The Year Ahead

2020 for the Future

Fridays for Future took foreign policy out of the hands of bureaucrats and officials in 2019. Next year, Greta Thunberg’s movement could go further.

Young people march with banners and placards during a Fridays for Future demonstration in Berlin on March 15. Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

They kept negotiating and negotiating and negotiating. In the end, though, the only thing the world’s governments could agree on at their 25th conference on climate change that ended in Madrid in mid-December was to defer all decisions to their next gathering. That’s a pity, because time is quickly running out on keeping global warming under the crucial 2 degrees Celsius mark.

It is a good thing that, in 2019, the climate had other forceful defenders in the form of Fridays for Future, a new movement founded and led by children, teenagers, and other young people. Sure, the kids can’t sign treaties or pass new legislation. But in the movement’s first full year of existence, their protests have already changed the global discourse on the planet’s most pressing problem. In 2020, even more progress may be on the horizon.

“They certainly drove us to speed up,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said this past July, referring to the impact of Fridays for Future on German climate change policies. Two months later, at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York, Merkel told the assembled dignitaries that “we have all heard the young people’s wake-up call.” Indeed, only a few days earlier, her government had passed a climate package that, among other things, bans the sale of new oil heaters from 2026 onward and put a price of 10 euros, about $11, for each ton of carbon dioxide emitted from transport and heating fuels. Although her package was criticized in some corners, there’s no doubt Fridays for Future had nudged Germany’s politicians in the right direction.

It is about time. For a decade at least, scientists’ calls for urgent efforts to prevent climate change have gone unheeded. But in September 2018, the Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg gave what had been a solitary school strike the name Fridays for Future and invited other children to join in. Only a few months later, in March, some 1.4 million pupils and university students played hooky for the environment, striking in 2,233 cities and towns in 128 countries. Two months later, young people marched again in 1,664 cities in 125 countries. According to a survey by a pan-European group of academics, 45 percent of the protesters surveyed at the rallies were between 14 and 19 years old. Just under half were female.

Since then, Thunberg has been named Time’s person of the year. She has spoken at the United Nations, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and in assorted national parliaments. She has met with the pope. Her skyrocketing profile so enrages U.S. President Donald Trump that he feels the need to bully her on Twitter.

Sure, there’s a lot of hype around Thunberg. It’s far easier to protest against the world’s lack of progress on climate change, of course, than to get the nations of the world to agree on a course of action. Really doing something—that is, keeping the median temperature well below an increase of 2 degrees Celsius, a goal to which global negotiators agreed in the 2015 Paris climate agreement—will be costly. The costs of going above that threshold would be far higher, to be sure, but the bill for limiting global warming would be due immediately, whereas the harm from doing nothing would be borne by future decision-makers and generations.

With many political leaders thus preferring to shift the burden to their successors, the negotiators assembled recently in Madrid had a formidable task. While they didn’t have to set new emission targets, they were supposed to agree on how the world’s nations would meet the targets they already created. Yet a small number of wealthy nations—primarily the United States, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and Australia—blocked any substantive deal. The negotiators left empty-handed.

Even as the meeting ended in failure, however, the European Union announced its so-called Green Deal, which European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen rather grandiosely painted as Europe’s “man-on-the-moon moment.” The deal is meant to make Europe the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050. It now goes to the EU’s member states and the European Parliament, which have to approve it. In the latter body, von der Leyen will have some tailwind thanks to green parties winning a slate of new seats in the European Parliament, shortly after the Fridays for Future mass rallies in March and May. No wonder that Sven Giegold—a member of the European Parliament from the German Greens—labeled the May elections “a Sunday for future.”

Given that major foreign-policy decisions are usually the purview of rooms of legislators or heads of state, it may seem odd to point to the smaller Fridays for Future as the biggest events of 2019. After all, the European Union also appointed a new commission this year, a step preceded by extremely complex negotiations by the EU’s member states. That the EU’s member states, divided as they are on many issues including immigration and exhausted from their never-ending negotiations with the United Kingdom, managed to agree on which 28 individuals will represent them in the EU’s executive body, and what each commissioner’s portfolio will be, was not a negligible achievement. Nor was the surprisingly smooth NATO leaders’ meeting, given Trump’s frequent anger at U.S. allies in the organization, French President Emmanuel Macron’s description of NATO as brain dead, and Turkey’s highly questionable military actions in Syria.

But events like these did not significantly change how the world conducts its business—surely the most important mark of a significant foreign–policy event. By contrast, by putting pressure on elected leaders and significantly influencing the public debate, Fridays for Future has. Although it is hard to measure the movement’s direct electoral impact, leaders in a whole range of countries hoping to win the youth vote have and will try to cash in on the “Greta effect.” (Thunberg doesn’t campaign for political parties.) Among Germans aged 25 and under, 34 percent voted for the Greens in the May European elections. The Christian Democrats came second at 12 percent. Meanwhile, school strikers are uprooting the traditional modes of political expression by not only turning away from political parties but also from the national causes (tax increases, the Iraq War) protests usually focus on. Indeed, while national governments can lead by example, climate change is a global issue that can only be addressed on the international stage. That process, it appears, will be led by the young.

Despite the failures of Madrid, but thanks to Fridays for Future, expect to see more climate action in 2020, starting with the resurgent greens in the European Parliament. Next year, Merkel’s Germany—where no fewer than 1.4 million people marched in further protests this past September—may offer more climate leadership and legislation. Under the leadership of 34-year-old Prime Minister Sanna Marin, a proponent of green policies, and prodded by Fridays for Future, Finland may likewise take on an even stronger global role on climate change. In the United States, the Green New Deal championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez failed miserably—but that’s hardly the last word from her. And in Germany, meanwhile, in mid-December, Berlin expanded its initial climate package to a much more ambitious one. The price per ton of CO2 more than doubled, to 25 euros ($28).

Indeed, while Trump has opted for ridicule, leaders such as Merkel now take Fridays for Future into account when developing policies. Is skipping school acceptable if it’s for a worthy cause? That’s up for debate. But the movement has, in one short year, done for a burning global issue what no statesman has so far achieved.

Elisabeth Braw is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @elisabethbraw