I vividly remember my first climate strike in Berlin, in January 2019. That moment felt like the beginning of something huge.
After weeks of organising youth groups from all over the country to sign our open letter to the German coal commission, we went on stage to speak in front of its members on their last regular meeting-day. Not only the five of us had gotten together for the first time to urge the men and women (mostly men, though) inside to set a phase-out date in line with the Paris Agreement: 10,000 pupils were gathering outside demanding their elected leaders to take action in order to guarantee a livable future for everyone.
In retrospect, this strike was one of the catalysts for the largest youth movement in German history. Being part of Fridays for Future for almost two years now, it is safe to say that this time has been the most educational and the most challenging of my life. Activism – with all its ups and downs – has allowed me to use my privileges to stand on the right side of history.
With our country shutting down for the second time this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we are able to take a quick breath and summarise the influence our movement has had on global politics so far. Thinking about our successes and shortcomings can help us figure out where we are headed and what needs to be done now.
As I am writing these lines, we are just one week after what may have been one of the most important elections of our lifetimes. Joe Biden will become POTUS in January. Contrary to the current president, he ran his campaign on a plan to steer the US into science-based climate action working to end the usage of coal, oil and gas. Some vague goals around climate neutrality by 2050, introduction of carbon tariffs and abolition of fossil fuel subsidies in the US are set. These will undoubtedly help moving forward on the issue, but as of now they won’t suffice in limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees celsius and in averting a climate catastrophe.
While the country is still arranging the transition from Trump to Biden and its majority in Congress is still unclear, our own focus has to broaden. At the same time, the EU Commission has implemented the Green New Deal to become climate neutral by 2050. China announced last summer the same intention for 2060, Japan and South Korea both by 2050. Make no mistake about it: this is the achievement of millions of people all around the world who have tirelessly organised and attended demonstrations, sit-ins and school strikes; who have reached out to their elected officials via email, Twitter and phones; who have pushed their local media outlets to put more emphasis on the climate crisis; who voted for climate action in local, state, national and EU-wide elections.
“Our elected leaders are using taxpayers’ money to accelerate our way into climate catastrophe”
And, unfortunately, this is not enough. Two problems arise with regard to these long-term goals: First, they are not in line with the Paris Agreement and the goal of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees celsius. Similar to the US, European countries as well as heavily-industrialised nations like Japan and South Korea have to become carbon-neutral much sooner than 2050. Although societal and economic tipping points in the upcoming years could accelerate climate action, it is highly unlikely that the climate tipping points will not be triggered if we wait one moment longer.
This leads us to the second shortcoming: while politicians are quick to set targets to reach in 20, 30 or even 40 years, they mostly lack the ambition to champion climate action within their periods of office. It may sound overstated, but much of the future of civilisation will be decided by the actions of our elected leaders in the upcoming years. Building new coal plants, pouring billions into fossil gas infrastructure and delaying a much needed agricultural revolution another seven years are some of the proofs of the EU gridlock for decades to come.
The G20, who are responsible for almost 80% of global emissions, have failed to use their COVID-19 funds to invest in green infrastructure. Instead, they have committed to pouring 230 billion USD into fossil fuels to restart their economies after the pandemic. While the effects of the climate crisis are visible in wildfires, floods and storms all around the world, our elected leaders are using taxpayers’ money to accelerate our way into climate catastrophe. At the same time, they are celebrating themselves for setting distant targets long after their own political careers. By no means should that be our standard for politics.
Going into the third year of the global youth climate justice movement, this will again be a decisive period. For the next 10 years, the UN states that global emissions have to dip by almost 8% per year in order to limit the worst consequences of the climate crisis. Having pushed the issue to the top of the agenda, it is time to put even more pressure on political and business entities to make uneasy decisions in the upcoming months.
Worldwide, money has to be redirected from projects that rely on coal, oil and gas to renewable ones. This means that the decisions about the COVID-19 funds must be challenged as long as the billions have not been spent yet. Furthermore, fossil subsidies have to end now. To put things into perspective: in Germany alone, around €50 billion of taxpayers’ money are spent each year to subsidise fossil fuels by creating tax incentives or unnecessarily bailing out fossil corporations. Thus, we are keeping them artificially alive.
That emphasises the need to break agreements about new fossil infrastructure projects. Fulfilling all of the contracts about coal power plants or gas pipes that have already been negotiated will make it impossible to limit the climate crisis to safe levels. Globally, we have to talk about creating a legal basis for companies and governments to break contracts that contravene the Paris Agreement.
Right now, we have the technologies to make big leaps in the fight for a future based on the principle of climate justice which puts the interest of its people first. What we need is decision makers who are willing to commit themselves to ambitious climate action and not postponing inconvenient processes to their successors. The good news: in democracies, we can put pressure on our politicians to advocate in our best interest. And if they don’t, it is up to us to vote them out of office for it. So let’s make them fear as much about their own political career as we do about the future of humanity.