The Realpolitik of Greta Thunberg

Her global protest movement has impressed the world with its idealism—but more important are the ways it can steer practical politics.

Swedish environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg addresses politicians, media and guests with the Houses of Parliament on April 23, 2019 in London, England.
Swedish environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg addresses politicians, media and guests with the Houses of Parliament on April 23, 2019 in London, England. Leon Neal/Getty Images

Just hours after what was likely the largest worldwide climate demonstration ever—the global climate strike on Sept. 20 led by the Fridays for Future student movement—Germany illustrated just how impervious governments can be to pressure from the streets. In more than 160 countries, an estimated 4 million people protested the international community’s weak response thus far to global warming, and no country rallied more than Germany: as many as 1.4 million in 500 locations from the Baltic Sea to the Alps. In Berlin, around 270,000—according to the organizers—marched in front of the chancellery while Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ministers deliberated on the content of the long-awaited new “climate package,” which was meant to double down on cutting greenhouse gases—a direct response to the tenacious Fridays for Future movement, as well as two summers of extreme weather and alarming reports from the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But the Merkel administration’s product, released the same afternoon, was a crushing disappointment. Despite the $60 billion price tag, its proposals were halfhearted and, in terms of time frame, cautious—a fraction of what the climate movement and experts had called for as necessary to curb rising temperatures and hit climate international targets.

Most controversial was the magnitude of the carbon dioxide tax, which should function as a deterrent to fossil fuel use. The administration wants to start pricing carbon at $11 a ton in 2021 and have the levy climb to $38 per ton by 2025. In stark contrast, the opposition Greens want to begin immediately with a $44 carbon tax, while the Fridays for Future campaign demands that the fee reach $198 per ton of all greenhouse gases as quickly as possible. (The figure hails from the German Environment Agency, a state-funded institution, which estimates the damage of a ton of carbon emissions at $198.) Patrick Graichen, the director of Agora Energiewende, a Berlin-based think tank, called the low price a “bad joke.” Other experts chimed in, saying that the proposed tax would change very little.

Nevertheless, in Germany and elsewhere—including the United States, where tens of thousands of people took to the streets—the protests marked a new stage in the international campaign to halt climate change. Governments such as Germany’s may not respond directly or at once to pressure from the streets. But if the movement perseveres, it’s only a matter of time until it affects politics as usual—as long as it pursues its goals in a way that combines idealism and pragmatism.

The history of social movements offers important strategic insights that climate protesters would do well to keep in mind:

  1. Mass movements don’t usually change things overnight.

The German government’s perfunctory proposals, as well as those that will surely come in other countries, shouldn’t discourage extraparliamentary campaigners. Nonviolent grassroots movements build up momentum and critical mass over time and tend to change political consciousness on a broad scale before their concerns are translated into policy. There’s no better example than Germany’s anti-nuclear energy movement that began in the 1970s and continues today. By the time of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, it had already familiarized the West German public with the dangers of nuclear energy. But Chernobyl was the tipping point, after which no single new reactor ever again went online in Germany. When in 2011 reactors at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant melted down, it was Merkel who definitively pulled the plug on nuclear energy in Germany—an act unthinkable for a conservative politico had the broad, persistent anti-nuke movement not laid the groundwork.

Those politicos today who try to squeak by doing as little as possible on climate, like the Merkel administration, could well pay with their offices. This old guard will likely be replaced by parties attuned to the new conditions, at the latest when the teenagers are old enough to vote. In Germany, and elsewhere in northern Europe, the Green parties’ steep ascent since the Friday protests began a year and a half ago—from 9 percent in the 2017 German general election to 22 percent today in polls—illustrates how effective the movement has been in changing consciousness and can be elsewhere, too.

The hitch, of course, is that the climate protection movement doesn’t have 40 years—and the scope of the transformation of economy and society is many times more daunting than the single issues of social movements past. The U-turn has to happen in the near future, say climate scientists. But cause for optimism: Just a year ago, there wasn’t an international climate movement at all.

  1. Stay positive and nonviolent.

One of the Fridays for Future movement’s greatest assets has been its unstinting positive and hopeful perspective—and commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience. The reports from the front lines of global warming, the slew of new books depicting apocalypse, and the sheer magnitude of the planet’s plight are enough to send anyone in an emotional downward spiral, and all too often one hears resignation and fatalism in the voices of people who have informed themselves about the advance of global warming.

But to despair would be a mistake. The technology and the decarbonization policies necessary to ward off the worst are already available. Renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels, and experts predict a tsunami of investment on five continents. On other fronts, too, such as energy storage, electric mobility, hydrogen power, and smart grids, economies of scale are causing prices to drop and performance to rise.

Road maps detailing how to halt warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels also exist. The 2015 U.N. Paris Agreement, for example, calculates the emissions cuts that will have to happen across a range of economic sectors: transportation, industry, agriculture, energy, and buildings. Other studies show that decarbonizing of economies and societies is entirely possible—pending the necessary political commitments.

  1. Get the United States and China on board.

The two superpowers are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, with the EU right behind them. Neither is anywhere close to meeting its obligations under the Paris agreement; the United States has even pulled out of it, for now. But there’s movement in the United States—see the climate plans of the Democratic presidential candidates—and few societies in the world have the capability to change as quickly as the United States when it makes up its mind to do so. And there’s evidence that nudges from across the Atlantic can help. The U.S. Democratic Party’s Green New Deal proposal to combat climate change, for example, was the brainchild of German and U.K. Green parties a decade ago. And more recently, Greta Thunberg—the founder of the Fridays for Future protest movement—timed her arrival in the United States in a way that helped boost the numbers of protesters who turned out across the country on Sept. 20.

Unfortunately, the United States suffers the extreme disadvantage of having one of its two major parties in the hands of climate change doubters and the petroleum industry. Moreover, it doesn’t have the history of sustained social movements that heighten awareness of energy issues, such as Europe’s anti-nuclear energy and environmental campaigns. Europe’s Green parties, and the media too, have unflaggingly pushed environmental issues into the discourse.

China is a harder nut to crack. Even though its renewable energy rollout in recent years has been gargantuan, its coal use is prodigious, and a whole new generation of coal-fired power plants are in the pipeline. But now it has its own fledgling climate movement, personified in Zhao Jiaxin and Howey Ou, one an engineering student and the other a 16-year-old climate activist who protests in front of government offices in her hometown in southern China. The international movement must take them under its wing—but cautiously. It would be irresponsible to encourage them, on the one hand, and then be powerless to help them should they land in a prison cell.

  1. Forget the climate change doubters.

When asked whether she planned to speak with U.S. President Donald Trump while in the United States, Thunberg told CBS News: “Why should I waste time talking to him when he, of course, is not going to listen to me? I can’t say anything that he hasn’t already heard.” She’s exactly right: Don’t waste your time.

The climate protection movement must aim its message of existential urgency at those who already grasp that climate change is human-made and believe that humankind can still do something to contain it. Most of these people, though convinced by the overwhelming evidence, do not act rationally according to their convictions. They continue to drive their SUVs, fly to exotic vacations, and limit their politics to voting every couple of years. The youth campaign has already managed to jolt many of Europe’s climate change believers out of their contrary-to-all-evidence detachment and passivity. In the EU, 77 percent of citizens say global warming counts as an important political issue for them. Outright rejection of climate science is low, ranging from 4 percent in Britain to 8 percent in Poland. Yet still many aren’t voting for the most climate-attuned parties, switching to a renewable energy provider, and modifying their lifestyles to reduce carbon footprints. They’re the ones who the movement has to focus on getting on board.

  1. Adopt an electoral strategy.

In order to shift government policies, the movement has to agitate from the street but think in terms of electoral democracy. The meaningful overhaul of policy will transpire in the world’s legislatures and transnational bodies, such as the EU and the United Nations. Political parties must be held accountable without the movement explicitly picking one party over others.

Of course, it makes all the sense in the world to begin by changing what one can in one’s own private sphere: going vegetarian, flying less, riding a bike to work, etc. And these are, inherently, political choices that will influence markets and peers. Moreover, it’s never a bad idea to practice what you preach.

But the fundamental changes that really matter are those that will affect the system as a whole. The movement must continue to demand that governments fulfill the pledges that they took in Paris in 2015 at the behest of thousands of the climate scientists. This way it can easily parry charges of radicalism or half-baked idealism. In some places, such as Germany, Fridays for Future has gone further by outlining more detailed moves that the government must make—or parties can adopt in their programs—in order to meet the Paris goals, such as carbon neutrality by 2035, ending coal generation by 2030, and the switch to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. Those parties that defy the youth movement risk losing a generation of voters.

  1. Bring in people of color and those with lower income.

Thus far, the climate movement has been largely white, left-liberal, highly educated, and urban. The student-led climate movement made great strides last week by opening the demonstrations to adult working people, businesses, entrepreneurs, and labor unions. The turnout was impressive: The numbers were many times those of past demonstrations, and one felt the new diversity on the streets. Yet there were far too few people of color. In order to broaden even further, activists and engaged citizens must go into lower-income and migrant communities and make the case that the climate crisis impacts them and their children more directly than anyone.

Equally as important, it has to be clear that climate protection policies that affect prices—for example renewable energy surcharges—will be paired with policies that compensate those with tight budgets. In France, President Emmanuel Macron failed to do this when he raised gasoline taxes—and paid a very high price in the form of the yellow vest protests.

One strength of the Green New Deal is that it addresses the plight of the poor and lower middle class, underscoring that they, too, can and must benefit from the greening of America: with jobs and lower energy prices. Several European parties and think tanks have devised schemes that place punitive taxes on fossil fuel use but then redistribute the revenue to those who earn less. Nothing is going to happen unless there’s broad public acceptance of the transformation.

  1. “System change, not climate change!”

Posters with this slogan and ones like it were all over the Friday protests. It is highly unlikely that the sweeping “great transformation” that has to happen can do so without discarding neoliberalism, as Naomi Klein emphasizes in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Most climate activists and many social scientists concur. Economies can’t continue to grow, and consumption to expand, as they have in the past while the planet simultaneously shrinks its carbon footprint, ultimately to zero.

The Systemfrage (the question of the type of system) is a discussion that has to happen—and indeed is happening within the movement. But the larger movement, at this point, should remain open and inviting to the climate conscious of all stripes. It doesn’t take much reading on the climate crisis to grasp that the current system is responsible for our predicament and must be fundamentally altered. Allow the newly engaged to arrive at the conclusion themselves rather than making it a criteria for membership. Don’t let sectarianism splinter the climate movement the way it did the student movements in the late 1960s, among so many others.

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).