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What Germany’s climate movement got right: Breaking rules
Skipping school and civil disobedience make Germans uncomfortable. But it woke politicians up to climate change.
Clara S Thompson
Clara S. Thompson is a climate activist and author based in Germany. She is a spokesperson for Wald Statt Asphalt (Forests instead of Asphalt) Alliance, which works towards a mobility transition away from automobile dependence and highway construction towards improved public transport.
20 Jan 2022
In 2020, activists in Dannenröder forest took up positions in a network of treehouses to protest against deforestation and the construction of the A49 highway [File: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images]
In late November 2021, Germany’s new coalition government announced its aim to phase out coal power across the country by 2030, eight years ahead of schedule.
Earlier that month, the government of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where activists have been protesting against coal mining, announced it would accelerate phasing out coal by 2030, sparing five of six villages marked for demolition for the extension of a huge mine.
While activists are still awaiting a court decision on the future of the sixth village, Lützerath, these decisions to exit coal by 2030 are breakthroughs for the German climate movement.
They come after years of climate activists’ protests through forest occupations, blockades of open-pit mines, and street demonstrations with tens of thousands of people.
Globally, not enough people have concerned themselves with the climate crisis yet because they have had the privilege to not think about it. This is especially true in a rich country like Germany where many people feel like the crisis is happening elsewhere and does not threaten them.
But activists in Germany have been drawing attention to it by taking on the German obsession with cars, coal and rules.
The coal industry has a century-long tradition in Germany and served as a driving force of the post-war economic boom in Germany. The car is one of Germany’s most beloved material possessions due to its importance to the national economy – the auto sector accounts for about 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) – and as a symbol of freedom and independence. And, it is a cliché, but Germans like rules. Civil disobedience, therefore, attracts attention.
By targeting these obsessions activists have struck a nerve among politicians and civil society and helped put climate change well on the German agenda.
To draw attention to the climate crisis, activists such as myself – I belong to Wald Statt Asphalt (Forests instead of Asphalt), an alliance of forest occupations against highways – have focused on cars and coal and broken rules to point out the hypocrisy of the country’s environmental policies.
Germany has long adopted pro-environment rhetoric, while often lacking actual effective measures to combat the climate crisis.
For example, despite passing legislation for the “Energiewende” – a transformation towards renewable energy – in 2010, Germany drastically reduced subsidies for solar panels in 2012.
Germany still heavily relies on coal for the country’s energy needs and even permitted the opening of a new coal-fired power plant in 2020 despite committing to a coal phase-out in the same year.
In 2020, the power plants Neurath, Niederaussem and Weisweiler alone released a total of 42.1 million tonnes of CO2 into the air. That is more than twice as much as Kenya emits annually.
This paradox of rhetoric vs action is perhaps even worse in the transportation sector. While emissions have been falling in all sectors since 1990, the transport sector remains an exception.
Although cars are generally less emission-intensive today, road traffic has increased due to larger, heavier and more vehicles.
Germany has one of the longest motorway networks worldwide today, ranking 5th after China, the US, Canada and Spain, and yet it still continues to build such roads, tearing down forests and destroying biodiverse habitats, and driving up CO2 traffic emissions.
In October 2019, activists took a stand against motorway building by occupying Dannenröder forest in the central German state of Hesse to protect it from being cleared for highway A49.
The environmentalist Green party as part of the state coalition gave its approval to cut down the old-growth forest, revealing that even the Greens were willing to sacrifice woodland for political expediency.
From July to December 2020, I was part of the occupation for six months along with hundreds of other activists. We built tree houses high in the trees to prevent the police from evicting us too easily and, over the course of the occupation, those treehouses became our homes. Every day we met with fellow activists and townspeople to organise food, water and other daily tasks, but also to develop strategies for how to win this struggle.
The eviction of protesters by police in late 2020 leading to the final clearance of the forest was a crushing defeat.
However, just after the eviction of the occupation started, the federal Green party, faced with so much pressure by disappointed activists but also their own disillusioned party members, called for the halting of further highway construction nationally.
Authorities’ reactions also generated widespread publicity. During the eviction, police arrested protesters and the local government criticised our use of civil disobedience. However, we gained broad popular support through building treehouses and coalitions between local townspeople.
A major takeaway from the protests was that it was possible to call out German political parties on the gap between rhetoric and climate action and pressure them to act. It also showed that popular mobilisation against automobile infrastructure was possible in car-obsessed Germany.
That civil disobedience garners publicity also has to do with preserving “Ordnung” (order) – a strong cultural tradition in Germany that dates back to Reformist Martin Luther’s call for obedience to authorities in his writings.
Foreigners travelling in Germany might find strangers pointing out small misdemeanours that they have committed such as talking too loudly in a quiet train section.
It is no surprise then that no group to date has managed to stir the emotions of rule loving Germans more than the school strikers’ movement, Fridays for Future (FFF).
In December 2018, activists started skipping school in order to draw attention to the climate crisis.
The movement, which I later joined, initially received intense criticism. In March 2019, some months after the strikes started, then-Liberal party leader and now finance minister Christian Lindner questioned the protesters’ ability to understand the complexities of global issues, saying combatting the climate crisis should be left to the “professionals”. The German Teachers’ Association also frequently criticised students missing school to participate in political actions.
But reactions like these only ignited the discussion in the German media about the legitimacy of young people protesting, and ultimately led to climate change becoming a prominent political issue.
By breaking rules, climate activists such as myself made politicians listen to our simple argument: How can we obey your rules if they are leading us right into the climate crisis?
After nearly a year of mobilisation and growing into one of the biggest FFF offshoots in Europe, 1.4 million people in Germany attended the Global Climate Strike in September 2019. Some 6 million people worldwide joined protests that week.
In the same week, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel cited the student protests as a reason to act faster and more decisively against climate change and the government presented a climate package. Later that year, it passed a climate action law to meet climate targets. In 2021, the law was updated with the aim of meeting climate neutrality by 2045 with stringent emissions cuts in all sectors.
Germany’s new coalition government – consisting of the Greens, Liberals (the Free Democrat Party) and the centre-left Social Democrats – wants, among its climate aims, to have 15 million electric cars on roads by 2030.
Germany will have to go far beyond producing electric cars (which require roads) to effectively transform the auto sector.
Even if many Germans do not like to hear it, reforming the car industry will be a crucial part of creating effective climate policies, as will huge investments in public transport and rail.
It is only in the last three years that German activists have taken on the car, which has long been seemingly immune to criticism due to a strong cultural attachment.
“Sand im Getriebe” (Sand in the Gearbox), a group that emerged out of the anti-coal movement, has organised large-scale protests at prestigious car fairs, sparking discussions about the future of mobility in Germany and challenging deep-seated ideas about the car and auto sector.
Even if the new German government appears committed to the crisis, the climate movement will not run out of issues.
Politicians may focus on false, greenwashed and unjust solutions for climate change, including unproven technologies, and see them as a free pass for doing less in the present. But activists will be there to call them out. And we know – if you want to draw attention, disturb the Ordnung.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
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