Don’t Sabotage the Climate Movement by Turning to Violence

Don’t Sabotage the Climate Movement by Turning to Violence

Don’t Sabotage the Climate Movement by Turning to Violence

The climate movement is panicking. It shouldn’t.


Greta Thunberg may be the face of the global climate justice movement, but Luisa Neubauer is its strategic mind and most articulate orator. Neubauer, a German climate activist with Fridays for Future, is a fierce adversary of the fossil fuel industry who regularly dismantles mealymouthed national officials on German talk shows.

A 25-year-old geography student and Green Party member, Neubauer seems to be everywhere at once: in France protesting oil pipelines, in Brussels blasting EU backsliding on the Green Deal, on podcasts with climate scientists, launching new books, and appearing on endless Fridays for Future brainstormings and public Zoom conferences. “What’s so new and future-oriented about Neubauer,” said Peter Unfried, an editor at the leftist daily Tageszeitung, “is that she doesn’t allow herself to be reduced to a cultural identity, a milieu, a class, an ideology, or even a party—and this is precisely what constitutes her position of power and her enormous influence on the current political conversation.”

Neubauer, who always makes time for journalists, told me that despite the pandemic, the movement has grown and diversified. “Today there’s all generations, not just school kids, but also the churches, scientists, the LGBTQ+ movement, human rights advocates, and many more involved. Hence there is not and there shouldn’t be just one single plan of action,” she said, referring to the climate movement’s palette of hunger strikes, legal challenges, divestment campaigns, street blockages, and cities declaring climate emergencies. “Every new voice, every new group contributes something different, including new methods of resistance.”

Global climate politics are in a wholly different dimension than they were four years ago—thanks largely to the grassroots movement, originally led by Fridays for Future. The street protests and school strikes broke down walls—in public consciousness and the halls of power—that climate scientists and environmentally minded politicos had flailed at for a decade.

The climate crisis has become an urgent public concern just about everywhere and in many places has shot to the top of the political agenda. At the UN climate summit in Glasgow last November, all participants acknowledged that they must, at the very least, “phase down” coal generation. Glasgow kept alive the Paris Agreement’s aim to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels and 130 states pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. So critical was the momentum of the climate movement to these milestones, activists can claim Glasgow’s incremental but important progress as their victory, just as they can take credit for making the European Green Deal the EU’s No. 1 priority and many states adopting new pro-climate policies.

But, acutely aware of the latest climate science, Neubauer, Thunberg, and their colleagues across the world understand that these steps are not sufficient to hold global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius. “Protest movements draw attention to an issue as do fire alarms,” Tadzio Müller of the anti-coal group Ende Gelände (Here and No Further!) told Der Spiegel. “They change public opinion, and then politicians must act accordingly. But they don’t act.… We’ve had 26 climate summits, and emissions are rising,” he said.

Despite Neubauer’s upbeat demeanor, disappointment in the movement runs deep, compounded by the recognition that media coverage of their street protests waned last year. No doubt the pandemic slimmed the size of protests, but the tens of thousands of people, young and old, on the streets marching for the planet’s well-being doesn’t pack the punch that it did a few years ago. Admittedly, the once-so-perky chants rang a bit tired and, critically, the youngsters skipping school en masse—a radical act of civil disobedience—stopped almost completely because of the pandemic.

“So this raises the question,” Müller said. “What do we do now?”

Fresh forms of protest are, of course, required. But some frustrated activists are dropping hitherto successful methods of civil disobedience—perhaps too quickly. The strategy to pressure ordinary people to grasp the severity of the crisis, on the one hand, and push the political class to act resolutely in the interest of the planet, on the other, remains the right path for the lion’s share of the movement.

Take Germany’s Klimaliste, or Climate Slate, which emerged last year to run single-minded climate candidates in elections. “We need to go from the streets into the parliaments,“ Alexander Grevel of Klimaliste told me. As for the Greens, the favored party of many but not all German activists: “They’re not nearly green enough.”

Klimaliste goes significantly beyond the Greens by demanding an immediate eightfold ramping up of the national CO2 tax to 200 euros ($229) per ton, which Grevel claims would enable Germany to hit net zero emissions by 2025. Wind and solar energy must be built out sixfold in the next three years, according to Klimaliste.

Yet Klimaliste, which ran in 20 cities in September, attracted just under 4,000 votes—not even a pinprick. In regional elections it’s done better, but never broaching even 1 percent of the vote. Perhaps one could say this is how many Germans are willing to go beyond the Greens’ suggested price of 60 euros per CO2 ton by 2023, by far the most ambitious proposal among the established parties. The electoral arena is key to the climate movement—a transition is possible only if political decision-makers move at once and boldly—but additional parties that sap the resources and votes of the most committed environmentalists probably hurt more than they help. Thus far, they’ve had no impact on climate policy.

Other factions endorse radical forms of direct action to jar the public awake, force system change, and even disrupt the workings of the fossil fuel industry. Extinction Rebellion, a global alliance based in the UK, has staged street blockades since 2019, among other actions, disrupting traffic and commerce. It agitates for replacing our “fake” democracies with devolved, citizen-led models. This is a noble vision, but insisting that system change come before progress on decarbonization, rather than together with it, is a diversion we don’t have time for.

Germany’s Ende Gelände occupies coal mines, stopping production for hours at a time, which, at least at first, garnered spectacular media coverage. It promises to step up its actions and move beyond largely symbolic civil disobedience. If the system is so broken that it can’t deliver consequential climate policies, then the movement, it says, has to strike the system itself. Acts of sabotage on a wide scale can reduce economic activity, and thus lessen emissions, they reason. This summer, Müller predicted, Germany will see “smashed car showrooms, destroyed cars, sabotage at gas-fired power plants or pipelines” and “demolished highway construction sites.”

Should this not work, Müller has warned that a kind of “green RAF,” referring to the urban guerrilla Red Army Faction that assassinated politicians and businessmen in 1970s West Germany, could emerge in Germany.

Neubauer doesn’t condemn most of the harder tactics: Fridays for Future is an umbrella movement whose supporters work simultaneously with other groups, including Klimaliste, Ende Gelände, and Extinction Rebellion. But she argues that FFF’s success has been its penetration into the mainstream society and its ability to affect elections, like the 2019 EU parliament vote and Germany’s 2021 federal election, which focused on the climate crisis. An FFF-spearheaded legal challenge prompted Germany’s highest court to rule that the government must ratchet up its climate policies for the welfare of future generations.

“One reason we manage to attract hundreds of thousands is that we channel our anger and impatience towards real strategies,” said Neubauer. “One of our core competences is mobilizing masses, which is an irreplaceable demonstration of people power.”

Climate protection and jobs are not mutually exclusive, she told me, a point most Germans now seem to accept. “The idea of a climate-justice society can only succeed if there is a common purpose, a vision, large number of people are willing and excited to unite behind. It’s a mistake to make it us against them,” she said.

“Resorting to violence would simply alienate the average German, just as it did in the 1970s,” said Unfried, referring to the terrorism of the urban guerrilla groups. “FFF opened the door to the heart of middle-class society and really set things in motion. But it knows that change won’t come from movements alone but from the political systems that we have, our democratic systems, however imperfect they are. In Germany now we have some good, climate-conscious people in government, which the movement has to push, yes, but not too hard or it will backfire.”

Indeed, the presence of the Green Party in Germany’s new, centrist coalition government presents the movement with a dilemma. While the climate movement is largely responsible for the public consciousness that enabled the Greens to score a record high 15 percent in the vote and occupy four ministries central to climate issues, even party members like Neubauer are critical of the Greens’ compromises and policy proposals that fall short of the Paris goals.

One the one hand, the Greens’ climate program, even if fully implemented by the entire world, would not keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius, say climate scientists. On the other, the expedited Green-formulated emergency climate package announced this year calls for a massive clean energy rollout, mostly solar and wind energy, unlike anything attempted before in Europe in so short a time frame. The Green ministries want to cut greenhouse gases by 70 percent by 2030 by phasing out coal generation, more than doubling the carbon tax, and putting millions of electric cars on the road. The party has pledged to spend €500 billion ($600 billion) over the next decade for the economy’s “social ecological transformation.”

Yet, there’s enormous uncertainty within government circles whether the 85 percent of Germans who didn’t vote Green will back such a radical overhaul of their reality. It means blanketing the country with solar panels, wind farms, and smart grids—measures that for years have elicited NIMBY protests across the country. Conservative-run Bavaria’s stand on more wind turbines: not in my Alps.

Should the climate activists perhaps lend the new officials a hand, helping the unprecedented package to win acceptance? Or challenge the compromises they’ve been forced to make in hope of something more rigorously Paris-compatible? Do our political systems and capitalism as such have to collapse before whole populations endorse climate justice?

Groups like Extinction Rebellion and Ende Gelände know their answer to these questions. As for FFF, it should consider a return to the audacious act of civil disobedience that shot it to global prominence: the school strike.

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