Fridays for Future protest in 2019. Photo: Fridays for Future Deutschland
22 Dec 2022, 11:11
Climate protests and their policy impact

Youth climate movement drives public debate about policy

As the youth climate movement is struggling to find resonance during the energy crisis, some activists have turned to more drastic protests, such as motorway blockades and attacks on artworks. These direct actions have provoked mainly negative reactions in Germany and beyond, and sparked an intense debate about the legitimacy and effectiveness of civil disobdience in the name of climate protection. But the broader Fridays for Future youth movement, which mobilised up to 1.4 million people in Germany alone at its peak in 2019, played a crucial role in advancing the country's debate on climate action, and pushing parties across the political spectrum to commit to policy in line with limiting global warming to 1.5°C. [Update December 2022: Adds articles on rise of radical protests, Hungary's climate movement]  

Who makes up the climate movement?

The largest - and arguably most well-known - climate action group in Germany is Fridays for Future (FfF). Inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who has been skipping school for the climate each Friday since 2018 and is now a household name across the world, the movement consists mainly of pupils and university students. Fridays for Future Germany's most prominent member - sometimes dubbed the 'German Greta' - is the 25-year-old university student Luisa Neubauer, who can often be heard speaking on national talkshows and in other media. Fridays for Future has inspired some spin-offs, such as Scientists for Future and Parents for Future.

Aside from the school strikers, active climate groups in Germany include direct-action groups Last Generation - who regularly made the headlines with road and airport blockades, as well as artwork attacks -, Extinction Rebellion, the anti-fossil fuel activists of Ende Gelände, known for blocking coal mines, as well as the groups RobinWood, Koala Kollectiv and GermanZero. In addition to activist groups, Germany counts a number of environmental NGOs, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) and the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU).

Radical climate protests face broad rejection in Germany

With motorway and airport blockades as well as attacks on artworks, climate activists have caused a stir in Germany. The actions have provoked mainly negative reactions from politicians, the media and the general public, following overwhelming sympathy with the broader Fridays for Future movement. Many conservatives call for harsh punishments, with some even likening the activists to terrorists, while left-leaning observers have shown some degree of sympathy, but warn the escalation of protest methods is counterproductive. Researchers say the actions are an expression of growing frustration and diversification within the climate movement, which is struggling to find resonance during the energy crisis. But they don’t see a general trend towards a radicalisation of the broader climate movement. Read the article here.

Rise of radical actions risks dividing German climate movement – protest researcher

More drastic forms of climate protest such as recent hunger strikes and motorway blockades risk widening the divisions within the German youth climate movement, says social movements researcher Dieter Rucht from the Berlin Social Science Center. “If the climate movement should move toward more radical means of action, the division within the movement becomes clearer,” Rucht told Clean Energy Wire. Acts of non-violent civil disobedience by large groups can have a positive impact, Rucht said. "The real problem is when you go a step further and you commit acts of sabotage that are undertaken by a few." Read the interview here.

Hungary’s climate activists struggle to make their voices heard

Hungary’s climate movement is struggling to build on the earlier success of the country's Fridays for Future student protests to make their voices heard. Nonetheless, many activists believe that spectacular acts of civil disobedience – such as motorway and airport blockades, or attacks on artworks, which have become common in Western Europe – would backfire, given the country’s increasingly authoritarian government, conservative society and biased media. Read the article here.

Fridays for Future calls on next govt to introduce German CO2 budget in line with 1.5°C target

Climate activists from Fridays for Future have presented a list of demands for the first 100 days of a new German government. The activists first and foremost call for the adoption of a CO2 budget that is in line with the goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the lower boundary of the target outlined in the Paris Agreement. All new laws and infrastructure projects should be checked for compatibility with this budget. “We can't waste any more time with empty promises and need immediate action to preserve our livelihoods. The next government will decide whether we can still limit the climate crisis to a controllable level."

Read the article here.

 Fridays for Future protesters gather in front of the German parliament to call for 1.5C-conform climate policy. Photo: CLEW/Wettengel.
Fridays for Future protesters gather in front of the German parliament to call for 1.5C-conform climate policy. Photo: CLEW/Wettengel.

Global Fridays for Future strike calls for climate action 2 days before German election

Youth climate movement Fridays for Future called for a rapid transition to climate neutrality at its eighth global climate strike just two days before the German federal election. Protests took place in hundreds of German towns and cities, with participants demanding all parties pursue socially just climate policies in line with the target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who started the climate strikes in 2018, joined the demonstration in Berlin, where thousands of protesters assembled in front of the national parliament. “Without massive pressure from us on the streets, no coalition will stick to the 1.5°C limit after the election.”

Read the article here.

Climate activists enter third week of a hunger strike in Berlin. Photo: CLEW/Nijhuis
Climate activists enter third week of a hunger strike in Berlin. Photo: CLEW/Nijhuis

Hunger strikers demand meeting with chancellor candidates about climate

In the run up to the German federal election, a group of young people have entered a third week of a hunger strike to call for more climate action - with one of the protesters being temporarily admitted to hospital. The group, which calls itself the ‘last generation’, vows to continue their strike until they can publicly meet with the three leading chancellor candidates. In a joint reply, Annalena Baerbock (Green Party), Armin Laschet (CDU) and Olaf Scholz (SPD) agreed to a private in-person meeting with the activists, but only after the election and on the condition that the hunger strike be ended. A recent survey shows young people worldwide experience anxiety in response to the climate crisis and government inaction on the issue.

Read the article here.

Climate activists take to the streets of Berlin ahead of national election

Activists from the coalition group ‘August Rise Up’ took to the streets in Berlin on Monday 16 August to call for more climate action six weeks ahead of the German federal election. Around two hundred people blocked the road in front of the Brandenburg Gate for several hours, while a few dozen activists set up a sit-in demonstration in the nearby Monbijoupark -- adding up to a lower turn-out than organisers expected. The actions kicked off a week of protests organised by Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future and around 50 other climate action groups, ahead of the federal election and Berlin state election on 26 September.

Read the article here.

Coal and conservatism: How Polish activists push for more climate action

In Poland, the debate about climate change has only recently gained mainstream attention. Two main stumbling blocks – the economy’s strong dependency on coal and the conservative political climate – have caused years-long political inaction on the issue. Yet, the three-year-old climate movement has now successfully managed to initiate public conversation on the topic. But unlike their Western European counterparts, most Polish climate activists are careful not to speak up about other progressive issues such as women’s rights – which have recently come under further threat in the country – or economic inequality, fearing they will lose the support of the conservative majority to act on the climate issue at all.

Read the article here.

"These catastrophes must have political consequences"

Luisa Neubauer, Fridays for Future

Call for climate action after deadly floods hit Germany

After catastrophic floods hit the south of Germany in July, killing over 180 people and leaving dozens more missing, activists have been calling for more climate action. "There is no denying that this disaster is the result of climate policy that has ignored any warnings from science for decades and that a global climate crisis is coming our way," said activist Fabian Pesch from Fridays for Future. "These catastrophes must have political consequences," said frontwoman Luisa Neubauer during a speech in Berlin. Environmental group Robin Wood embarked on a three-week raft tour from Berlin to Hamburg in order to push for a faster energy transition. “We need a rapid expansion of decentralised renewables, the promotion of energy efficiency, and the elimination of all government funding for fossil fuels."

Read the article here.

Klimaliste campaign poster in Berlin. Photo: CLEW/Wettengel.

Climate activists establish new national party, stop short of eying 2021 elections

The German activist group Climate List (Klimaliste) has announced the establishment of a national political party, but will not yet run in the upcoming federal elections in September. Instead the party will support climate activists running for parliament as direct candidates and it will participate in the Berlin state election, which takes place on the same day. Klimaliste aims to “challenge the established parties" and steer them towards a clear commitment to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Klimaliste is seen as a direct competitor of the Green Party, which some climate activists have criticised for adopting a too moderate tone regarding climate action in a bid to lure voters away from more conservative-leaning parties. While the party has managed to gain seats in elections at the municipal level, the activist group so far has participated in three state elections and failed to clear the five-percent threshold to enter parliament in either one of them.

Read the article here.

Climate justice means more than getting to net-zero

Increasingly so, the Fridays for Future school strikers are speaking up about social issues including racism, feminism, LGBTQ rights, and economic inequality. Above all, they call for a just transition - a sentiment that has been growing in the wake of the pandemic and last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. To push this intersectional agenda, Fridays for Future is forming alliances with anti-racism groups and trade unions. But not all climate advocates agree that a broad progressive movement is the best way to get to net-zero, as illustrated by the recently founded conservative KlimaUnion (‘climate union’), which calls for a market-based approach to reaching the 1.5-degree Paris Agreement goal. Does broadening the scope to social issues take the focus away from climate, or can it strengthen the movement and make it more impactful?

Read the article here.

Fridays for Future tweet: "There is no pride on a dead planet"

Can the UK climate movement go 'beyond politics'?

Like in Germany, activists in the United Kingdom are divided about the best way to fight the climate crisis. The UK is leading the world in terms of climate targets as it heads towards COP26. This is in no small part due to the work of climate action groups such as Extinction Rebellion. But now that the government has set climate targets, the movement is turning to the harder question of how to reach them. The government is pursuing a green capitalist approach to the transition. Many in the climate movement, however, consider this insufficient; they want to see a radical overhaul of governance and society.

Read the article here.

Climate activists win historic court case

In April 2021, Germany's highest court ruled that the government's climate regulation fell short, lacking detail on emission reduction targets beyond 2030, in a case started by climate activists from Fridays for Future. Activists said the ruling was a timely decision ahead of Germany's federal election this year. "Climate action is not ‘nice-to-have’, it’s our fundamental right and from today we know that officially," said Luisa Neubauer, one of the leading figures of Fridays for Future. "It gives us everything we need for this year, for this federal election campaign, and for our future work as a movement.”

Following the case, the German government under Chancellor Angela Merkel pulled forward its net-zero target by five years to 2045, and raised the country's emissions reduction targets for 2030 to 65 percent (previously 55%) and 2040 to 88 percent (previously no target).

Read the article here.

Photo: Fridays for Future Germany
Fridays for Future protest in 2019. Photo: Fridays for Future Deutschland

Trading street protests for seats in parliament

Climate activists agree on one thing: Germany needs to adopt radical climate policies in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. How best to push this agenda is a different question entirely. In this German “super election year”, counting six state elections and a federal election with the selection of a successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, some activists are running for office in the hopes of changing policy from the inside - though the Green Party is not the inevitable partner for all of them. Others are determined to stay on the outside, knowing that compromise is an inevitable part of the political process and insisting instead on pressuring all parties to adopt more ambitious climate plans. "We need to make sure all parties are in line with the Paris Agreement."

Read the article here.

Pandemic turns activists into lobbyists

Since the pandemic has stifled the possibility of organising mass demonstrations, Fridays for Future activists have turned to soft lobbying instead. The youth climate activists have had meetings with several politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans on topics such as the coronavirus economic stimulus packages and the EU agricultural reform.

Read the article here.

"My decision to run for office is based on the disparity between protest and actual decision-making processes. We have to close that gap."

Jakob Blasel, Fridays for Future & the Green Party

Preview 2021: How do activists take on the election year?

In the run up to the German election year 2021, Clean Energy Wire interviewed two Fridays for Future activists with different approaches to the climate fight. The 20-year old Jakob Blasel will run for parliament on a Green Party ticket in September. He said his decision to go into politics was based on the need to "close the gap between protest and actual decision-making". Blasel added that a strong Green Party is the only realistic option to tackle climate issues in Germany – provided that the party keeps their policies in line with 1.5 degrees warming. His 23-year old counterpart Carla Reemtsma disagrees that the Greens are a natural partner of the climate movement, saying they "have profited a lot from the climate movement. But they didn’t move closer to the movement for example by adjusting their climate policies." Reemtsma argues its Fridays for Future's job to radicalise all political parties to adopt ambitious climate policies.

First major school strikes prompt political debate

Inspired by then 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, students across the world started organising school strikes for the climate in late 2018 and early 2019. In Germany, thousands of students took to the streets. "I'm really mad at how politicians are threatening my future" by not acting on the climate crisis, said climate activist Jakob Blasel.

Read our factsheet here.

As the school strikes started to grow, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she “strongly welcomes” the rise of student protests for the climate. While Merkel's comments were welcomed by climate activists, some members of her own party complained the chancellor is encouraging truancy and undermines "responsible" teachers and headmasters.

Read the article here.

In March 2019, tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of students poured into the streets in cities across Germany to demand more action on climate change in one of the biggest showings for the Fridays for Future movement until then. The student protest took place simultaneously in scores of countries around the world, from New Zealand to Uganda to the US. In Germany, the protests prompted a debate in the parliament, and drew both support and criticism from public figures across the political spectrum.

Read the article here.

Ahead of the European election in May 2019, tens of thousands of people demonstrated with Fridays for Future in Germany, joining protesters in over 100 countries. The young activists, many of whom awere not yet eligible to vote, called on youth across Europe to make their vote count. “If you, like me, are determined to bring attention to the ongoing climate crisis […], then going to vote is one of the most powerful things you can do,” said Swedish Greta Thunberg, who started the movement almost a year ago, in a message on instagram. “This is your chance as a young European citizen to have a say on what issues are prioritised in the EU for the next five years.”

Read the article here.

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