Society, Media and Culture

Generation Climate Speaks: Politics for a Warming World

When 15-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg began her notorious strike in August 2018, few would have imagined that little over a year later her solitary crusade would have become a truly global movement. In September 2019’s Global Week for Future, millions mobilised from Italy to Canada and from Germany to India to protest political inaction on climate change. Yet this movement – outraged and inspiring – extends far beyond one person’s activism. The voices demanding radical change in the name of future generations are diverse and many. In this panorama, the Green European Journal turned to young activists around Europe and beyond to ask how they envisage political change in this time of climate crisis, and what their message is to Green parties and movements.

Argentina, Eyal Weintraub

Avoiding the climate and ecological crisis is the greatest obstacle of our generation. We know what we need to do. We have the technical knowhow and resources, yet everything indicates greenhouse emissions are still increasing year after year. Why? It’s simple. Big money has corrupted our political system. Globally, our elected representatives need billions of dollars every year to run their electoral campaigns. In last year’s COP 25 in Madrid, one of the biggest sponsors was ENDESA (Spain’s biggest polluter, directly responsible for 9.3 per cent of Spanish emissions). Avoiding the climate crisis goes directly against these companies’ economic interests. If we believe for a second that real, structural and radical change of the size needed will occur while the politicians who are supposed to be leading the way are financed by the world biggest polluters, we are being naïve beyond measure.

The international climate movement and Green parties must take into account various things if we’re to have a fighting chance. First, we must demand that dirty money leaves the political scene. Second, we must change society’s relationship with politics and achieve higher levels of involvement. Third, it’s imperative to hear and incorporate the voices of the Global South.

The time of passive civilians whose only contribution is voting every few years and (best case scenario) occasionally sharing a sensationalist Instagram post of the Amazon burning is over. This is not enough.

What we need is mass civil participation. Worldwide protests like the world has never seen. Insurgent grassroots movements, and grassroots-funded politicians who rely not on the donations of billionaires but on hundreds of thousands of small contributions from regular people like you and me. What we need is to acknowledge that it is the under-development, lower wages and exploitation of the natural resources of the Global South which has financed the higher standards of living In Europe, the US, and the rest of the Global North. We must accept that these countries must now pay their dues and absorb the majority of the costs of avoiding ecological crisis. Only then can we talk about a fair, just and sustainable transition to a brave new world we are proud to call home.

Australia, Patsy Islam-Parsons

We climate strikers are not experts in politics or public policy. We are not advocating for a particular political system, framework or ideology. And we certainly do not have a hidden political agenda. All we are asking is for our leaders to listen to the science and immediately develop policies that halt all emissions. We are asking that they act as any rational person would in an emergency. Tens of millions of hectares of land and more than 1 billion animals have burned during the Australian bushfires this season. And that occurred at “just” 1 degree of warming (above pre-industrial levels). We are asking our leaders not to gamble with our only planet.

But a practice we are not asking for is the setting of distant targets that are vague and fail to specify precisely how they are to be met. Such policies are not plans for climate action. They are plans to pretend to take action. Simply setting targets and then carrying on as usual does not count as sufficient action. Targets will not be achieved on their own. We need specific policies right now that actually ensure a stop on emissions.

My message to Green parties is essentially the same as for all political parties. There is no compromising with climate action. The question often raised is when are we letting “perfect” get in the way of “good”? At what point should Green parties accept some action instead of no action? Perhaps in some areas of politics such compromises can be used tactically with success. But with the climate, we have already let it get to a state of emergency. Taking action to secure a safe future for my generation and those to come has become a partisan issue. Weak targets for far off dates will not enable us to achieve the first step in the path to action. Unless you have targets in line with international scientific consensus (to achieve the 1.5-degree target as outlined in the IPCC SR1.5) that have concrete implementation plans, you are not doing enough.

Belgium, Adélaïde Charlier

We young people are mobilising to ask the political leaders to listen to scientists and to take action to address the climate crisis. This year’s results are disappointing: a failed COP, increased CO2 emissions, no implementation of the Paris Agreement, and discrimination campaigns targeting climate activists. Our system is clearly not ready to adapt and make the changes necessary to fight this crisis. There is a significant gap between the warnings of scientists, young people, and citizens about the necessary transition to a carbon-free society and the lack of action from politicians. As young people, we are worried. Worried that political leaders are not taking the climate crisis seriously. That fossil fuel lobbies and proponents of economic growth influence political decisions so strongly. That economic and political leaders rely on technology rather than mitigation. We are worried about the political blindness on climate justice, and that science is being ignored to the benefit of the few. We urgently need a system that integrates the limitations of our planet’s resources and that informs citizens, especially youth, about the urgency of a transition. 

Our actions have definitely had an impact: not a day goes by when the climate crisis is not in the debate. But we did not strike for a change of discourse. We are striking for concrete political actions. The European Commission’s Green Deal and its goal to make Europe the first carbon-free continent is a step in the right direction. The challenge will be to go beyond the political mantra and rapidly implement measures to achieve a carbon-free economy by 2050. Here, Green parties have an important role to play in ensuring that the Green Deal is adequately financed and that fossil fuel subsidies are stopped. A role in making the new Common Agricultural Policy coherent with the objective of the Green Deal. A role in shifting to sustainable transport and in developing the next generation of energy systems. A role in convincing the EU Council to support the Parliament and Commission’s goal for a transition, and to strengthen citizen participation and democracy.

Canada, Sophia Mathur

I am just 12 years old. I have known about the climate crisis my whole life. I have been lobbying parliamentarians for climate action in Canada since I was seven, and when I was nine I began lobbying the US Congress. 

The experts are saying that the climate crisis is a global emergency. My country Canada declared a climate emergency. We are the cause of this emergency – we’re doing it to ourselves, to animals, to the entire earth. And it makes no sense when you’re a child.

Adults need to think like children. They have to stop thinking about money and putting money first.

We have everything we need to succeed except for the ability to imagine a better future and the will of the people. 

Children use their imaginations and can see a better future.  Adults need to open their minds and do this too.

Everyone needs to get out on the streets every week to protest and show their community that we are not stopping until our future is secure. This will create political will. We can do this. Greta Thunberg has shown us the formula: grab a sign and get out there week after week after week.

My message to everyone is that we must all cooperate and listen to the experts including the IPCC, the Lancet Countdown, the Paris Agreement, and the Nobel Prize Economists. Environmental movements need to work together with politicians to build a better future, even when it seems that some politicians will never wake up.

We are in a climate emergency and we need to act like it!

In Sudbury Ontario, Canada, where I live, we climate activists work with local politicians and we even got our city to declare a climate emergency. Many people worked together to make this happen. If we can do this in Sudbury, we can do it around the world.

Czech Republic, Petr Doubravský

At this critical point, we need both to act quickly to phase out fossil fuels, and look critically at the system and society as a whole in order to make a better future. The climate crisis has strong roots in social and political issues. Climate change is uncovering the crisis of our current decision-making processes.

It is clear we know how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – or at least, we know where to start. Thanks to older generations, there are many technologies and opportunities to transform the economy. The past also teaches that our approach to technologies must be careful – we can use them as a tool but we cannot let them govern us.

It is no coincidence that countries struggling with climate solutions are also struggling with democracy and corruption, as seen in Poland, the Czech Republic or Hungary.

Though politicians should be responsible to us – citizens of this planet, their voters and those who have the power to choose – most of them renounce the public interest to protect instead the profits of a few that will be paid by the suffering of many. In this political system, we are not equal: as activists, we stand against the organised power of money, the fossil industry lobby and corrupt politicians.

All of this despite years of protest, direct action, petitions and meetings. Despite how 2019 represented a historic year for climate protests in many European countries. Particular success and major failure necessarily lead us to think about the new strategies and forms of the fight for our future. In the Czech Republic as in many eastern European countries, we need to bring the fight to official institutions – as Greens and Levica did in Poland.

We also need to focus on developing the organisational structures of the climate movement across regions. Due to Czech history, we lack the developed civil society found in most western countries. Now, we have the biggest motivation of all to start rapidly changing this.

Democratic Republic of the Congo, Remy Zahiga

We, young people from around the world, demand that political leaders urgently take climate action and respect the agreements signed on environmental protection. Many leaders hold conferences to call for urgent climate solutions, but their words have never been put into practice. That’s why we urge political leaders to respect their promises to citizens regarding the protection of planet. We can’t live by words; we want concrete actions. If these don’t come, we need to change the leaders, not the climate.

Some practices need to stop: the use of non renewable energies, which are at the core of the greenhouse gas emissions, and the financing of companies that are environmentally destructive. We need to turn instead to renewable energies, properly implementing regulations on environmental protection. The state has to severely punish those actors who are responsible for the destruction of fauna and flora. It will then be necessary to revise the regulation on environmental protection and make sure the law is applied to those who damage the environment.The state should also have a team responsible for monitoring the activities of companies working near protected areas, and producing environmental impact studies even before the launch of projects. 

I encourage ecological movements to keep up their fight to save our planet, in the name of future generations. Every living being is involved in this issue, and must speak out to denounce all acts which are harmful to nature. I applaud everyone’s efforts. Let us be the guardians of the planet, there to offer future generations a liveable planet!

Finland, Laura Kolehmainen

The era of identity politics must come to an end: it is dangerous to all. For movements working to halt climate change to try to take possession of the agenda and use it as an instrument to attract voters is counterproductive. Climate cannot be subject to any other agenda; it should be treated as a security question. I hope sufficient majorities can be persuaded to lift the climate question above daily politics. Remaining under 1.5 degrees of warming must become a precondition for all other politics and bargaining taking place in societies. Achieving that requires a long-term programme stretching beyond parliamentary terms. 

It is time for all political movements that want to remain relevant to do the visionary and strategic work necessary to put forward their suggestions for which policies are relevant to achieve the necessary emission reductions and build climate-proof economies, and on how state subsidies shape common lifestyles. Currently, very few political parties have done this convincingly. 

To regain the trust of the next generation of climate youth, partial solutions must end and suggested policies must result in real emission cuts globally. No more barring the emissions behind European borders or playing with numbers. The majority of emissions Europeans produce are consumption based, but that isn’t visible in the numbers and must be addressed. Coherence in climate policies is a must: currently, climate movements in Finland are campaigning to make the government apply its climate policies to the multinational companies that it owns, which produce more emissions than the state. 

If Green parties and movements want to be people’s choice for the climate vote, they must be more inclusive. By that, I mean ending the confrontation between people who live in cities and the countryside and educated elites and the working class. In Finland, green movement rhetoric often disparages those who live in rural areas. To be relevant to more people, the Greens should build their identity on something other than setting people against one another. As traditional parties like the Centre Party and Social Democrats lose their voters – young ones included – mainly to the nationalist Finns Party, it should be understood that playing at identity politics and ridiculing people only encourages this trend. If the opinion polls are anything to go by, the other side is better at it anyway. 

France, Lucie Renoud-Grappin

We are right now at a critical point in the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced. There are just months left to avoid a 1.5 degree Celsius rise of global temperature by 2100. According to current figures, this temperature will be reached between 2030-2052 – which will irremediably lead to a deadly 6 to 8 degrees rise at the end of the century. This crisis is multifaceted: climate change is one aspect, but so are the sixth mass extinction, energy and resource depletion, migration and social problems.

The political world seems – or pretends – not to be aware of this situation. Sustainable development – which has always been promoted as the miraculous solution – has been obsolete since the 1980s: eternal economic growth is impossible in a finite world, so we cannot achieve climate justice without economic decrease. Stopping greenhouse gas emissions is our only option. Politics should focus on making it possible to live within planetary boundaries without creating inequalities between rich and poor.

The political system itself should be changed so that it no longer is controlled by an economic system which places economic growth above quality of life. We need real democracies the world over – not borders that hinder solidarity, or lies from the government we vote for. The political world should never forget that it is nothing without the people it represents.

People need – and have a right – to know what’s happening. If the reality is alarming, so the information must be. Politics must listen to the science to make good decisions. It must stop deflecting the blame, and stop seeing citizen movements and individual behaviours as hope; it’s up to political leaders to set drastic measures. They must attach real measures to the state of climate emergency, dissociate from capitalism, leave behind free trade, limit the liberties that endanger living beings and the environment, and focus on developing the social sphere and education rather than economy, transport, and industry.

To all green movements and parties, I’d like to say unite. Big change requires time and masses of people. Time is running out, but the people are here. The revolution will come from us, or not at all. It’s not how we act that matters; it’s our objective.

Germany, Linus Steinmetz & Helena Marschall

In December 2018, Fridays for the Future activists striked for the first time in 14 German cities. By September 2019, we were 1.4 million in over 500 cities in Germany alone. While the movement has developed immensely in the past year not just in size but also in the methods and campaigning,  its underlying methodology remains consistent.

Primarily the youth climate movement is defined by the lack of time we have to stop the climate crisis and secure a liveable future. Because of this,, Fridays for Future never set out to change our political or economic system as a whole.Instead, we have always thought step by step, looking at  what can and needs to be done (such as a carbon border tax and a carbon pricing system) in the next few years in order to bring our economy in line with 1.5 degrees warming.

The choice to keep our demands simple and specific gives us a clear message that many people can unite behind.Expanding the narrative we tell about the climate crisis lets far more people take part in it, who are perhaps not so politicised or  more centrist leaning. We have built an incredibly inclusive movement, which makes us a link not only within the climate movement between NGOs and Civil Disobedience Groups, for instance, but also between all kinds of societal groups.

In order to keep up the momentum of youth school strikes, we will need to build innovative and effective campaigns, combining digital elements and grassroots action. We need to continue to convey the need for radical action in a popular, reasonable manner, and we will need to look to other (youth) movements in order to better utilise tools like social media.

In addition,  we will need partners in politics who don’t compromise their positions and continue to stress the urgency of the climate crisis without fail. This trend differentiates the Greens from other party movements. In times in which ecological tipping points are ever closer, this resolute approach is desperately needed. Our global climate system is not something that can be compromised on – even in less progressive governments. When taking on governing responsibilities, Greens will have to be consistent in the substance of their policy.

Hungary, Johanna Hartmann

Our only chance to stop the destruction of life on Earth is to step out from our human-centred point of view and liberate ourselves from chasing ever-increasing, joyless material consumption and economic growth. We must fundamentally change our way of thinking because this is the only way to change the future the world is facing: annihilation. 

 We must stress the compelling necessity of transformative change because, with their talk of clean energy and decarbonisation, today’s politicians seem to be engaged in something completely different. They are unaware that these things are not nearly enough. Failure to consider nature and equity means sacrificing them for material welfare and growing GDP.  

 We need actions that are based on oft-forgotten facts: we are part of nature and we have our limitations. To adapt, we need to implement decentralisation, localisation, and community-based solutions in our daily life. Nonetheless, political decisions and laws are needed to support these procedures. 

Green parties should not single out the climate crisis as their sole matter of focus, nor should they try to take advantage of growing public attention to climate issues. Instead, they must do everything in their power to enable real solutions to take centre stage. Talking about the complexity and the causes of the problem is crucial: take the initiative to emphasise the overuse and exploitation of our planet, since it shows best that we need transformative change. Show real alternatives to people and help green issues become social issues. Green party politicians need to be up to date with the latest science which identifies the fundamental leverage points that we should put into practice immediately. 

As for movements, it is vital to cooperate and to address both politicians and society to achieve change. We must point out both the common values that most of us believe in as well as the absurdities in the way our current world works. Instead of blaming people, we need to encourage them to do what they can while helping them recognise that the problems are systemic. We have to build communities and help people reconnect with nature since profound changes cannot happen without people and society changing too. 

Italy, David Wicker & Luigi Ferrieri Caputi

Today more than ever, profit is being put before life. Politicians, representatives, and leaders around the world do not want to acknowledge that systemic change is required to save us from climate catastrophe. 

It is easier for most of our leaders and politicians to imagine the end of the world than the end of our neoliberal system. We must put humanity, and future generations, back in our top political priorities. We must put life before profit.  

For this, we need a just transition. Climate justice is social justice. The necessary ecological transition must not be a burden on society and must be paid by the real culprits of the climate crisis. Just 100 companies are accountable for more than 70 per cent of global emissions. These are the ones to be blamed, not people that do not recycle their plastic bags properly. 

To fight the climate crisis and meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius Paris goals, we must cut global emissions by at least 7.6 per cent every year for the next decade. But it is not nearly enough to just follow the Paris Agreement. Policies must be much more ambitious to combat the climate crisis, and constant consultation with climate scientists and experts must be ensured. It is a matter of assessing the impact on emissions every time a new policy is considered. 

Finally, it is important to understand that the climate emergency is not a partisan matter. Political interests must not be put ahead of the climate emergency. We do not care which political party is in power. Whichever party it is, it must acknowledge its responsibilities on the climate emergency and its moral obligation to act concretely and efficiently to prevent the worst consequences of the climate crisis, collaborating with all political parties and consulting experts and climate scientists. 

The burden of the climate emergency must not be left on the shoulders of the young generations, and its consequences must not be paid by the lower tiers of society. 

Netherlands, Jesse van Schaik

The current climate emergency, which is getting worse and more devastating every day, does not only show how an amazing movement of people all over the world can start and grow. It also shows how a political and economic system can cause extreme crises. The political system that dominates the world today not only facilitates but even encourages world leaders to spread lies about the causes and consequences of climate change and to not take action in order to hold on to their power. This system is failing to provide the world and humanity with what it needs.

The change I would like to see in politics might sound radical, but it is necessary. The practises of always putting power and re-election first must stop. We must find a way in which personal win doesn’t count anymore, and the health and lives of people are prioritised instead. Politicians should work closely with both independent scientists and people like social workers who understand the day-to-day hardships faced by many people. This would make politicians listen to the hard facts about the climate crisis, and how the transition can be done in a fair way. Climate action and zeroemissions are urgently needed, and it should not be the poorest and weakest people in society who foot that bill, but rather the big multinationals who finally pay for the crisis they have largely caused.

My call to Green parties and climate justice movements would be to demand what is needed, and no less. There will be plenty of people (most of them old and white men) who will try to slow you down, discourage you and tell you that your fight is pointless or that it’s already too late. But it is not, and right now it is more necessary than ever. The science is behind us, and so are the people. This is the era of change.

Poland, Michał Kiwerski

In just one year, Fridays For Future has played a key role in politics and society, pushing the European Union to create the Green Deal and establishing international social awareness on climate. But to stop the climate catastrophe and create a better, fairer future, we need to do much more than focus on emissions. Today’s political and economic system has led us to the dangers of fires, famine and mass migration. Based on exploitation, it treats humans, animals and resources as a means to an end: gaining power, capital, or control. In a system where the 1% owns 83% of the wealth, the rest of the world stands no chance of creating real change.

That’s why we climate activists need to push for system change that will enable the least privileged – those who suffer most from climate catastrophe – to have a say in how the world is shaped.

In Poland, the fight against the climate crisis is especially difficult. The leaders of the main parties have no interest in our future or security; they’re interested only in winning the next election. Poland has the biggest coal-based power station in Europe (Bełchatów), many mines, and no real plan for energy transition. Climate change is ignored or even denied. The Polish president has claimed it’s possible to keep on using coal and care for the climate.

The Polish FFF movement has to constantly rekindle this topic in the political and public discourse. We have six demands to politicians and journalists in Poland. First, that politicians conduct policies and politics on the basis of IPCC data. Second, that the Polish government declares a climate emergency. Third, climate change and the crisis should be included in the core curriculum. Fourth, the media must take the responsibility of informing society of the dangers of climate crisis. Fifth, the Polish government should create an independent climate committee of experts, whose role will be to develop a plan to achieve climate neutrality by 2040. Sixth, that immediate measures are taken to implement a just transition to reduce emissions. The rights and needs of all those affected by the transition and crisis are to be respected and represented.

Spain, Tomás Castillo Claver

For those of us who have been active in environmental movements for some time, whether political or social, the arrival of a movement like Fridays for Future – in Spain, Juventud por el Clima-Fridays For Future – was a catalyst that gave headline importance to the climate crisis. Moreover, the decision to host COP25 in Madrid in December 2019 gave the Spanish climate movement a visibility we had never expected.

The visibility of Fridays for Future’s actions hasn’t always been accompanied with answers from the political actors in power in Spain. Even if we have seen nods towards our demands, we’re still far behind many European countries, and light years from the level of action called for by scientists. One gesture has been the declaration of a climate emergency by the Spanish parliament, later approved by the executive. The declaration brings a necessary roadmap but, for many organisations, among them Juventud por el Clima-Fridays for Future España, it’s insufficient.

In a country like Spain, where the “green wave” still hasn’t fully emerged, social organisations and movements are obliged to do what in other countries, or at the European level, is done by legislators. Our sister organisations in neighbouring countries are mirrored by political muscle that puts ecological initiatives into motion. In Spain, though we have the promises of a coalition government that has appointed an ecologically styled vice presidency, we have to fight twice as hard because ecologism isn’t strongly represented in parliament.

In a moment when it’s fashionable for political parties to want their small parcel of green voters, the genuine ecological formations ought to occupy the space that corresponds to them in this climate crisis. European Green parties should listen to both the young climate strikers and the scientific community that for years has warned of the consequences of climate crisis. The work of organisations like Fridays For Future consists of demanding from political organisations ambition and unprecedented measures to tackle this emergency. Now it’s time for politicians of all stripes to work to carry out these demands, and it’s up to Green parties to lead this space.

Until this moment comes, we shouldn’t lose hope. We need to keep up grassroots work by social movements calling for climate justice. Because if we’ve managed to get half a million people out onto the streets, why shouldn’t we be able to change everything?

UK, Lily Fitzgibbon

Moving forward, electoral reform is an important structural change that the UK needs to make. The UK is almost unique in Europe in the use of the first-past-the-post system, which holds back any major advances in green politics. In the 2019 general election, a 60 per cent increase in the Green vote share reflected the effect that the unprecedented climate activism of 2019 had on voter priorities. But in spite of this result, Greens didn’t win any more seats. The necessary change in politics will come only when the system allows it. 

There is still a long way to go in terms of changing voter priorities. Climate activist movements like the Youth Strike are overwhelmingly organised by under 18s who are ineligible to vote. So not only do we need to extend the franchise and empower young people – who have proven themselves mature and capable – through votes at 16, we also need to influence older voters, especially with an ageing population. We need to close the generational gap – climate change cannot simply be a youth issue. 

A key change, but possibly the hardest to bring about is a shift from our societal focus on unlimited economic growth and consumption. Whether on a national, global, or individual level, we need to move away from the idea that this is what brings happiness and success. We will be forced to change our modes of growth and consumption in the near future, but if we choose to make an active shift to a circular economy or implement some kind of a Green New Deal, the cost to ordinary people and workers can be controlled and mitigated. 

 The most important message of Green movements is one of hope. The sheer scale of action that is required in the face of ecological crisis makes one feel small and isolated. Fear leads to inaction. Despite being the “prophets of doom”, green activist spaces and movements are the most reassuring: realising that you are not facing this alone, that you are not the only person who cares, turns fear into hope for the future. Climate change will require so many steps that “act now” can be misleading. This movement, and the energy behind it, has to last throughout every step of the way. 

Week For Future: climate strikes accross Europe in September 2019.

This panorama is part of our latest edition, “A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond”.

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Generation Climate Speaks: Politics for a Warming World

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