Fridays for Future: German climate protesters face fines for skipping school

Young people taking part in Fridays for Future anti-climate change protests in North Rhine-Westphalia could be hit with fines for skipping classes, local media reported Tuesday.

Fridays for Future: German climate protesters face fines for skipping school
Students taking part in the demo in front of Cologne main station on Monday. Photo: DPA

Young people have been camping out – day and night – in front of the main station and the town hall in Cologne in a protest against climate change before the summer break starts in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).

But pupils who miss school due to the protests could face serious consequences.

When approached by the Rheinishe Post newspaper, the NRW education ministry pointed out that school attendance was compulsory even in the last week before the summer holidays.

“Participation in student strikes during school hours must not be at the expense of school attendance and is therefore inadmissible,” the ministry said.

Fridays for Future tweeted that the first day of the strike action was filled with workshops, discussion, live music and lots of people. “We no longer settle for empty promises,” they said.

That means a violation of compulsory school attendance could result in consequences, such as the action being permanently logged on students' records.

“For example, an unexcused absence from school is documented on the (students' yearly) certificate,” the ministry said.

According to the supervisory authorities, fines could also be imposed in extreme cases. “However, it is not yet possible to say how high these fines could be because there are no empirical values,” said Sabine Mistler, chairwoman of the Philologenverband (Philologists Association, a union of high school teachers) in NRW.

“They could, however, be in the range of €100 to €150.”

READ ALSO: 'We are unstoppable': Climate activists occupy German coal mine

'Signpost for legal help'

Student and demo organizer Lucas Mielczarek has started a group on Whatsapp for pupils who are facing punishment from their schools for taking part in protests.

“It is the first point of contact for them in their search for help in legal matters, and a signpost for legal help,” said Mielczarek. He added that some pupils have already reported problems. 

A young person at the demo in Cologne. Photo: DPA

“There are schools that take action against students who take part in the protests,” said Mielczarek, who's from Düsseldorf. “The schools introduce the obligation to provide a certificate on the relevant days or impose sanctions such as extra tasks on the pupils.”

But he stressed that not all schools are reacting in this way. Some formally write down the absence, but let the pupils know it will not appear permanently on their record.

Mielczarek believes the threat of fines is scaremongering from school authorities. He hopes that pupils and schools will find a solution together.

Mistler also called for better communication between students and schools.

“If the pupils can credibly show they are serious about the matter and not only want to be off school, then it should be easier for the school management to find a solution,” she said.

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

The anti-climate change demonstrators want to keep their peaceful five-day protest in Cologne underway until Friday.

Launched by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, 'Fridays for Future' has seen pupils “strike” against school teaching each Friday for months across Europe, including all over Germany.

SEE ALSO: 'Grandma, what's a polar bear?' – Students speak out at Berlin demo

“This week, our core demands are to declare a climate emergency and adhere to the Paris Agreement,” said Lili Braun, spokeswoman for the Cologne branch.

“Germany is one of the countries in Europe that will not meet its climate targets at all,” Braun said. Something must finally be done.”

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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