“For 25 years, countless people have stood in front of the United Nations climate conferences, asking our nations’ leaders to stop the emissions. But, clearly, this has not worked. So I will not ask them anything. Instead, I will ask the people around the world to realize that our political leaders have failed us.” These powerful words, directed at UN Secretary General António Guterres and high-ranking state officials at the UN climate summit in Katowice, Poland, were uttered by Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old from Sweden.
The grand but for the most part unfulfilled promises of climate conferences are nothing new. However, rarely have climate diplomats been rebuked as bluntly and under such an intense media spotlight as they were by Greta Thunberg. Her speech in Katowice concluded with the words: “And since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.”
Her appearance in Poland was preceded by weeks of protest in her native Sweden: instead of going to school, she stood before the Swedish parliament, calling on the government to do more to protect the climate. In the run-up to Katowice, her protests were limited to Fridays, giving rise to the hashtag #FridaysForFuture. Many others are following her example. The number of schoolchildren worldwide declaring solidarity with Thunberg’s cause is growing by the day.
Tired of politicians’ failure to take action against climate change, every Friday they put down their pencils and join demonstrations demanding more effective climate action, in events coordinated primarily via social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Whatsapp. In Australia, thousands of young people took to the streets in late November. Strikes were held in numerous countries from the US to Switzerland and, of course, Poland – on the doorstep of the climate conference in Katowice.
“This is extremely upsetting”
Pupils in many German cities are involved too, with demonstrations in Göttingen, Aachen, Karlsruhe, Cologne and Hamburg. A protest before the state parliament in Kiel was attended by 500 young people, according to media reports. Dismal weather, freezing temperatures and icy wind did not stop 300 pupils from striking for their future at the Bundestag in Berlin on the same day, armed with placards, banners and loudspeakers.
“I don’t understand how the Federal Government can just give up on its climate targets for 2020,” said Karl Klingeberg, a 15-year old pupil for whom there is no question that Germany should abandon coal as soon as possible – despite the repeated promises by German politicians, concessions always end up being made to the industry. “This is extremely upsetting,” says Klingeberg, one of the organisers of the demo in Berlin. “Whenever I can, I try to convince friends and fellow pupils to join our movement,” he adds.
Klingeberg is not too concerned about missing classes to take part in the demonstrations. “The protest is more important,” he believes. He is lucky – his teacher approves of the initiative. Not so for some of his fellow campaigners, who report that their participation in the strike was recorded as unauthorized absence, forcing them to think carefully about whether to go again next time. Others don’t seem to care much one way or the other: “Why go to school if there is not going to be a future?” read the sign brandished by one pupil.
But the movement is no longer limited to schoolchildren: many campaigners are university students or in vocational training. 22-year-old student Luisa Neubauer is also among the instigators of the protests in Berlin. “We can’t rely on anyone else to worry about our climate,” she says, speaking outside the Reichstag in the German capital. This is also why she feels it is important to emphasize that although the protest is supported by bodies such as Friends of the Earth Germany, 350.org and Greenpeace, it is not organised by them – the events are initiated solely by the children and young adults.
Neubauer is a Youth Ambassador for the international lobby and campaign group One. She describes herself as a climate activist, and shortly before the demonstration in Berlin she travelled to Katowice to strike alongside Greta Thunberg. “I find it perplexing that we don’t talk about the climate crisis more often, that it is not in the headlines or discussed on talk shows every day,” she says. “The fact that the decision whether or not to save the climate is up for negotiation makes me angry – but in a constructive way.” This is why she became an activist.
Back in October, the student sent an open letter titled “Die Zukunft sind wir” (We are the future) to the German government, asking it to block and denounce coal mining operations in Hambach forest. The letter was signed by over 100 organisations and young people. “This showed me how powerful protest can be, if young people join forces,” Neubauer recalls. If she, Karl Klingeberg and their fellow campaigners have their way, this will just be the beginning. After all, one of their slogans is “We’ll strike until you act!”.
The “Fridays for climate” protests may well be a watershed moment. If the strikes continue, attracting more and more participants, it will be interesting to see how long the government can go on ignoring the concerns and fears of the next generation.