Europe’s striking climate kids show why we need the EU

The results of the European elections can be seen as a new green wave and as a response to concerns about climate change. The striking school children, a movement known as ‘Fridays For Future’, strongly influenced this development, Paul Hockenos takes a look.

The Greens gained in the elections for the European Parliament a great amount of votes. This is as well because of the social movement Fridays For Future which is protesting for climate justice

Protesters at the climate march in Brussels (Photo by Pelle De Brabander, CC BY 2.0)

For years, European politicos and others committed to the idea of a united Europe have pined for a popular, all-Europe project that stands for the best intentions of, and the imperative for, the European project. In order to counter the EU’s distant, bureaucratic image – and the blunt attacks of right-wing Eurosceptics – the EU’s practitioners have turned to issues that touch almost all Europeans, from digital rights to consumer protection to telecommunications.

But, alas, none of these worthy endeavors, among others, have fired the passions of the average European, much less young Europeans.

But the landmark May 23 to 26 European Parliament election has changed that forever. Climate protection is the EU’s new reason d’etre – and by popular demand.

Green and other environmentally minded parties scored incredibly well in the vote, led by the German Greens who captured 21% of the vote. Moreover, pre-election and exit opinion polls showed that the threat of climate change has soared in the priorities of European voters: from near the bottom of concerns to nearly the top. In Germany and France, climate change, not immigration, is voters’ number one concern.

These parties’ results can be traced back to a number of phenomena that has brought climate change to the forefront of Europeans’ consciousness, but none more than the striking climate kids of the Fridays for Future movement. Just as they intended to do with their Friday school strikes, the kids have revealed a new purpose for the EU beyond the postwar remits of peace and prosperity.

The students of Europe found common cause with one another in a campaign demanding tangible political action from the EU to address climate change. On May 23, the second day of voting, 1.8 million students demonstrated across the world, and several hundred thousand in Europe.  The young people are obviously full-blooded Europeans and they insist that the supranational EU can and must devote itself to leading the global battle to arrest rising temperatures and seas if we expect to slow global warming.

In an open letter to the EU earlier this month, an international group of FFF activists wrote that the EU “holds enormous responsibility, not just for our future, but also for the life of billions of people across the world. Accept this responsibility. Make climate the priority.”

For the EU, the scourge of climate change could be just the ticket to rejuvinate it. On the one hand, it is our age’s most urgent issue. On the other, it is one that the surging far-right parties don’t even pretend to have answers to. When Europe’s radical nationalists deny climate change, as most do, they side with less than five percent of Europeans in the EU’s most populous countries. In Germany, the hard-right Alternative for Germany calls man-made climate change  ‘heresy’ and wants to halt the clean-energy transition.

The young climate activists want nothing more than that. They recognize the EU’s indispensable role in the fight to brake rising temperatures in Europe and beyond. After all, the “climate crisis,” as the students rightly call it, is itself quintessentially transnational as the Earth’s growing carbon footprint transcends national borders. No wonder that Europe’s far rights pour scorn on the consensus of the worldwide scientific community without proffering any evidence: otherwise, they’d have to acknowledge the EU’s essential, multilateral role in climate protection.

Moreover, another boon for the EU, the kids’ intensity flies in the face of adult voter disinterest in the EP elections, which had fallen every five-year election since 1979; in 2014 voter turnout sunk to the record-low of 43 percent. This election revered that trend with more people voting than in any other EU election since 1996.

The FFF movement, which started in Sweden with 15-year-old Greta Thunberg’s Friday school strike, is everything that the nativist Eurosceptic parties aren’t: transnational, evidence-based, grassroots democratic, non-violent, internationalist, and forward-looking. And the kids’ petitions, in contrast to the nationalists, aren’t in the least nebulous: they insist that Europe play a leading role in curbing global warming by adhering to the pledges made at the Paris climate summit in 2015. That means doing better than the EU’s current pledge, which is to sink carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030. The activists, with the backing of thousands of climate scientists, stress that this won’t keep rising temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

In their appeal to the EU, the FFF kids have astutely recognized the correct  address for their cause, even if they’re fiercely critical of the EU’s uneven record so far – and the its giant carbon footprint. In Europe today, the EU is the driving force on climate protection, not the national states, and its authority is recognized beyond Europe, on the international level. This is why Greta Thunberg travelled to Brussels in April, where she gave a rousing speech in the parliament calling upon EU leaders to act urgently on climate change. And why 17,000 of the activists descended on an EU summit in Sibiu, Romania, earlier this month insist that the EU set binding targets for Europe to be carbon neutral well before 2050.

Despite the activists’ admonitions that the EU act faster toward higher targets, the continent’s renewable energy boom – clean energy produced in the EU increased by two thirds from 2007 to 2017 – owes itself to EU legislation stretching back twenty years. Of late, EU leaders have pushed harder on many fronts, such as the transportation sector, where its directives on lowering car emissions sets the bar in Europe (much to the dismay of the likes of Chancellor Angela Merkel and German automobile manufacturers, who tried to block it.)

Last year the EU agreed that renewables should make up 32 percent of energy consumed in Europe by 2030. The EU as a whole has already hit its 2020 goal of sinking greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent. And the EU has pledged that from 2021 to 2027 every fourth euro of the EU budget — one trillion euros ($1.15 trillion) — will go toward climate protection.

Some of the EU’s leading nations signal that they’ve heard the young activists, and are responding. Eight countries, led by France and the Netherlands, are challenging the EU to step up the fight against climate change and back a European Commission plan to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions “by 2050 at the latest.”

“There’s clearly more pressure than ever on governments,” explains Jörg Mühlenhoff of the Climate Action Network Europe, a Brussels-based group working on climate issues, who credits the FFF movement as one factor behind it.

The contrast can hardly be greater: the climate-denying, rabble-rousing shouts of the Eurosceptic hard right and the science-backed, policy-oriented, implicitly pro-European proposals of the young climate activists.

Europe’s nationalist populists did indeed chalk up gains in the vote, but not what they expected. Neither they nor the mainstream parties had anything to compare to the powerful spectacle of city streets from Sofia to Stockholm packed with concerned high school students demanding that their futures be taken seriously.

The EU has a new mandate, and it has the kids the thank for that lease on life. Its first priority has to be to meet their expectations – or face their wrath five years from now.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

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