Argument

The Kids Are Taking Charge of Climate Change

Teenagers around the world are protesting in unprecedented numbers—and making governments nervous.

Swedish teenaged climate activist Greta Thunberg (C) holds up her Swedish "School Strike for the Climate" sign as she participates in a Fridays for Future march with German climate activists Luisa Neubauer and Jakob Blasel on March 29, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Swedish teenaged climate activist Greta Thunberg (C) holds up her Swedish "School Strike for the Climate" sign as she participates in a Fridays for Future march with German climate activists Luisa Neubauer and Jakob Blasel on March 29, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The Fridays for Future international school strike on March 15 was, by any measure, breathtaking. An estimated 1.6 million to 2 million people—mostly teenagers and preteens—gathered in thousands of cities and towns in more than 125 countries to demand their political leaders meet existing climate goals. As intended, they grabbed the world’s attention.

Of course, the more important question is whether the protesters can achieve their goals. Critics argue the movement’s uncompromising demands—such as that Germany exit coal-fired power generation by 2030—are naive. (After six months of arduous, hard-fought deliberation, a government-initiated commission recently set 2038 as the exit date from coal.) At a time when international cooperation on climate change has been breaking down, what can climate activism—however much momentum it seems to be gathering—expect to accomplish?

Thus far, the activists admit they haven’t managed any concrete progress, whether in Germany, the United Nations, or anywhere else. But to apply that standard would be to misunderstand the grassroots activists’ methods. In just a few months’ time, the climate strikes have already reframed the political debate in several countries. The leading figures, including Germany’s Luisa Neubauer and Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, have thrived on prime-time talk shows, and their words and photos are splashed across the dailies and blogosphere. The most recent rallies on Friday, April 5, happened in 54 towns across Germany, as well as weekly strikes in nearly 450 other locations in 68 countries, according to Fridays for Future. Far from a fad, the protests promise to have a lasting political impact.

Europe’s political class has already been at pains to show it is moved by the unprecedented outpouring. German Chancellor Angela Merkel twice paid the young people praise in recent weeks, calling for a “radical shift” to electro mobility and hydrogen propulsion to decarbonize the country’s notoriously emissions-heavy transportation sector. The movement’s leaders have met with German cabinet ministers, the French president, EU commissioners, the highest-ranking U.N. officials, and even Barack Obama. In civil society, there has been plentiful solidarity, including the formation of Parents for Future, Entrepreneurs for Future, and Teachers for Future groups. In German-speaking countries, 26,000 natural scientists have rallied around the campaign as Scientists for Future and are helping the young activists with the technical sides of their policy agenda.

“The kids are saying what we’ve been saying for 20 or 30 years. But they’re getting a hearing right now that we never got,” said Volker Quaschning, a professor of renewable energy systems at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin and co-founder of Scientists for Future. “We’ve been telling the politicians exactly this for years, and they brushed us off. But the young people, they’re honest, innocent in a way, and speak straight to the problems, which they didn’t create but will have to pay for.” There’s more action on the political level in the last month than he has seen in a decade, he said, even if there has been no overhaul of policy yet. “If the politicians don’t act,” Quaschning said, “they’ll lose this younger generation. They’re worried.”

Internationally, the movement is completely decentralized, the branches sharing information and ideas through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, and WhatsApp. But the minimal consensus is that the overarching goal is to get their home countries to implement policies that will enable them to hit the Paris U.N. climate summit’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which they signed on to in 2015. “We’re not demanding anything else than that our government keep its word. The policies in place now won’t get us there,” said Lucia Parbel, a Fridays activist from central Germany. “The government admits this much.”

The campaigners’ secret weapon has been facts that aren’t secret at all: facts found in U.N. climate reports, from think tanks, official German statistics, and, most stinging of all, calculations from their governments’ policy papers. That has left politicians grasping for responses and has often reduced them to attacking the young activists for truancy. When in a dual interview in Der Spiegel, Peter Altmaier, Germany’s minister of economic affairs and energy, suggested that the teenagers demonstrate on weekends rather than during the school day, Neubauer shot back: “We’re not taking to the streets because we want to change something later as adults but rather because decision-makers like you need to take action now. We’re pulling the emergency brake because we’re thinking beyond the next exam.”

The teenagers’ greatest feat has been to inject urgency into a lethargic discourse. They’ve accomplished this by doing something that only their generation could do: linking the present and the future of the climate change conundrum by putting themselves at its center—physically and hypothetically. The issue is no longer one of distant people (or polar bears) and the distant future (2040, 2050, 2100). Instead, it’s about them and credible strategies to take now to secure the future of those born into a warming world.

“You’re all going to be dead in 2050,” one activist said last week in Berlin. “We’re not. You’re sealing our future now.” This is something that neither think tanks nor parties, NGOs nor scientists, could say—and it resonates far beyond the usual suspects. The young protesters have done nothing less than invent a new way to talk about climate change. “Even people who might usually disagree with them are obviously moved,” said Petra Pinzler, an editor at the weekly Die Zeit. “The youth groups of the Christian Democrats are picking up the arguments and asking questions, too. If the CDU and other parties don’t respond, they’ll lose a generation of voters.”

The shift in discourse may not have changed policy yet, but it is obviously wind in the sails of the pro-climate voices in Merkel’s cabinet, the EU, and elsewhere. Germany’s environment minister, Svenja Schulze, will be heading up a new climate cabinet that will coordinate emissions reduction efforts across various ministries to reach the country’s 2030 climate targets, namely 55 percent reduction of emissions by 2030, compared with 1990 levels. The government will develop a climate law to chart the way, which Spiegel magazine reported this week may include a serious tax on carbon, which hadn’t originally been in the plans.

In the meantime, though, the hard-line climate protection obstructers continue to fight a vigorous rearguard battle. Germany’s conservative Bavarian transportation minister won’t budge even a little on setting an autobahn speed limit—of any kind. Merkel’s probable successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, opposes key aspects of the environment ministry’s plan to get Germany’s climate policy back on track. In the EU, Germany is siding with the Central Europeans to block a European Commission plan to decarbonize the EU by 2050, linking it specifically to the Paris agreement’s 1.5 degree Celsius objective. France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark have all backed the plan.

As for the looming question about when the school strikers intend to return to their classrooms full time, they responded concretely this week: when the German government convincingly has itself on track to fulfil its Paris summit obligations. This, they’ve calculated, means exiting coal generation by 2030, ending all subsidies to fossil fuel production (an estimated $6 billion a year), transitioning completely to renewables by 2035, and instituting a carbon tax of $200 a ton on all sectors. The only party that comes close to backing these specific demands is the Greens, which is currently flying high in the polls at a constant 18 to 20 percent. The upcoming European Parliament election in May will be an initial litmus test to see if the protesters have swayed voters.

The Friday climate strikers and their doubters must keep in mind that social movements rarely affect policy overnight but rather shift the parameters of discourse and culture until parties representing their interests come to power and drive new policies forward. There are no better examples than West Germany’s mass social movements, including the anti-nuclear energy campaign that took decades to get what it wanted. As a result, in today’s Germany, both the phaseout of nuclear energy by 2022 and the Energiewende, the transition to renewables, are consensus across the mainstream party landscape.

For Fridays for Future to add up to more than Neubauer and Thunberg’s 15 minutes of fame, the movement must stay resilient, creative, inclusive, and nonviolent. It will be essential that the protesters broaden the movement beyond young people and leftist liberals; that appears to be happening only very slowly. But if they manage to do so, future histories of the climate protection movement may look to March 15 as a watershed moment.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).
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