the onetime East German physicist often cites German reunification as an object lesson in Europe’s ability to overcome. “Do we dare to be more European?” she asked this year, advocating for more centralized decision-making on budgets and taxes. The answer could very well determine whether Merkel will be remembered as the savior of the European project or the leader who presided over its demise.
13. EHUD BARAK, BENJAMIN NETANYAHU
For forcing the world to confront Iran’s nuclear program.
Defense minister, prime minister | Israel
Almost single-handedly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have wrenched the world’s attention toward the apocalyptic potential of a nuclear Iran. “Today a great battle is being waged between the modern and the medieval,” Netanyahu said at the United Nations in September. “At stake is not merely the future of my country. At stake is the future of the world.”
Barak, once the standard-bearer of the Israeli left and an implacable foe of Netanyahu, has improbably become Bibi’s closest ally in the effort to stop Tehran from going nuclear. He has played a crucial role in focusing minds on what he calls the “zone of immunity” — when Iran’s nuclear program is past the point it can be destroyed by arms. If Israel does decide to strike on its own, it will be in no small measure due to Barak’s framing of a threat that he has called “a sword on the neck” of the Jewish state.
The effects of a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities remain unknown, but the result of this rhetorical offensive has been impressive. The two Israelis not only sparked a political debate at home but also induced Europe to cut off oil imports from Iran and got U.S. President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney into a prolonged argument over which presidential hopeful would be a better ally to the government in Jerusalem. Pretty impressive for a country the size of New Jersey.
As Netanyahu, at times an open partisan of the Republicans in the U.S. campaign, pressed Washington to define “red lines” that could provoke military action, Obama rushed to warn the Islamic Republic that “time is not unlimited” for a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue, in addition to lining up an international coalition to isolate Iran. Israeli leaders have watched these moves with grudging appreciation, but they haven’t taken their fingers off the trigger. “We’ve waited for diplomacy to work. We’ve waited for sanctions to work,” Netanyahu said recently. “None of us can afford to wait much longer.”
14. MEIR DAGAN, YUVAL DISKIN
For begging to differ.
Former Mossad director, former Shin Bet chief | Israel
If the Israeli government doesn’t end up launching a war against Iran, it won’t be because of the persuasive abilities of U.S. President Barack Obama or the political machinations of Israel’s opposition parties. More likely, it will be the work of calculating former security officials like onetime intelligence chief Meir Dagan and internal security director Yuval Diskin, who have stepped into the public arena in unprecedented fashion to make a convincing, hard-nosed case that a strike would only make the Iranian threat greater.
These former soldiers are no peaceniks: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once praisedDagan by saying that he went to war not with a knife but with “a rocket-propelled grenade between his teeth.” So when the legendarily aggressive former spy chief opposes a strike because it “would lead to a regional war and solve the internal problems of the Islamic Republic,” Israelis take note.
Diskin has not only criticized a strike on Iran as unworkable, but has also called into question the capability of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to make the right decision. Their judgmentis clouded by “messianic feelings,” Diskin has warned — an accusation that Israel often directs at the mullahs. These former spymasters are doing their best to help cooler heads prevail, reminding Israelis that not every problem can be solved by their impressive military.
15. BEN BERNANKE, SCOTT SUMNER
For keeping the world’s largest economy afloat.
Chairman, Federal Reserve | Washington
Economist | Waltham, Mass.
“Professors at Bentley University who’ve never published a famous book don’t normally shift the public debate,” Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias wrote after the Federal Reserve announced in September a new round of “quantitative easing,” stimulating economic growth by buying assets from private banks. But Scott Sumner’s dogged blogging on his website, TheMoneyIllusion, has won rare bipartisan plaudits across the economics world, ranging from Goldman Sachs to Paul Krugman (No. 34) — and Sumner just might have permanently shifted U.S. monetary policy.
His big idea is nominal GDP targeting, the notion that the Fed’s policies should be focused on economic growth rather than inflation rates. As Sumner explains, “it’s about setting specific goals and promising to do whatever one can to meet those goals.” This means the Fed should keep up aggressive easing and inject money into the financial system until growth returns — inflation be damned.
The most important convert to Sumner’s ideas was Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke himself. As recently as November 2011, he dismissed the notion that the Fed should reorient its policies from inflation to growth targets. Over time, however, Bernanke reportedly came to realize that the U.S. jobs crisis was more severe than he realized and needed some unorthodox thinking. And he managed to bring his hawkish board around: On Sept. 13, the Fed announced that it would buy $40 billion a month of mortgage-backed securities and continue doing so until the U.S. job market improved, and never mind about inflation. “This is a ‘Main Street’ policy,” Bernanke said. “What we’re about here is trying to get jobs going.”
Influential economist and blogger Tyler Cowen, one of Sumner’s earliest champions, proclaimed it “Scott Sumner day.”
16. MARIA ALYOKHINA, YEKATERINA SAMUTSEVICH, NADEZHDA TOLOKONNIKOVA | Russia
When was the last time a rock band changed the world? The Russian punk collective known as Pussy Riot captured global attention this year after three of the group’s members were sentenced to jail for the “punk prayer” they staged at a Moscow cathedral, earning the support of everyone from Madonna and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to British Prime Minister David Cameron and the U.S. State Department, and becoming the unlikely international symbols of Russia’s re-energized opposition to an increasingly autocratic Vladimir Putin.
But the three members of the band arrested for the stunt — Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who were sent to remote prison camps for two-year sentences, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, who was released — are more than just slam-dancing “hooligans,” as the authorities describe them. Just read the powerful closing statements at their closely watched trial — a ringing manifesto that puts them squarely in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., and Vaclav Havel.
In a sense, the band argued, it had already won its case by drawing an almost comical overreaction to an act that would have been treated as a minor infraction almost anywhere else. By using its own trial as a platform to indict the system as a whole, Pussy Riot did something more profound, exposing Putin’s “sovereign democracy” as “an organism sick to the core.” As Alyokhina put it, “The sickness explodes out into the open when you rub up against its inflamed abscesses.”
Tolokonnikova concluded with a speech citing Dostoyevsky, Socrates, and the Bible, laying out a mission statement for the project. “People can sense the truth. Truth really does have some kind of ontological, existential superiority over lies,” she said. “It is not three singers from Pussy Riot who are on trial here,” she declared. “It is the entire state system of the Russian Federation.”
Tolokonnikova then quoted a line from one of the band’s songs — “Open all the doors, tear off your epaulets/Come, taste freedom with us” — just before being led off to jail. What could be more punk than that?
17. ABRAHAM KAREM, WILLIAM MCRAVEN
For leading the drone revolution.
Aeronautical engineer | Lake Forest, Calif.
Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command | Tampa, Fla.
If Adm. William McRaven has turned hunting terrorists into an art form, Abraham Karem is the man who provided him with the paintbrush. It has been three decades since Karem, a former Israeli Air Force engineer, retreated to his garage to construct something the Pentagon did not then consider possible — an unmanned drone that would reliably stay aloft for hours on end. The ultimate result of the project was the Predator drone, which has emerged as the defining weapon of the post-9/11 era.
McRaven, who oversees some of the most elite U.S. fighting forces at Special Operations Command, has spent a lifetime studying special operations and has formulated a blueprint for what makes them successful. He emphasizes the need for speed in commando assaults and extensive planning that relies on precise intelligence, which is where drones come in. In the operation that earned McRaven a spot in the history books — the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last year — drones provided vital intelligence for months on the compound where the al Qaeda chief was staying. The raid presented a compelling vision for the 21st-century U.S. military: fast, networked, and deadly. But though the modern-day warrior has tools at his disposal that his ancestors could only dream of, McRaven doesn’t discount the old-fashioned virtue of a soldier’s dedication to the mission. “In an age of high technology and Jedi Knights we often overlook the need for personal involvement, but we do so at our own risk,” he has written.
While McRaven is busy revolutionizing warfare and the drones are buzzing over faraway lands such as Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen — killing well over 1,000 people in countries with which the United States has not been at war during Barack Obama’s presidency — Karem, now 75, is hard at work designing the next generation of aviation technology. His current project: a Boeing 737-size plane capable of taking off and landing like a helicopter. A pipe dream? “I never fail,” he retorts.
18. AHLEM BELHADJ
For demanding that women have a say in the new Arab world.
President, Tunisian Association of Democratic Women | Tunisia
The Arab Spring might have brought newfound freedoms to the Middle East, but it also saw a wave of Islamists rise to power intent on restricting the liberties of women. Tunisian feminist Ahlem Belhadj has fought back — and proved in the process that liberals will not remain silent as Islamist forces attempt to hijack the revolution for their own ends.
Belhadj’s Tunisian Association of Democratic Women has led the charge against Islamist attempts to bring back archaic practices such as polygamy and female circumcision, which were banned under the previous regime. But unfortunately, the 47-year-old child psychiatrist has her work cut out for her. This summer, Islamists pushed through a clause in the draft constitution thatdeclared women “complementary” to men. In response, Belhadj helped organize a thousands-strong demonstration in the streets of Tunis to protest what women saw as an open assault on their rights. The clause was soon reworded, but Belhadj sees more subtle dangers on the horizon. “Parents are exercising greater moral pressure on young girls to wear the veil,” she worries. “And feminists are the victims of intimidation: They are attacked on the streets [and] insulted during sermons in mosques.” Belhadj has also taken her battle to the courts, where she helped represent a woman who was questioned about whether she was guilty of “indecency” after allegedly being raped by two policemen.
The battle to expand women’s rights is being fought not only in Tunisia but across the Arab world, where only one-fourth of women are part of the labor force, polygamy and arranged marriages are all too common, and there is not a single country where women’s political voice is equal to that of men. To Belhadj, these battles are inseparable from the Arab world’s larger struggle for freedom. “As feminists, we are more vigilant than ever in the face of these reversals,” she says. “It is out of the question to see the result of 50 years of struggle go up in smoke.”
19. RIMA DALI, BASSEL KHARTABIL
For insisting, against all odds, on a peaceful Syrian revolution.
Activists | Syria
With Syria mired in sectarian mayhem, a few brave souls still stand as a testament to the possibilities — and the extraordinary costs — of nonviolent revolution. When dictator Bashar al-Assad‘s artillery laid waste to entire neighborhoods this spring, Rima Dali, a volunteer for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, strode alone into a busy Damascus street with a sign bearing a simple message: “Stop the killing. We want to build a country for all Syrians.” She repeated her act of silent defiance the next week, and even more onlookers gathered to cheer her on — a sign that the spirit of peaceful protest that sparked Syria’s uprising in early 2011 endures even after a bloody year and a half of civil war. Dali, a 33-year-old law school graduate, was arrested for her activism, but she has refused to be cowed, either by the Assad regime’s intimidation or by the spread of extremism within the ranks of the armed rebellion. “We look for hope, day in, day out,” she said after her release from jail.
Not all those who have publicly defied Assad have been so fortunate. Bassel Khartabil is, or was, a young computer engineer living in Damascus whose innovative programming skills helped integrate Syria into the online community — fostering an open-source community in a country long on the margins of the Internet’s youth culture. He was hauled off by Assad’s security forces in March, and despite a “#FREEBASSEL” campaign launched by his friends, he has not been heard from since. “The people who are in real danger never leave their countries,” he tweeted weeks before his arrest. “They are in danger for a reason and for that they don’t leave.”
20. MARIO DRAGHI
For saving Europe when the politicians couldn’t (or wouldn’t).
President, European Central Bank | Germany
When Mario Draghi, head of Italy’s central bank, was mooted to succeed Jean-Claude Trichet as European Central Bank (ECB) president in 2011, two factors held him back: his stint at Goldman Sachs — a firm that had helped Greece disguise its debt — and his nationality. “For Italians, inflation is a way of life, like tomato sauce with pasta!” the German tabloid Bild groused. But “Super Mario” eventually prevailed over his critics (even Bild later conceded, “He’s actually pretty German”), and he has since embarked on an aggressive effort to resolve Europe’s three-year-old sovereign debt crisis. In the process, he has liberally interpreted the ECB’s mandate to control inflation and, just maybe, has established himself as the savior of the European project.
Draghi’s boldest move came in September, when he announced that the ECB would buy the bonds of debt-saddled eurozone countries such as Italy and Spain in an effort to bring down their borrowing costs and reassure investors. (A flood of headlines like “Mario Draghi May Become the Man Who Saved Europe — and the World” followed.) But perhaps it was his vow to do “whatever it takes to preserve the euro” that finally cooled the fever. Draghi’s bold moves have helped him win overmarkets, bankers, and politicians, though nearly one in two Germans mistrusted him on the eve of the bond-buying announcement. After introducing the measure, Draghi offered to allay Germans’ concerns by defending his monetary policies before the German parliament. Why volunteer to enter the lion’s den? After months of pitched battle with the bond markets, perhaps the Bundestag didn’t seem so daunting.