‘Grandma, what’s a polar bear?’: Students speak out at Berlin climate demo

More than 20,000 people, many of them students skipping school, joined Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg to protest against climate change in the German capital. Here's what they had to say.

'Grandma, what's a polar bear?': Students speak out at Berlin climate demo
Greta Thunberg speaking at the demo in Berlin on Friday. Photo: DPA

“Greta is cool, she is inspiring,” 16-year-old Maxima from Brandenburg said moments after the Swedish teen activist urged the crowd of more than 20,000 people in Berlin to keep up the fight against climate change.

SEE ALSO: Thousands of teens join Greta Thunberg's climate fight in Berlin

Maxima was one of many young people who had chosen to skip school to attend the Fridays for Future rally. In total more than 300,000 young people went on strike from school across 230 cities in Germany, the Fridays for Future group said.

Carrying creative signs with slogans like: ‘There is no Planet B’, ‘The planet is getting hotter than young Leonardo DiCaprio’ and a Harry Potter-themed ‘Even Voldemort knows this is wrong’, young people marched through the German capital.

SEE ALSO: Teen activists shake up politics in ageing Germany

With loud music and chants, there was a party atmosphere in the air.  But it was more than that: there was a serious message behind it.

The crowd became silent as anticipation for Thunberg’s appearance grew. As soon as the activist was introduced, those who had sat down cross-legged sprung up and phones went into the air to record the moment.

Although only the people who had made it to the front of the crowd could see Thunberg, her message was clear: “Today we are at least 25,000,” she said. “Thank you so much for coming. The older generations have failed tackling the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced.

The demonstration on Friday. Photo: DPA

“When we say to them we are worried, they just pat on our heads and say everything will be fine, don’t worry.

“But we should worry, we should panic. And by panic I don’t mean running around screaming. By panic I mean stepping out of our comfort zones because when you are in a crisis, you change your behaviour.

“I once again want to thank all 25,000 of you for being here today. We have gathered here today; we share a common will, we want a future. Is that too much to ask for?

“But we still haven’t seen anything yet. This is only the beginning of the beginning. Trust me.”

With that the crowd erupted.

SEE ALSO: Over 200 Fridays for Future demos taking place in Germany

'Politicians aren't doing anything'

Earlier in the day, the march had gathered at a city centre park. “We are the generation that can do it,” said Luisa Neubauer of Fridays for Future Berlin as she rallied the crowd.

Three Berlin students Luisa, Emma and Dilara were part of the march that ended at Brandenburg Gate at around 1pm.

Emma, 14, said: “We are here because the politicians say they are doing something but they are not doing anything.”

At their school teachers allow them to be absent for the demonstrations, they explained.

“All of our teachers are very understanding,” said Luisa. “You have to bring an excuse and they sign the certificate for you.”

The students said it’s mainly older children who join the demo but they also spotted a teacher from their school attending the event with kindergarten pupils.

Emma, 14, from a different Berlin school was with her friends Alex, 15, and Justus, 14. She was there because “it’s our future” and “we have to live with the consequences”.

Emma, Alex and Justus at the event on Friday. Photo: Rachel Loxton

The teenager said “it is a problem” that so many students miss out on lessons. “But we don’t have a choice, the politicians are not listening.”

However, Emma said she understood if students wanted to stay in classes and not demonstrate on Fridays. “It’s up to each individual student to decide,” she said.

Since December, teenagers across Germany inspired by Thunberg's climate fight have been marching weekly instead of sitting in classes.

Earlier in March, Thunberg joined over 4,000 students in Hamburg as they gathered in front of the city's town hall on a cold and cloudy day.

Emma said: “Greta is very inspiring, she’s doing something, she’s being heard.”

However, Emma said she understood if students wanted to stay in classes and not march.

“It’s up to each individual student to decide,” she said. “We hope it makes a difference.”

It wasn’t just young people at the event. As The Local reported, in Germany there is also a growing “Oldies for Future” movement in which pensioners join their much-younger counterparts every Friday.

There were people from other age groups and backgrounds too. Brianne Curran, 35, from Australia, described the young people’s power as “awesome”. “It’s so cool because they’re not following what they’re told they have to do at that age,” she said.

“They’re going against the system. They’re saying: 'We’re small and it doesn’t matter'.”

Carrying a sign that said ‘Water is life’, Curran said she also drew parallels with a demonstration in her home country which aims to raise awareness of what colonizing has done to the land and aboriginal people in Australia.

Meanwhile, music at the demo continued with one band changing the lyrics of Queen’s 'We Will Rock You' to “we want, we want change now”.

'If you're too young to vote ask your parents'

A series of speakers from different countries took turns to urge the crowd to be politically active and call for change.

One speaker from France said: “If you’re too young to vote (in the European Parliament elections), ask your parents and grandparents to vote.”

Some of the signs at Friday's march. Photo: DPA

Another speaker pleaded: “We are going to keep on striking until they (politicians) are listening.”

And her message to politicians? “Listen to the scientists. We are asking you to stand on the right side of history.”

SEE ALSO: How Greta Thunberg's school strike became a global climate movement

As older people with zimmer frames listened to the speeches, babies were being carried by their parents and nursery children were running around.

A poster that read: ‘Oma, was ist ein Eisbär? (Grandma, what’s a polar bear?)’ popped up from the swarm of people.

Angelina, 30, said there was a great atmosphere. “It’s just amazing with the kids here doing this. I go to a lot of climate change demonstrations but I’ve never seen energy like this at one before.

“It’s very impressive.”

'We want to keep this world'

After Thunberg's speech the organizers thanked the crowd for coming and said they'd see them next week.

Maxima and her friends Julia, 14, and Niklas, 15, said they would continue to strike on Fridays, even though at their school they have to take a day off and are not encouraged to do it.

It's caused controversy in Germany with politicians, such as Economy Minister Peter Altmaier urging students not to skip school.

Niklas (l), Maxima (second left) and Julia, with their friends at Friday's demo. Photo: Rachel Loxton

“We live in this world and we want to keep this world,” said Maxima.

“We think it's very important for children to come to these demonstrations,” added Julia.

Both agree that they are inspired by the work of Greta Thunberg. “She is brave and I am impressed,” said Julia.

Maxima added: “Greta makes a difference.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


UPDATE: Greta Thunberg joins German climate strikes before vote ‘of a century’

Tens of thousands of climate activists including Greta Thunberg descended on German cities Friday ahead of the weekend general election to crank up the pressure on the candidates to succeed Angela Merkel.

UPDATE: Greta Thunberg joins German climate strikes before vote 'of a century'
Greta Thunberg and other climate activists in Berlin on Friday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Speaking at a rally in front of the Reichstag parliament building in the run-up to Sunday’s poll, Thunberg told cheering Fridays for Future youth supporters that they needed to hold Germany’s political leaders to account past election day.

“It is clearer than ever that no political party is doing close to enough… not even their proposed commitments are close to being in line with what would be needed to fulfil the Paris Agreement,” on curbing climate change, she said.

“Yes, we must vote, you must vote, but remember that voting only will not be enough. We must keep going into the streets.”

As Germany’s top parties hold final rallies ahead of Sunday’s vote, the Fridays for Future youth marches claim the political class has let down the younger generation.

“The political parties haven’t taken the climate catastrophe seriously enough,” Luisa Neubauer, who runs the group’s German chapter, said.

She said Germany, as one of the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases, had an outsize responsibility to set an example, with time running out to reverse destructive trends.

“That is why we are calling this the election of a century,” she said.

The race has boiled down to a two-way contest between Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, the moderate finance minister, and Armin Laschet from Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats.

Polls give Scholz a small lead of about 26 percent over Laschet at around 22 percent, with the candidate from the ecologist Greens, Annalena Baerbock, trailing in the mid-teens.

Despite the urgency of the climate issue for a majority of Germans, particularly in the aftermath of deadly floods in the west of the country in July, this has failed to translate into strong support for the relatively inexperienced Baerbock.

She told Die Welt newspaper that she hoped Friday’s rally would give her party “tailwinds” heading into the vote. “The next government has to be a climate government – that will only work with a strong Green party.”   

More than 400 “climate strikes” are planned across Germany, with the Swedish Thunberg, who inspired the movement, expected to speak outside the Reichstag parliament building.

Thousands gathered on the lawn there from late morning bearing signs reading “Climate now, homework later”, “It’s our future” and simply “Vote”.

“Climate is an important issue and if this continues things are going to get worse and worse,” 14-year-old pupil Louise Herr told AFP.

Gathering under the banners “We are young and need the world!” and “Everything for the climate”, the activists are arguing that “climate crisis is this century’s biggest problem”.

READ ALSO: Climate change made German floods ‘more likely and more intense’

 ‘Unfair burden’

The activists will be part of a global climate strike in more than 1,000 communities around the world, Fridays for Future said.

Their central demand is to limit the warming of the Earth to maximum 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) as laid out in the 2015 Paris climate accord.

The Paris agreement set a goal of reducing global warming by two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels with an aspiration to go further and cap the rise to 1.5 Celsius.

Despite Merkel’s vocal support of climate protection measures, Germany has repeatedly failed in recent years to meet its emission reduction targets under the pact.

In a landmark ruling in April, Germany’s constitutional court found the government’s plans to curb CO2 emissions “insufficient” to meet the targets of the Paris agreement and placed an “unfair burden” on future generations.

The Fridays for Future movement launched global school strikes more than two years ago arguing that time was running out to stop irreversible damage from the warming of the planet.

Demonstrators take to the streets in Berlin to call for urgent climate action. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Luca Bruno

In September 2019, it drew huge crowds in cities and towns around the world including 1.4 million protesters in Germany, according to organisers.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic put the brakes on its weekly rallies but the election campaign in Europe’s top economy has revitalised the

“The climate crisis cannot be solved through party politics alone,” Thunberg told reporters ahead of her appearance in Berlin.

“We can’t just vote for change, we also have to be active democratic citizens and go out on the streets and demand action.”


Greens as junior partner?

Around 60.4 million Germans are called to the polls on Sunday and most voters cite climate protection among their top priorities.

All three leading parties have said they aim to implement a climate protection agenda if elected, with the Greens presenting the most ambitious package of measures.

However the Fridays for Future activists have said even the Greens’ official programme falls short of what is needed to stick to the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise.

The Greens want to end coal energy use by 2030 instead of the current 2038. They also want the production of combustion engine cars to end from the same year.

While the party is expected to fall far short of its ambition to win the election Sunday and place Baerbock in the chancellery, polls indicate it has a good chance of joining a ruling coalition as a junior partner under Scholz or Laschet.

By Deborah Cole