Just hours after what was likely the largest worldwide climate demonstration ever—the global climate strike on Sept. 20 led by the Fridays for Future student movement—Germany illustrated just how impervious governments can be to pressure from the streets. In more than 160 countries, an estimated 4 million people protested the international community’s weak response thus far to global warming, and no country rallied more than Germany: as many as 1.4 million in 500 locations from the Baltic Sea to the Alps. In Berlin, around 270,000—according to the organizers—marched in front of the chancellery while Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ministers deliberated on the content of the long-awaited new “climate package,” which was meant to double down on cutting greenhouse gases—a direct response to the tenacious Fridays for Future movement, as well as two summers of extreme weather and alarming reports from the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
But the Merkel administration’s product, released the same afternoon, was a crushing disappointment. Despite the $60 billion price tag, its proposals were halfhearted and, in terms of time frame, cautious—a fraction of what the climate movement and experts had called for as necessary to curb rising temperatures and hit climate international targets.
Most controversial was the magnitude of the carbon dioxide tax, which should function as a deterrent to fossil fuel use. The administration wants to start pricing carbon at $11 a ton in 2021 and have the levy climb to $38 per ton by 2025. In stark contrast, the opposition Greens want to begin immediately with a $44 carbon tax, while the Fridays for Future campaign demands that the fee reach $198 per ton of all greenhouse gases as quickly as possible. (The figure hails from the German Environment Agency, a state-funded institution, which estimates the damage of a ton of carbon emissions at $198.) Patrick Graichen, the director of Agora Energiewende, a Berlin-based think tank, called the low price a “bad joke.” Other experts chimed in, saying that the proposed tax would change very little.
Nevertheless, in Germany and elsewhere—including the United States, where tens of thousands of people took to the streets—the protests marked a new stage in the international campaign to halt climate change. Governments such as Germany’s may not respond directly or at once to pressure from the streets. But if the movement perseveres, it’s only a matter of time until it affects politics as usual—as long as it pursues its goals in a way that combines idealism and pragmatism.
The history of social movements offers important strategic insights that climate protesters would do well to keep in mind:
- Mass movements don’t usually change things overnight.
The German government’s perfunctory proposals, as well as those that will surely come in other countries, shouldn’t discourage extraparliamentary campaigners. Nonviolent grassroots movements build up momentum and critical mass over time and tend to change political consciousness on a broad scale before their concerns are translated into policy.
- Stay positive and nonviolent.
One of the Fridays for Future movement’s greatest assets has been its unstinting positive and hopeful perspective—and commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience.
- Get the United States and China on board.
The two superpowers are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, with the EU right behind them. Neither is anywhere close to meeting its obligations under the Paris agreement; the United States has even pulled out of it, for now.
- Forget the climate change doubters.
When asked whether she planned to speak with U.S. President Donald Trump while in the United States, Thunberg told CBS News: “Why should I waste time talking to him when he, of course, is not going to listen to me? I can’t say anything that he hasn’t already heard.” She’s exactly right: Don’t waste your time.
- Adopt an electoral strategy.
In order to shift government policies, the movement has to agitate from the street but think in terms of electoral democracy. The meaningful overhaul of policy will transpire in the world’s legislatures and transnational bodies, such as the EU and the United Nations. Political parties must be held accountable without the movement explicitly picking one party over others.
- Bring in people of color and those with lower income.
Thus far, the climate movement has been largely white, left-liberal, highly educated, and urban. The student-led climate movement made great strides last week by opening the demonstrations to adult working people, businesses, entrepreneurs, and labor unions.
- “System change, not climate change!”
Posters with this slogan and ones like it were all over the Friday protests. It is highly unlikely that the sweeping “great transformation” that has to happen can do so without discarding neoliberalism, as Naomi Klein emphasizes in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Most climate activists and many social scientists concur.