Back but Different: Covid-19 Has Transformed the Global Climate Movement

As inspiring as it is to see Fridays for Future on the streets again, its enforced downtime during the pandemic has wrought changes in the climate movement, in Germany and beyond. Can it bounce back to have the global presence it had in 2019? And if so, how does it intend to make its voice count in the new context? Paul Hockenos has the story.

”We’re back!,” shouted Luisa Neubauer, the face of Germany’s Fridays for Future, in front of Brandenburg Gate on Sept. 25, “Oh, we are so back!”

Neubauer looked out over the Berlin leg of the Global Climate Strike, the first time the international climate movement had assembled in person since November 2019, a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, the climate movement did return to the streets, the agora of its cause – in cities around the world from Stockholm to New Dehli. The event announced its confident return and constituted an emphatic statement that the hiatus has not blunted the will of many young people to protest against inaction on global warming.

In Berlin, the rainy-day demonstration may have shown that the movement is persevering, but it was a changed movement from that of a year ago.

The crowd that Neubauer and the other speakers surveyed from the podium was definitely smaller than those in 2019: 20,000 people when counted generously (Berlin police estimated 8,000). According to FFF, 200,000 participated across Germany in 400 locations: nothing to knock, but a lot fewer than the September 2019 strike when an estimated 1.4 million took to the streets across Germany.

Fewer kids skipped school to attend, which is understandable given the health risk of a mass assembly, but it could also be a sign of protest weariness. The proportion of adults appeared higher than in the past, and more other groups, such as Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World), a relief agency sponsored by the German Protestant churches, took part. If Brot für die Welt’s involvement signaled more participation from the churches, then it was a step in the right direction.

Instead of a tightly packed crowd around the stage, police had cordoned off Tiergarten Park so that demonstrators could congregate only along the six carless lanes of Strasse des 17. Juni all the way to the Siegessäule column about 1.5 kilometers away. As far as I could see, which wasn’t much beyond my little section of the demo, everyone conscientiously wore masks and maintained 1.5 meters distance from one another. There were FFF Ordner everywhere designated to make sure of it.

This new, dispersed formation, however, muted the applause and caused the chants to fall flat, despite the fact that a few new ones (too few) were tested alongside the originals. One couldn’t help noticing there was less energy and fewer good vibes. Everybody just stood in their place, mostly motionless. I wasn’t that far away from Brandenburg Gate and I couldn’t see the stage.

But the acoustics were superb and the new accents on race, gender, and social justice came across loud and clear. The climate movement has learned from the Black Lives Matter campaign and the speakers reflected self-critically on the European climate movement being largely white and middle class. Those on the front lines of the climate crisis, they noted, lived in the developing world. Two LGBT speakers from Gender CC und Kali Feminists took the stage, too. A nurse spoke, too, the only person who even mentioned the pandemic.

Bravo for more diversity. But broadening the movement too much threatens to dilute it, and I heard less nuts-and-bolts climate talk: for example FFF’s analysis of the European Green Deal, Germany’s new carbon pricing, the government’s hydrogen program, big business’s jump onto the climate wagon, and other developments that the climate movement can, in part, certainly take credit for. Did it really take an hour before the Paris Agreement was mentioned? The movement can’t “fight every crisis” and still drive the issue of climate forward with the same force.

Another new development, one not evident at the Global Climate Strike, is the drift of some top activists to political parties. The Kiel-native Jakob Blasel, one of Germany’s original activists, will campaign for the Greens in the 2021 general elections, as will Urs Liebau from the city of Magdeburg. “The next Bundestag will be the last that can pass the laws required to meet the 1.5-degree target,” explained Blasel to the media. “We can’t leave any stone unturned to make this happen.”

The Greens come closest to FFF’s calls to action, but the movement’s demands go beyond those of the party. This has led some activists to broach the idea of a FFF party or a coalition of smaller parties that can unite and hurdle the five percent necessary to make it into the Bundestag. As understandable as it is that the activists want to get their hands on the levers of power and policymaking rather than just hectoring politicos from the streets, the involvement of parties in mass movements has often led to their splintering. FFF activists associated with the Left party, for example, aren’t happy in the least with Neubauer’s prominence. She is an active member of the Greens – but one who has ruled out running for office, at least in 2021.

”People didn’t think it was possible that we’d strike in the middle of the pandemic,” said Neubauer to the crowd.  The decision to return to the streets entailed enormous risks: should outbreaks of Covid-19 affect clusters of the thousands who turned out, the demonstrations could be discredited as rash and reckless, delivering a serious blow to the movement.

Hopefully this won’t happen. Thanks to FFF and its peers, the climate crisis remains a front-burner issue today, even in the age of a lethal global pandemic; two years after Greta Thunberg took to the stairs of the Swedish parliament, there is action on global heating that was nowhere on the horizon in 2018.

The entire climate movement has to morph and morph again in ways that keep it relevant on the most critical issue of our day. This might be the only way to keep the public’s attention in such challenging times.


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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