The Fridays for Future movement has called for a global climate strike on Friday 20 September 2019. In Germany, this date coincides with the promised presentation of the government’s action plans to combat climate change and adapt to its effects in order to meet to the goals of the Paris Agreement. Internationally, the climate strike is part of a Global Week for Future with public actions addressing the United Nations Climate Action Summit that will take place on 21– 23 September in New York.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called on national leaders to submit concrete, realistic plans to ‘stop the increase in emissions by 2020, and dramatically reduce emissions to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century’. The New York summit, therefore, will be an important touchstone for the commitments of national governments to their pledges and the workability of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The effective implementation of the Paris Agreement is also the main goal of the Fridays for Future movement. The Global Week for Future therefore provides a timely opportunity to review recent research on the achievements and potential challenges of the spectacular rise of this transnational movement.
Fridays for Future, as KHK Co-Director Dirk Messner explains in an interview with the magazine Der Spiegel, has put pressure on parties and the government to move climate change politics back to the centre of their agenda. While Germany once was a leader in environmental und climate policy, other countries like the United Kingdom, the Nordics and even China are now more advanced. What is needed, according to Messner, who refers to a recent report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on climate change and land, is a combination of technological large-scale projects and a rethinking of our lifestyles.
That is where Fridays for Future comes in. From the beginning, the school and student protests have combined demands for large-scale institutional and political changes with requests to everyone to reflect on their ecological footprint. Is every low-cost flight necessary? Are there alternatives to intensive meat consumption and the everyday use of high-powered SUVs? It is through this combination of political demands with credible personal lifestyle changes that Greta Thunberg as the lead figure of the Fridays for Future movement has gained high and mostly positive media attention.
While the impulse for Fridays for Future came clearly from Greta Thunberg’s three-week school strike in Stockholm in August 2018, the idea, transformed into Friday school strikes, spread quickly to other countries. A study by the Berlin-based Institute for political Movement Studies (IpB) reports that in Germany the first small demonstrations took place in Göttingen, Berlin, Kiel, Flensburg in December 2018. By August 2019, the movement in Germany had expanded to more than 600 local groups. In June 2019, an international demonstration in Aachen known as ’Climate Justice without Borders – United for a Future’ attracted, according to police figures, between 10.000 and 20.000 people, while according to the organizers the number of participants was even 40.000 (picture).
Who are the participants in this movement? According to the IpB study, Fridays for Future in Germany developed as a grass-roots movement of students, many of them attending high school. Young women are particularly active in the movement. For many of the participants, Fridays for Future activities are their first civic or political engagement ’on the street’. Personal contacts are the major pathway to mobilization, whereas parents, political parties or environmental organizations play a surprisingly small role. A comparative analysis of Fridays for Future in different European countries shows significant heterogeneity. In Sweden, it consists of an alliance between the young and the elderly – people between 14 and 19 as well as people older than 65 years are the largest groups in the movement. In Germany, in contrast, Fridays for Future is so far mostly a young people’s initiative.
What explains the rapid expansion and the mobilizing success of Fridays for Future? Taking stock of the results, Dieter Rucht and Moritz Sommer, who co-authored the IpB study with Sebastian Haunss and Sabrina Zajak, identify a bundle of five factors that fostered and stabilized movement mobilization:
- According to the authors, the particular success of Fridays for Future in Germany has to be seen in context. Scientific reports with severe warnings, the Paris Agreement as well as climate denial Donald Trump have given rise to lively and controversial public debates about Germany's commitment to energy and climate change policies. These were further fueled by local and national environmental scandals, such as the Dieselgate scandal and the planned clearance of the Hambach Forest for the extraction of brown coal, which have additionally fueled controversial debates. Nor should it be forgotten that Germany has a strong and well-organized environmental and ecological movement.
- It was against this background that Greta Thunberg's protest found broad resonance among students in Germany. The media, so Rucht and Sommer, were intrigued by the story of a young student who opposes political and economic elites and deliberately and persistently discusses with adults at eye level. Her own generation identifies with her as a student activist who is uncompromisingly (she strikes against compulsory education) committed to a goal that concerns the whole of humanity.
- The authors also highlight that from its beginning, the movement has articulated a specific and clearly formulated objective, which is to exhort the international community to implement its self-imposed goal from the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. This is a objective that can find broad support, and largely sidesteps questions of political and economic power distribution.
- Given that Fridays of Future developed bottom-up, Rucht and Sommer find that it has established a relatively effective and flexible organization structure and division of labor. Using social media as well as drawing on existing student committees at school, the movement so far was able to navigate the difficult balance of having some ‘public faces’ speaking to a general audience and relatively broad and inclusive communication and decision-making procedures.
- Last but not least, the authors argue that Fridays for Future has run a smart and effective mobilization and media campaign. It used a framing that can be described as a ‘mixture of catastrophic scenario and rescue mission’ , in other words, the irreversible effects of climate change; policies that choose economic interests over climate protection; and the responsibility young people to influence policy-making by political engagement.
So far, Fridays for Future has managed to maintain its autonomy while also developing alliances with other actors. It has been working closely with Scientists for Future since the publication of their statement in March 2019. The ‘global climate strike’ on Friday 20 September, seeks to broaden alliances further by calling out all generations in support of movements’ goals. A coalition of NGOs, churches and unions has joined forces in support. Demonstrations are planned in more than 400 German cities. Some companies and organizations plan activities to set a mark for climate policy on Friday. The University of Duisburg-Essen, for example, is calling their employees and students to use environmental friendly transport means on that day.
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