Just hours after what was likely the largest worldwide climate demonstration ever—the global climate strike on Sept. 20 led by the Fridays for Future student movement—Germany illustrated just how impervious governments can be to pressure from the streets. In more than 160 countries, an estimated 4 million people protested the international community’s weak response thus far to global warming, and no country rallied more than Germany: as many as 1.4 million in 500 locations from the Baltic Sea to the Alps. In Berlin, around 270,000—according to the organizers—marched in front of the chancellery while Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ministers deliberated on the content of the long-awaited new “climate package,” which was meant to double down on cutting greenhouse gases—a direct response to the tenacious Fridays for Future movement, as well as two summers of extreme weather and alarming reports from the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
But the Merkel administration’s product, released the same afternoon, was a crushing disappointment. Despite the $60 billion price tag, its proposals were halfhearted and, in terms of time frame, cautious—a fraction of what the climate movement and experts had called for as necessary to curb rising temperatures and hit climate international targets.
Most controversial was the magnitude of the carbon dioxide tax, which should function as a deterrent to fossil fuel use. The administration wants to start pricing carbon at $11 a ton in 2021 and have the levy climb to $38 per ton by 2025. In stark contrast, the opposition Greens want to begin immediately with a $44 carbon tax, while the Fridays for Future campaign demands that the fee reach $198 per ton of all greenhouse gases as quickly as possible. (The figure hails from the German Environment Agency, a state-funded institution, which estimates the damage of a ton of carbon emissions at $198.) Patrick Graichen, the director of Agora Energiewende, a Berlin-based think tank, called the low price a “bad joke.” Other experts chimed in, saying that the proposed tax would change very little.
Nevertheless, in Germany and elsewhere—including the United States, where tens of thousands of people took to the streets—the protests marked a new stage in the international campaign to halt climate change. Governments such as Germany’s may not respond directly or at once to pressure from the streets. But if the movement perseveres, it’s only a matter of time until it affects politics as usual—as long as it pursues its goals in a way that combines idealism and pragmatism.
The history of social movements offers important strategic insights that climate protesters would do well to keep in mind:
- Mass movements don’t usually change things overnight.
The German government’s perfunctory proposals, as well as those that will surely come in other countries, shouldn’t discourage extraparliamentary campaigners. Nonviolent grassroots movements build up momentum and critical mass over time and tend to change political consciousness on a broad scale before their concerns are translated into policy. There’s no better example than Germany’s anti-nuclear energy movement that began in the 1970s and continues today. By the time of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, it had already familiarized the West German public with the dangers of nuclear energy. But Chernobyl was the tipping point, after which no single new reactor ever again went online in Germany. When in 2011 reactors at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant melted down, it was Merkel who definitively pulled the plug on nuclear energy in Germany—an act unthinkable for a conservative politico had the broad, persistent anti-nuke movement not laid the groundwork.
Those politicos today who try to squeak by doing as little as possible on climate, like the Merkel administration, could well pay with their offices. This old guard will likely be replaced by parties attuned to the new conditions, at the latest when the teenagers are old enough to vote. In Germany, and elsewhere in northern Europe, the Green parties’ steep ascent since the Friday protests began a year and a half ago—from 9 percent in the 2017 German general election to 22 percent today in polls—illustrates how effective the movement has been in changing consciousness and can be elsewhere, too.
The hitch, of course, is that the climate protection movement doesn’t have 40 years—and the scope of the transformation of economy and society is many times more daunting than the single issues of social movements past. The U-turn has to happen in the near future, say climate scientists. But cause for optimism: Just a year ago, there wasn’t an international climate movement at all.
- Stay positive and nonviolent.
One of the Fridays for Future movement’s greatest assets has been its unstinting positive and hopeful perspective—and commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience. The reports from the front lines of global warming, the slew of new books depicting apocalypse, and the sheer magnitude of the planet’s plight are enough to send anyone in an emotional downward spiral, and all too often one hears resignation and fatalism in the voices of people who have informed themselves about the advance of global warming.