Greta's legacy in Germany: Climate activists fight to keep the pace


A file photo of Thunberg with her classic 'Skolstrejk for Klimatet' sign in front of the city hall in Hamburg, Germany. Photo: Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa

On a Friday in August of 2018, a young Swedish schoolgirl played hooky and sat in front of the parliament in Stockholm, demanding that her country's leaders do more in the fight against climate change.

Greta Thunberg, who was 15 at the time, had no idea how her one small action would send ripples across the globe.

Her individual protest struck a nerve internationally, at a time when global awareness of climate change was already shifting. Millions of schoolchildren followed suit and walked out of school on Fridays to call for action on climate. Soon, the global climate movement Fridays for Future was born.

Thunberg's role as the world's climate conscience was cemented: She met key leaders at the time, such as US president Barack Obama, German chancellor Angela Merkel and even Austrian film star Arnold Schwarzenegger and was invited to address the world at the United Nations.

"I didn't expect this much attention. This has become quite big," she said in an interview at the time. It got even bigger as the protests took on a life of their own around the world.

In Germany for example, Fridays for Future gathered huge momentum. "We are here, we are loud, because you are stealing our future," shouted thousands upon thousands of mainly young demonstrators at large-scale climate protests in Berlin, Hamburg and dozens of other cities.At its peak in September 2019, 1.4 million people took to the streets with Fridays for Future across the country.

A file photo of people marching through Berlin, demanding more climate action. Photo: Monika Skolimowska/dpaA file photo of people marching through Berlin, demanding more climate action. Photo: Monika Skolimowska/dpa

The movement transformed not only on people's attitudes towards climate policy, but also, even more tangibly, the German legal framework.

Germany passed its landmark, comprehensive Climate Action Law in 2019, which enshrined the country's national climate targets into law.

Shortly afterwards, the parliament brought forward the country's coal phase-out and in 2021, Germany's top court ordered the government to amend its laws to pursue more ambitious climate goals in a lawsuit brought forward by climate activists, including Fridays for Future leader Luisa Neubauer.

In short, Fridays for Future helped ignite broad, top-level change across Germany. Worldwide too, climate is now on the forefront of politics, in comparison to before 2018, when it was seen by politicians as a fringe issue.

Even in the private sector, companies can no longer escape adopting climate commitments, though many are accused of "greenwashing" in the process.

"Fridays for Future has transformed the climate crisis from a niche issue to a societal problem, winning majorities for real solutions on a historic scale," the 27-year-old Neubauer said. It has also shown "that young people can unleash unimagined power together".

Neubauer speaking at a political event in Berlin earlier this year.  Photo: Christophe Gateau/dpaNeubauer speaking at a political event in Berlin earlier this year. Photo: Christophe Gateau/dpa

The call for action on climate comes against the unsettling backdrop of increasing extreme weather events. When visiting Slovenia's capital Ljubljana, after it was hit by devastating floods, Neubauer stressed the need for a "turning point" in the "climate catastrophe".

"We demand that European leaders wake up to this crisis," she said.It is a demand that Neubauer, Thunberg and Co. have made over and over again – that the climate crisis be treated as such by politicians, business leaders and the media.

But change is not happening fast enough for activists or scientists, who predict more and more dire consequences of climate change year-on-year.

This has led some activists to take more drastic action. In Germany, this comes in the form of the protest group Last Generation, which has made a name for itself through its more provocative protests such as abseiling from motorway bridges or throwing food at a Claude Monet painting.

Mostly though, the group is known for its street blockades, in which protesters glue themselves to roads to get their point across. Some have even held sit-ins at major German airports by breaking into runways.

Broadly, Last Generation advocates for a Citizens' Assembly which develops measures to phase out the use of fossil fuels in Germany by 2030. Its immediate demands are simple: a speed limit of 100km per hour on German motorways and a permanent €9 (RM45) ticket for buses and trains.

Whether the movement's more radical actions are helping or hurting the cause however, is up for debate.

A survey by non-profit More in Common, carried out in May 2023, suggests that the German population's views of the climate movement have changed considerably in recent years.

Fundamental support for the climate movement in Germany halved from 68% to 34% between 2021 and 2023, according to the survey conducted among 2,016 adults in cooperation with the polling firm Kantar Public.

Street blockades are particularly unpopular, although most people surveyed recognised the need for more effective climate action.

"For many, it is possible to reject the current type of protests while still being aware of the fundamental importance of climate engagement," the organisation said.

So, has society had enough of climate activism? In any case, the German term "Klimaschutz" (climate protection) has long since ceased to evoke only positive associations.

"The term climate protection has been burned," climate expert Mojib Latif recently told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung regional daily newspaper in this regard. He called the Last Generation protests "counterproductive", saying: "When people hear the term climate protection, the alarm bells go off right away," he said.

Politicians from across the spectrum have slammed the protest group's actions, in some cases branding its members as criminals.

Fridays for Future activist Neubauer expresses her disillusionment with the wave of political resistance against climate activists. "It is frustrating to see that various political representatives to this day prefer to insult climate activists and prevent progress on climate instead of acknowledging that the climate movement is only needed because they have not done their job in the last decades," she says.

Germany's Climate Action Law currently calls for reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions by 65% from 1990 levels by 2030. By 2040, they are to fall by 88% and the country aims to be climate neutral by 2045.

Although Last Generation is garnering most of the spotlight in German climate activism currently, Fridays for Future still works to ensure that the government independently keeps its climate promises – and "that it doesn't need us anymore", as Neubauer says.

And Thunberg? The young girl with two plaits in her hair has long since become a young woman.

The now 20-year-old was recently fined in Sweden for not following police instructions during a climate protest in the oil port of Malmo.

What's more, she has also graduated school. This means her "school strike" is technically over, but this has not stopped her from showing up at parliament every Friday.

The climate activist, who has sailed across the world for high-level climate conferences and engaged in Twitter wars with former US president Donald Trump, still holds the same sign that she held back in 2018, with "Skolstrejk for klimatet" (school strike for climate) written on it in simple, black block capitals. – dpa

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