Politicians and energy sector professionals have scratched their heads for years about how to get citizens – whom they generally refer to as “consumers” – to change their habits in order to protect the climate. Now, a young generation is telling decision-makers that we can’t wait. Was ethics the answer the whole time? Craig Morris takes a look.
Whenever I am asked to tell a story that has inspired me about renewables, I always come back to this one: back in 1993, the football team in Freiburg, Germany, was so successful it advanced to the German Premier League. The stadium then needed to be expanded, and the community came up with an interesting campaign: those who invested in the solar roof on the new stands would be prioritized for season tickets.
Imagine, I remember thinking at the time, how far we could go if football fans everywhere embraced the transition.
It’s been 25 years, and something equally inspiring is finally happening: the school strikes for the climate, aka #FridaysForFuture. Reactions to the movement among adults largely break down into two camps: mine (“thank you, God, for sending us this generation”) and skeptics, who basically say, “thanks, kids – now stop skipping class.” A solar citizens group in Germany has responded with a legal review claiming that skipping class for the climate is legal (in German). Some German politicians want skipped classes for the strike noted, like all other missed classes, on report cards, but this might backfire: some businesses are already saying they would preferably hire students whose report card says they took part in the climate strikes.
— Craig Morris (@PPchef) April 10, 2019
However you come down on this issue, politicians who criticize these pupils risk losing an entire generation. From where I sit in Germany, where the movement is quite strong, the party landscape is currently under upheaval, with only the conservative Christian Democrats (Chancellor Merkel’s party) maintaining any semblance of an umbrella party at around a third of the vote. In recent polls, the Social Democrats – long equals of the Christian Democrats in terms of voter shares – have crashed down into the teens, with some polls putting them in third place just behind the rising Greens.
Age is a salient difference between Christian Democrat and Green voters. The average CDU voter is roughly 10 years older than the average Green voter. What’s more, the CDU loses voters towards the younger groups; in the 2017 federal elections, nearly twice as many of those over 70 voted for the CDU than did those under 25, but the situation was the reverse for the Greens, who got more than three times as many of the youngest voter group than the oldest (source in German).
Now, you might argue that people simply become more conservative with age, so the CDU has little to worry about. Perhaps you’d quote the old adage: “If you’re not a socialist at twenty, you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative at forty, you have no brain.” To which I might respond that this notion is “plainly wrong” or at least “difficult to tell.” Maybe – think gay marriage or, for an older generation, sex before marriage – society is shifting. If so, young voters might be the breakthrough for climate policy.
Numerous top German politicians fail to see the danger. The new head of the CDU, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has said pupils should not skip school to demonstrate (in German). She, like so many of her colleagues, is just changing the subject. Or perhaps I should say: the pupils are changing the debate.
At every conference I have attended professionally, our best thinkers have essentially asked one question: how can we set a price signal to get people to do the right thing? No one has the standing any longer in our irreligious societies to make ethical demands; you don’t want your power company telling you to conserve energy any more than I do. So who can tell everyone today to do the right thing?
Young people can, as anyone with children knows.
That’s why School Strikes for Climate inspires me so much: the movement has the potential to turn a decades-long, largely ineffective debate about cost-effective price signals into an ethical debate the likes of which we have not seen since, well, I can remember.
How far can we go how quickly on ethical grounds? Already, flygskam (flying shame) is reportedly a thing in Sweden. Make climate-unfriendly behavior disgraceful, and you might have massive change – without even having to find the right price. Or, to come back to the football example: a real SC Freiburg fan invests in solar.
I’m not saying it will be automatic or even easy. We will still have to win over hearts and minds once we put ethics in the foreground. And for the upcoming EU elections, of course, the strike will change little (latest polls); many of kids are still too young to vote.