Teen activists shake up politics in ageing Germany

Young Germans are making themselves heard with demonstrations over climate change on Friday, marking a passionate engagement with politics not seen since reunification in the fast-ageing nation.

Teen activists shake up politics in ageing Germany
Young people braved the rain in Munich for a Friday for Futures demo on March 15th. Photo: DPA

Inspired by Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, who began going 
on strike from school on Fridays, thousands of under 21s across Germany have 
been joining weekly marches rather than sitting in class.

Their sudden engagement has left politicians at a loss as to how to react,  observers said, noting that it could yet spark a change in policymaking that has long been dominated by pensioner concerns.

Thunberg will attend Friday's rally in Berlin and the excitement in the run-up to the event was palpable.

“We need all of you for March 29 to be an incredible strike,” said organisers of the Berlin demonstration on Twitter.

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

Jakob Blasel from Kiel already knows he will skip school on Friday even though he is preparing for crucial examinations this year.

“We are frightened for our future,” said the 18-year-old, an organiser of climate protests in the city on the Baltic coast.

“We want to bring about change in the political climate,” he said, demanding immediate measures such as the closure of coal power plants and more  environmentally friendly transport and agriculture policies.

Klaus Hurrelmann of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin noted that such teen activism has not been seen in Europe's biggest economy since reunification in 1990.

“It's very unusual,” he told AFP.

'Helpless and confused'

Youth involvement reached a trough during the 2008 financial crisis, but then slowly began to recover as online social networks provided a platform that allows for quick mobilisation.

Their engagement also comes during a sustained period of economic prosperity and low unemployment in Germany.

Analysts believe that Thunberg with her remarkable drive helped spark the 

“Her stubbornness, her strikes, her preparedness on the climate topic is being copied. In short, Greta is a model,” Hurrelmann said.

Thousands of young people in the northeast city of Rostock took to the streets on Friday, March 15th. Photo: DPA

The determination shown by the younger generation has left politicians “at once helpless and confused,” said the professor.

This is particularly the case for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative 

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier has urged students not to skip school. “The  demonstrations would not be less effective outside class hours,” he said.

But the chancellor herself has welcomed their fight — something that Blasel finds “ridiculous” as “the protests are directed against Angela Merkel and her government which has done nothing to stop the climate crisis.”

Generation battle 

Beyond the climate issue, the return of the youths to the streets is forcing political powers to reckon with them.

With seniors making up the biggest group of voters, critics have long accused political parties of pushing above all policies that favour pensioners.

One in five adults is now over 65, but the trend could be accentuated as more baby boomers leave the labour market in droves.

“The youth lack a clear policy on what our society will look like in 20 or 30 years”, and are now taking matters into their own hands, said Horst Opaschowski, who leads a research institute on future trends in Hamburg.

Observers believe that the youth revolt is the result of a yawning generation gap.

“A vote of defiance as clear as has been expressed in the last weeks (with 
the Friday demonstrations) is unique and should shake up the parties,” noted 
Spiegel news magazine.

At the same time, if the youths and their concerns are taken seriously, that could be an opportunity, said Hurrelmann. 

Lowering the voting age to 16 as suggested by the Social Democrats, junior 
partners in Merkel's coalition, or imposing a quota for candidates under 30 at 
the next elections, could encourage young people to join political parties 
which are seeking rejuvenation, he said.

By Isabelle Le Page

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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