Climate strike: How elites have been fighting Generation Alarm for five years
by David Goessmann
[This article posted on 9/13/2023 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.telepolis.de/features/Klimastreik-Wie-die-Eliten-seit-fuenf-Jahren-gegen-Generation-Alarm-kaempfen-9305470.html?seite=all.]
Activist:s from the Uprising of the Last Generation in Olaf Scholz costume are detained and handcuffed during oil action in front of the Federal Chancellery, Berlin, July 09, 2022. image: Stefan Müller / CC BY 2.0
In 2018, Greta Thunberg held up the sign with "Skolstrejk för Klimatet". What followed is a historic wrestling match. Why disruptive actions do not harm climate protection, but help.
Let's remember 2018, 2019: extreme temperatures also in Germany, hardly any precipitation, drought. Especially the old and the sick, nature and many farmers suffer from the heat and drought. The effects of the climate crisis are clearly visible to all.
At the same time, movements in the open-cast coal mines in the Rhineland and Lusatia are protesting. In the face of the crisis, they are calling for a rapid phase-out of coal use and a switch to wind and solar power. The police use force against the peaceful protesters, using pepper spray, kicks and punches.
Some activists are later sentenced to pay millions in damages, others have to spend months in prison for their civil disobedience. In the Bild newspaper, RWE boss Rolf Martin Schmitz calls them "eco-terrorists," while the Süddeutsche Zeitung lumps the demonstrators together with "Reich citizens, right-wing radicals and other lawbreakers.
But neither heat, nor summer drought, nor coal protests led the politicians to ask questions about the climate in the summer interviews of ARD and ZDF. What else had to happen to put the crisis on the agenda or even to sound the alarm?
Something had to happen. And it started with what we have all long since become accustomed to: Storms, droughts, melting glaciers and icebergs, rising sea levels, climate refugees, predictions of the slow collapse of eco-systems, and greenhouse gases that continue to rise unwaveringly.
An eight-year-old student learned about climate change in class and was unable to return to her previous life afterward. She began watching documentaries and reading scientific studies on the climate crisis. Pretty complicated stuff for a girl who wasn't even in her teens yet.
The article is an updated excerpt from the book "Course Climate Collapse. The Great Failure of Politics."
The student learned that the nations primarily responsible for the impending catastrophe have done almost nothing for decades and continue to want to do nothing. No one around her seemed concerned, however - not her parents, and no one at school. She was told not to worry, that those in charge would take care of it.
At age eleven, a year before the Paris climate agreement, she stopped talking to people other than her parents and family members. Selective mutism, the doctors certified. She could eat almost nothing and was in danger of starving to death, while slipping into severe depression.
Her Asperger's autism, as is often the case with this diagnosis, is associated with high cognitive abilities, but that also includes an inability to mask contradictions. So what followed seems to have been a survival strategy of sorts.
The girl turned off the lights in the house, convinced her parents to refrain from flying and eating meat. Then she painted a sign and sat down in front of the Parliament in Stockholm on August 20, 2018, amidst drought and heat waves, forest fires, and three weeks before the election for the Swedish Parliament. On the sign was the simple, now world-famous slogan: "SKOLSTREJK FÖR KLIMATET" (School strike for climate).
Greta Thunberg was just 15 years old at the time. Her personal strike sparked a wildfire - but a different one than Trump's in the US. It was a kind of backfire.
Firefighters use this technique on forest fires to deprive the fire's roller of oxygen. But the comparison doesn't quite hold. Because when Thunberg sat down alone with the sign in front of the parliament, she didn't expect much from it. Her parents and teachers were against it, passers-by mocked her.
Thunberg went on strike because she couldn't help it, not to create political impact. She got the idea from students in Florida who had refused to return to school after a rampage and demanded tougher gun laws.
The fire didn't ignite in the area either because she would have done something new and special. Holding signs in the air, going on strike, holding out for months in tree houses, risking jail time or even death - all of these forms of resistance had been around for a long time.
Rather, Thunberg's protest condensed the climate crisis as if through a burning glass: the failure of governments, political hypocrisy, society's turning a blind eye, appeasement, helplessness in the face of the strengthening of radical right-wing forces, ignorance of science. The spark also found nourishment because the protesting generation was ignitable.
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Young people were fed up with nice words and put-offs. Many adults felt similarly. There was a hunger for truth that wouldn't let the spark burn out. For the illusion of "everything will be all right in the end" had developed strong cracks in the years of procrastination; it was no longer just bubbling under the surface.
Greta Thunberg put it bluntly: "We have to change our compass, and we have to do it now. That's not what she was demanding, that's what science and the CO2 budget were demanding.
Why should we learn for a future that may soon no longer exist because no one is doing anything to save it? And what is the point of learning things in the education system if the most important facts that the best science in that very education system gives us are ignored by our politicians and our society.
The Swedish newspapers covered Thunberg from day one. While she was still holding out alone in front of Parliament, her picture was already on the front page of the Stockholm edition of Dagens Nyheter. Via social media, news of the strike spread virally.
The international press echoed the Swedish reports. On August 27, the Taz in Germany ran an article about "Greta," as she was called. By then, 35 students, adults and a teacher were sitting alongside her.
A BBC report prompted Arnold Schwarzenegger to tweet in early September, "I think it's great when someone doesn't just complain, but goes out and does something. You inspire me." Schwarzenegger invited her to a meeting in Vienna. She replied, "I'm in. Hasta la vista baby!" Schwarzenegger has 4.5 million followers on Twitter.
Conceal, embrace, denounce.
Greta Thunberg coined the term "Fridays For Future" for protesting only on Fridays after the elections in her country. Students in other schools, first in Sweden, also began to strike for the climate. This was followed by imitative actions in Belgium, France, Finland and Denmark. By November 30, there were 10,000 strikers in Australia. In the following months, school strikes for climate took place all over the world.
In Germany and Switzerland, some 50,000 people already came together on January 18, 2019, to call attention to inadequate climate policies. Their demand was by no means revolutionary. They were simply demanding that governments implement what they had committed themselves to: at least a two-degree Celsius trajectory.
The response was so strong that the rallies became global climate strikes, organized by other climate groups such as 350.org, Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise Movement and Ende Gelände. On March 15, 2,200 parallel events took place in 125 countries with over 1.4 million participants.
On May 24, strikes were held in 1,600 cities worldwide. Every week, people now raised their voices and it resounded through the streets: "We are here, we are loud, because you are stealing our future!" From September 20 to 27, the strikes culminated in a global week of climate action. On the two Fridays alone, a total of six million people gathered at 2,000 events around the world. In Germany, 1.4 million people demonstrated on September 20, including 270,000 in Berlin. One climate protest record followed the next.
Women scientists, celebrities and even entrepreneurs joined the movement. As Scientists for Future, some 27,000 researchers signed a statement in March 2019 declaring the strikers' demands justified. They said the current measures are far from sufficient from a scientific perspective. Parents and grandparents of students also founded offshoots of Fridays for Future.
Right from the start, the political leaders tried to take the wind out of the sails of the protests, following the traditional pattern of crisis management.
At first, they dismissed the strikes as a nice story about a girl protesting for the climate. Then, when Thunberg spoke at climate demos, such as an Extinction Rebellion protest in London, she became a problem for governments, amplified by her uncompromising, because science-based, indictment.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison commented on the November 2018 school strikes, saying, "We want more learning and less activism in schools." His British counterpart Theresa May blew the same horn. Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Greta Thunberg of being "ill-informed" and speculated that she was manipulated and serving "other interests."
While students in Germany also stayed away from class, then-Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) stressed in February 2019 on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference that she saw no reason "for suddenly all German children - after years without any external influence, so to speak - to get the idea that you have to make this protest." In doing so, she placed the strikes in the context of "hybrid(y) warfare" in Russia.
An "unfortunate formulation," Thunberg replied soberly. There was very much a "cause," she said, namely the failure of governments, although they have known the "full significance of the climate crisis, which threatens our complete existence." He said it was interesting that "whenever the school strikes come up as an issue, almost all political leaders and many journalists talk about anything - except climate change." Steffen Seibert, the German government spokesman at the time, then rowed back.
The personal defamations by former U.S. President Donald Trump, Brazilian ex-leader Jair Bolsonaro and in the usual right-wing echo chambers that the Swedish girl was not in her right mind and was sick also did not reach their target at all. On the contrary.
When FDP leader Christian Lindner dismissed the climate-striking students, saying they didn't understand what was feasible and should therefore leave climate protection policy to the professionals, the whole thing backfired. The "professionals" had long since backed the students. Influencer Rezo's reaction to the political paternalism reached millions and spoke from their hearts.
The attempt to appease the strikers by hugging them also turned into a PR disaster. Greta Thunberg received numerous invitations to give speeches: at the UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, at the EU, before the British Parliament. The French president invited her to the Elysée Palace. Angela Merkel met with her.
She was even invited to Davos for the World Economic Summit, the meeting of the rich and powerful. And Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic for two weeks to address the UN General Assembly in New York City. She was assured, "We think it's great that you're doing this. We promise to do better. Merkel praised the students for their commitment in the video podcast. "Real satire," was the response from the movements. The students wanted action, not words.
Politicians and journalists eventually criticized the "Greta hype." They desperately tried to stamp out a fire that they themselves had carelessly helped spread by their attempts to embrace her. At the same time, there were endless debates about truancy and threats of sanctions. Hardly anyone spoke about the motives of the strike and the failed climate policy.
In the 2019 European elections, the climate crisis became a central campaign issue for the first time due to public pressure. The result: in Germany, the CDU/CSU lost six percent, while the SPD plummeted eleven percentage points to just under 16. The winners were the Greens, who doubled their vote to 21 percent.
A ranking showed that in the previous legislative period, the CDU/CSU had only voted in favor of one in eight proposals for consistent climate protection in the EU Parliament, while the SPD and the Left only voted in favor of one in two, and the Greens in almost 90 percent of all votes. Environmental parties also emerged as winners across Europe, with climate denier parties also making gains in Italy, France and Austria.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz's loss of reality
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The black-red federal government ultimately felt compelled by the protests to offer something in terms of climate policy. Shortly before the historic climate strike day on September 20, the cabinet under Chancellor Merkel and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) passed a hastily cobbled-together climate package.
Once again, it was a little reform without any steering effect. But this time they didn't get away with it so easily. Not only the 1.4 million strikers criticized it as a "declaration of political bankruptcy." For the first time in the history of German climate protection policy, a package of measures by the German government was unanimously and unequivocally branded a complete failure by the general public.
There was none of the usual whitewashing and softening. Even the media, which usually waved through any climate policy muck, could not help but reproduce what the "professionals" had to say on the record.
Scientists for Future expressed "horror at the package." The climate researcher Mojib Latif was also "appalled by the fact that virtually nothing was decided". Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) spoke of "pellets" and criticized the fact that scientific advice had been ignored by the government.
He said it was "like a doctor prescribing a course of antibiotics for an acute and life-threatening infection, starting with five tablets a week, then increasing. And you do nothing for a week, then you take one tablet a week, and the next week two." Volker Quaschning saw "no logic and no expertise." He said the results were "threatening to the existence." He tweeted that as a scientist you actually have to remain factual: "But now I can't eat as much as I want to vomit after the #climateprotectionpackage."
A study by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), like scientists from the Mercator Institute and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, concluded that the measures would not even allow the German government's official climate target to be achieved by 2030 within the framework of the EU. In addition, the package is anti-social. It burdens low- and middle-income households significantly more than the upper classes.
The necessary change of course and earlier decarbonization, as demanded by the protest movements in order not to heat the earth above two degrees Celsius, was once again declared an unattainable vision by the climate package, for which politicians, according to former Environment Minister Merkel, are simply not responsible.
The AfD also criticized the package. But unsurprisingly from the other side. The "concentrated insanity" of the Merkel government, according to federal spokesman Jörg Meuthen, is based "on the climate religion of eco-socialist truants and their left-green backers." The FAZ expressed relief. Although the environmental associations criticized the result, according to Niklas Zábolji, "there is more praise from the business community."
One had the industry association BDI comment that the planned relief in electricity prices "fell short of expectations" and thus the, as the FAZ headlined, "competitiveness in Germany as a business location is endangered."
Study: Civil disobedience necessary for change of course
Even if the 2019 climate protests in Germany failed to change course at the first attempt and were fobbed off with the usual "Keep up the good work!" The school strikes were by no means a failure. The public spotlight on the failure of the German government clearly shows that the climate discourse has turned and politics has become defensive.
The German government came across as an untrustworthy crisis manager that could no longer conceal its failure. Although it stuck to the climate collapse course for the time being, it did so as a driven force, while the major parties suffered a loss of image and even an initial loss of voters in the wake of the strikes.
Another immediate achievement of Fridays for Future and the demonstrations was to have brought the budget bill, which calculates the amount of greenhouse gases that may still be released into the atmosphere, into the public debate. This is because one of their core demands, in addition to a climate-just and social solution, is that due to the dwindling budget, the decarbonization of industrialized countries must be completed not by 2050, but by 2035 at the latest.
This increased the pressure on policymakers. The EU Commission announced in December that it would raise member states' 2030 reduction targets from 40 to 50 to 55 percent. One trillion euros in investments are to be mobilized for this purpose. Clearly too little - many empty spaces and loopholes remain, and the compass is far from being set on a change of course. But it was a start, a first, cautious course correction.
The German government, in turn, had to amend the climate package in view of the public reactions. This is further proof that the self-importance of the political class has begun to falter when it comes to climate protection.
However, the protest year 2019 also shows that the struggle for a change of course had only just begun. It has now also been fought with tougher sticks. When Greta Thunberg lodged a complaint against the climate policies of Germany and France at the UN in New York in September 2019, Macron and Merkel reacted with brusque rebukes to what a French minister described as "desperation (...) bordering on hatred." Today, the agitation against the Last Generation and the campaigns against the heating turn mark the front lines.
But it is not only "Teflon" Merkel and Co. who can stay on course in storms. At the UN climate conference in Madrid three months later, Greta Thunberg gave another speech. She pointed out that the CO2 budget for 1.5 degrees, amounting to 420 billion tons, will be used up in eight years at the latest if nothing is done. That is not opinion, she said, but science.
So tell me: how can one not feel any panic in the face of these numbers? How is one supposed to react without a tinge of anger when practically nothing is being done? And how is one going to talk about it without sounding alarmist? I would really like to know.
The real danger is not "inaction. The real danger is when politicians and CEOs pretend to do something when in fact almost nothing happens except tricky accounting and creative PR."
To the credit of the new climate movements: They have not given in to date, while keeping their sights firmly set on the goal. They keep attacking the climate protection facades, unflinchingly confronting politics with science, directly addressing those responsible in government and parliament, urging action with unequivocal demands while sounding the alarm.
They know exactly what the real resource for changing course is. Thunberg told Madrid, for example, that she has seen enough in the way of hope in her travels. It comes not from governments, but from people waking up and becoming aware of the situation:
It is public opinion on which the free world rests. In fact, every great change in history has been brought about by people. We don't have to wait. We can start the change right now. We as people.
When Greta Thunberg said these words to the world's climate delegates, she was 16 years old. After her speech, a large group of young activists rushed the stage while security forces tried to pull them away. But they remained rooted to the spot, fists in the air shouting, "You can't drink oil! Leave it in the ground!" As they left the stage, they shouted, "We can't be stopped! Another world is possible!"
But, as noted, the media pushed the issue out of the public debate despite the enormous waves of protest. At Chancellor Merkel's 90-minute 2020 summer press conference, capital city correspondents looked past the climate crisis and the German government's climate collapse course. Only the journalists of the independent platform Jung & Naiv brought up the topic.
To this day, the media elite reacts to criticism and even constructive suggestions with a wagon train mentality. For example, an initiative inspired by the climate movements is trying to bring a program "Climate before Eight" into the public broadcasters along the lines of "Stock Exchange before Eight". The ZDF director Thomas Bellut, who is still in office until March 2022, replied:
I wouldn't do it. Climate is important, but after that comes the next topic. Topics change all the time. I think it's wrong to prescribe something like that, because that's how you make politics. Is that our job? No.
ARD ultimately rejected the proposal, which was supported by around 20,000 citizens, including celebrities such as Carolin Kebekus, Bastian Pastewka, Luisa Neubauer, Bjarne Mädel and ARD meteorologist Karsten Schwanke.
Then came the 2021 federal election, which, it was hoped, would be a climate election. But it was not. More than 70 percent of those who went to the polls voted for a "business as usual," not for a climate turnaround.
One key reason for this is that climate policy remained a side issue in the 2021 "climate election campaign," despite all the declarations to the contrary. What was necessary was concealed, what was wrong was presented as a solution, PR was sold at face value, and what was much-too-little was hyped up as a departure.
All one had to do was turn on the radio, open the newspaper, watch the evening news: Everywhere the same reassurances and half-truths, mostly missing the point. And when the chancellor candidates' trielles talked about climate protection, it was almost exclusively as an economic burden and in the form of renunciation.
In the 20 o'clock daily news, the historic climate strike shortly before the election in September 2021 was finally fabricated into a trivial event: "Tens of thousands" had demonstrated, it was said, but according to Fridays for Future there were over 600,000 in Germany, and 800,000 protesters worldwide. The Tagesschau presented a half-empty square in front of the Reichstag, obviously filmed before the start of the demonstration.
In reality, squares and streets in many German cities were flooded with people in the afternoon, 100,000 in Berlin alone, powerfully demanding 1.5 degrees, real climate protection and a radical turnaround. Moreover, not a word about the prominent support for the protests, no follow-up coverage, but problematization of truancy.
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On Radio Eins (RBB), journalist Hajo Schumacher was one of the first to compare the Last Generation climate hunger strikers in Berlin to RAF terrorists. This and other forms of defamation have persisted to this day.
At the same time, the environmental editorial staff of ZDF repeatedly polemicized against wind turbines as well as electric cars, while the editorial director was allowed to sell investments in foreign coal-fired power plants as climate protection in live broadcasts.
But despite campaigns and repression, the protests have achieved a number of successes and sparked momentum, even if so far they have not been able to bring about a change of course by powerful governments to stop burning fossil fuels in ten to 15 years at the latest, according to science.
The climate crisis is now more in the public consciousness, the media are reporting more and better than before on climate protection, solutions are being discussed more seriously politically for the first time and there is initial progress on the energy transition, also in the USA, see Biden's Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) subsidy program.
The list of positive approaches is long: recently Ecuador said no to oil production in a historic referendum, there are court rulings everywhere mandating governments and companies to do more to protect the climate, California recently came out in favor of a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. One could go on like this. Certainly, all insufficient, but a start.
There is also lively discussion about strategies and tactics in the movements. The activists of the Last Generation have to endure the greatest force of resistance to the necessary change of course. They are attacked by angry drivers, harassed by some police officers and sentenced by judges. In public, their strategy is portrayed as misguided and harmful to the cause.
Polls are repeatedly cited in which a majority of respondents say they do not believe the Latter Generation's resources are adequate. But scientists:inside warn against drawing false conclusions from this.
For example, a recent survey of 120 social movement experts found that nearly seven out of ten researchers and experts believe that disruptive protest tactics are "at least fairly important" to the success of a movement, especially when the demonstrators' demands - as in the case of Last Generation or Just Stop Oil - already have broad support.
Although disrupting tennis matches, causing traffic congestion due to blockades, and throwing soup can contents at glass-protected artwork causes public disapproval, the study by Apollo Surveys and protest think tank Social Change Lab found that, by and large, disruptive tactics do not harm a group's ability to effect change.
"We were really struck by the contradiction between what the public and the media say about disruptive protests and what experts think about them," Social Change Lab director James Özden tells The Guardian.
Experts who study social movements believe not only that strategic disruption can be an effective tactic, but that it is the most important tactical factor in a social movement's success.
Today, another global climate strike is taking place, five years after Greta Thunberg sat down in front of the Swedish Parliament to protest for the climate. All over the world, people will again take to the streets. They denounce the "unscrupulous greenwashing". Fridays for Future states:
Green fairy tales and climate talk instead of real emissions reductions are the popular methods. Right at the forefront is the self-proclaimed climate chancellor Olaf Scholz. Ahead of the G7 summit, he is currently launching a lobby initiative for new climate-damaging investments and promoting more fossil gas. At the same time, he stands up and boasts about Germany as a pioneer in renewable energies. There must be an end to talking green and acting fossil!
The fight will go on. End open.