Fridays for Future Shifts Gears

In the Corona crisis, the climate movement struggles to find its voice. Paul Hockenos gives us an update about the challenges the movement is facing under the current circumstances.

Friday for Future has suspended all public demonstrations. (Public Domain)

Since mid-March, Invaliden Park in Berlin, for over a year the location of the Friday school strikes, stands bare and eerily silent. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Fridays for Future in Berlin, as across Germany and beyond, has suspended all public demonstrations – until now the movement’s mainspring and source of its high-profile media image as well as donations. “In a crisis we change our behavior,” tweeted Thunberg last week, “and adapt to the new circumstances for the greater good of society.”

With schools closed, the weekly strikes, which had been waning anyway, make no sense at all. The Global Climate Strike, an international demonstration scheduled for April 24, has been called off. Thunberg proposed that FFF go digital by blanketing the Internet and social media with images of their posters.

Thunberg’s tweets don’t let on, but the virus and the public lockdowns have thrown the movement, which had been struggling lately anyway to build on its spectacular protests of 2019, into confusion. How can it pressure governments or businesses when gatherings of more than 50 people are banned? How can the movement attract media coverage? Will ordinary people faced with children at home or sick relatives or no jobs care about the climate when the Corona crisis has turned their lives upside down? And will countries now sideline climate protection in order to put all of their energy and monies into fighting the pandemic?

“We’re trying to figure things out now,” says Luisa Neubauer, the 23-year-old face of FFF in Germany, often referred to as “Germany’s Greta.” During the height of the protests in 2019, Neubauer was a constant presence on talk and news shows. “Beating the Corona virus is the first thing we have to do,” she says, “but the fight to save the climate can’t stop. It will continue in other ways and when this crisis is over the climate crisis will look different. We may even have a better chance.”

“We know that political will, when it is there,” Neubauer says, “can move mountains. We are experiencing this right now in the Corona crisis.”

As for Thunberg’s call for digital activism, Neubauer admits that it can’t replace what FFF had accomplished on the streets. “But our generation and the climate movement are already digital,” she says, “and there are things we can do.” Already, the German branches have an Internet learning program on Youtube for the millions of children not attending school.

But Neubauer’s optimism may prove illusory. The Corona virus only adds to the formidable challenges now before the movement – and in an incalculable way.

Even before the Corona crisis broke out, FFF was in the midst of soul searching and experimentation. Though the movement had roused millions of people to their feet in 2019, including a new generation of politically minded young people, its denizens were disappointed with the end results: their governments did not respond with the resolute, far-reaching measures that would enable them to hit the goals of the 2015 UN Paris accord, which would keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

A seminal moment for the German FFF was on Sept. 20, 2019, when in the largest climate demonstration of the year tens of thousands of protestors clogged Berlin’s city center, and over a million more took to the streets in 500 other German cities and towns. As the Berlin demonstration unfolded, just a stone’s throw away at the offices of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the government announced its long-awaited climate policies package. But the proposal fell egregiously short of the school kids’ demands: namely that Germany set policies that would enable it to rely on 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, exit coal use by 2030, and achieve carbon neutrality by 2035. Eventually, the activists demanded, there should be a tax of €180 on every ton of expelled carbon. These benchmarks, claimed FFF, were what Germany required to hit the targets it had signed up to in Paris in 2015.

“It was bizarre, scandalous, how bad it was,” says Neubauer about the German climate protection package, which for example proposed a €10 a ton tax on CO2. “Despite all of the demonstrations and lobbying, everything, what came out wasn’t even an attempt to meet the Paris Agreement. We had to explain to our supporters why we had expected results and didn’t get them. There was a shift in spirit [in FFF circles]: from hopefulness to outrage.”

The Germans, too, shifted course, moving away from the school strike and addressing the state to activism at the community level, the targeting of businesses, and intervening in election campaigns. “Businesses are more flexible, they can change faster than states,” says Neubauer. “They have to step up and help us make governments change.”

FFF Germany set its sights on the multinational giant Siemens, which had recently invested in a new Australian coal mine – a small investment for Siemens, but a media-savvy target for the climate activists. In January, they besieged the company’s headquarters in Munich and other offices, delivered a petition of 57,000 signatures to Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser, and Kaeser met one-on-one with Neubauer. The media hype was huge and persistent over a long week. But, in the end, despite all of the hullabaloo, Siemens opted not to cancel the project.

In targeting elections, FFF has done somewhat better – which has greatly benefitted Europe’s Green parties. In polls, Germany’s Greens have tripled their tally of the 2017 general election, which has turned them into the country’s second strongest party. In Hamburg, where FFF put 20,000 on the streets two days before the February 24 vote, the Greens doubled their result over five years ago.

Now, however, FFF’s path forward is unclear. Even before the Corona virus, the number of student strikers in Invaliden Park was growing thinner: hundreds rather than thousands. If the movement is denied the streets for months, it may find its resources drying up and activists demoralized.

“At best, what can happen,” says Neubauer, “is that we turn the crisis experience into a crisis management experience. Because we are now tackling a crisis collectively, in solidarity and sustainably, we can learn how to cope with others. This can be helpful for the climate crisis,” she says.


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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