Fourteen-year-old Franzi, who helps organize the climate-oriented Fridays for Future marches in Berlin, prefers angry responses from onlookers—like the father who shouted “fuck you” at a Munich demonstration blocking traffic in front of a school last month. “It shows that people are scared,“ she said. Now, after complaints, the kids have to protest peacefully on the side of the road under police supervision and the same father flashes them a thumbs up whenever he drives by.
In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report estimating that the world has 12 more years to radically reduce carbon emissions in order to avoid climate catastrophe. Since then, inspired partly by ninth-grade Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who in early fall 2018 skipped school to protest climate change outside the Swedish parliament, European-led climate protest movements Fridays for Future, Youth Strike 4 Climate, and Extinction Rebellion have gained traction, spreading across continents and oceans, and motivating ever-more people to disruptive nonviolent protest such as skipping school or blocking the roads. On March 15, it resulted in a climate strike featuring young activists in some 112 countries.
While headlines jump between Donald Trump and Brexit, these protests are designed to inconvenience, to force people to confront the current scientific research, and to offer a voice to children who can’t yet vote, but who will soon pay the price for climate inaction.
The language of the father that day in Munich is symptomatic of the increasingly frank—and frustrated—rhetoric around the issue. “If we don’t respond to this crisis as if it’s an emergency now, we are (very nearly) totally fucked,” British activist Liam Geary Baulch wrote to me via email.
Governments, so far, have not responded with similar urgency. In the face of an estimated 30,000 student protesters, including Franzi, across Germany in January, the German government’s coal commission still only agreed to quit coal by 2038—a date activists say violates Paris Agreement targets by being too far in the future. And while, in the United States, ambitious proposals such as the Green New Deal grow ever more prominent, they seem no nearer to being passed into law.
But despite a long history of governmental procrastination on climate change, some of the protest groups today still think they might be able to make a difference. The U.K.-founded Extinction Rebellion, in particular, cite the research of the political scientist Erica Chenoweth: that peaceful civil disobedience against a repressive regime can be effective if 3.5 percent of the population joins in. That percentage of the population of Germany would be 2.9 million people, or 11.5 million people in the United States. The protesters, despite the startling increase in their numbers in the first few months of 2019, are nowhere near those figures. But as they grow, they are provoking strikingly angry responses, highlighting the generational nature of the upcoming climate change conflict.
The student protests in Berlin take place every week in front of the parliament, at the edge of a so-called prosecco socialist neighborhood filled with pricey boutiques and commuters on bikes. But the hip leftist inhabitants can be quite spiky when the climate protests inconvenience them. Last month, on February 1, activists from Extinction Rebellion and the direct action group Ende-Gelände (in English: “here and no further”) ran onto the neighborhood’s main road and waited for the traffic lights to turn green. While some stayed in human-barrier-mode, the others walked between the cars with a batch of fliers in one hand, and a bag of oranges in the other. Some drivers opened the windows to accept a flier and a snack; others got out their cell phones to film the protesters. “I’m showing the police!” one yelled while filming. “Are you crazy?!” others shouted. “I’m going to run you all over,” another promised.
Last October, 26-year-old Merle and 21-year-old Clara from Berlin were among the Ende-Gelände activists who occupied a lignite mine in the Rhineland, whose mines emit more carbon than any other site in Europe. Last month, she was arrested along with 17 other activists after they tried to occupy two coal diggers at a plant in Lusatia, an eastern region where the coal industry is older than the current German constitution.
The workers who arrived at the mine at around 6 a.m. were not pleased to see them. (In theory, the group wants to communicate with the coal workers. In practice, Clara, told me: “it is hard to have a conversation when you have locked yourself into the excavator cab and are several meters off the ground.”) The police who arrested the activists held them in freezing squad cars for hours, responding to complaints with “It was cold on the digger too, wasn’t it?” The activists say they were called “scheiß Schwuchteln” (a homophobic epithet) and were refused water and bathroom use. One young man was hit in the face. Axel Vogel, the regional Green Party head, told me that there will be an inquiry into the police’s “very robust treatment” of the protesters.
At an intersection in one of Berlin’s most expensive neighborhoods last month, I watched my younger sister Linda, 21, take part in an Extinction Rebellion road blockade. She was looking small between the exhaust gases and the blaring horns. Later, we reminisced how, when we were both in primary school, our parents used to make us laugh with stories about the “Mueslis,” a nickname for the Green Youth teenagers who would show up at the annual school fair in Munich in the mid-1970s with a big plastic tub of wet muesli to promote a meat-free diet.
Now, Linda finds herself on the opposite side of the divide: a demonstrator for a cause many, particularly the older generation, are happy to support in theory, but find ridiculous or offensive when demonstrators get too earnest, too inconvenient, or too insistent. U.S. Americans saw a version of this in Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein’s patronizing response to children asking her to adopt the Green New Deal in February—Feinstein has repeatedly called for action on climate change in the past, but apparently finds the Green New Deal too radical. European activists see a version of this almost every week on the streets.
At an Extinction Rebellion blockade in February, as Linda walked between the cars with her flyers and oranges, the responses were varied. One man, who had the music turned up loud and a cigarette in his hand, stared at her with a confused expression and took the flyer.
Next up, a man in a white shirt rolled down the window of his big shiny car: “Du scheiss Öko Fotze, was denkst du wer du bist? Ich ficke dich mit Kohle.” (Translated literally: “You shit eco-cunt, who do you think you are? I will fuck you with coal.”) When Linda attempted to respond, the man honked over her voice. She moved on to try the car behind him.