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Greta! Will COVID-19 Make Or Break The 'Climate Generation'?

Although the coronavirus pandemic is dominating global politics, Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg and her peers are hoping to turn their activism into tangible policy change.

Luisa Neubauer, Greta Thunberg and Anuna de Wever in Berlin on Aug. 20
Luisa Neubauer, Greta Thunberg and Anuna de Wever in Berlin on Aug. 20
Audrey Garric

PARIS — For young environmentalists, the date August 20 holds a double importance. First, it marks the two-year anniversary of their movement Fridays for Future: On Aug. 20, 2018, a then-unknown Swedish teen, Greta Thunberg, began a school strike in front of the Stockholm Parliament demanding urgent action in combating climate change. Since then, millions of students have followed her lead, boycotting their classes and taking to the streets en mass.

Then, on this year's Aug. 20, the muse of the fight against global warming, accompanied by three other leading figures of the movement, met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country holds the six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU). They presented the Chancellor with a long list of demands, proving that, despite COVID-19, the unprecedented mobilization of the "climate generation" has not weakened.

The four young women — Thunberg, Luisa Neubauer from Germany and Belgium's Anuna de Wever and Adélaïde Charlier— were granted an audience with the Chancellor in Berlin for an hour and a half. They handed her an open letter that had been sent to 27 EU heads of state and presidents of European institutions on July 16th. The letter garnered 125,000 signees, including climatologists, economists, activists and celebrities.

These activists are now used to using their platform to call on leaders to treat climate change as a real crisis. But this year, for the first time, they also listed specific measures to be taken immediately. Among them: an end to all investments and subsidies in fossil fuels, international recognition of the crime "ecocide," establishing a binding annual carbon budget to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and the adoption of climate policies that reduce all forms of inequality.

These young people have had access to many top politicians.

"The changes necessary to safeguard humanity may seem very unrealistic. But it is much more unrealistic to believe that our society would be able to survive the global heating we're heading for, as well as other disastrous ecological consequences of today's "business as usual,"" the activists wrote in their open letter. According to them, leaders are deluding themselves and "wasting precious time" by believing they're on the right trajectory to reduce emissions. "The only solution is to change the system," they say.

Europe has a role to play in this, particularly because of its historical responsibility for climate change. "With COVID-19, the climate has been relegated to the background even though it is the biggest crisis facing humanity," said Charlier before meeting with Chancellor Merkel. "We want to make sure that the climate remains Angela Merkel's priority and that the recovery will not mark a return to normal."

The health crisis, however, is not the only reason for the delay in climate action. Since 2018 and the start of the Fridays for Future movement, "we have lost another two crucial years to political inaction," as Thunberg and her comrades declared in an Op-Ed piece for the Guardian. During these two years, humanity continued to emit more than 80 billion tons of CO2 and natural disasters (fires, heat waves, hurricanes, etc.) have multiplied throughout the world, resulting in the loss of many lives. Yet, as the activists write, "When it comes to action we are still in a state of denial."

Climate demonstration in Nuremberg, Germany — Photo: Marcus Spiske

According to the United Nations, complying with the Paris Climate Agreement means countries must triple their efforts to keep the global average temperature increase to no more than 2°C, and multiply their efforts by five to stay under 1.5 °C. The states, however, are still unable to agree on collectively raising their goals.

This does not mean the Fridays for Future movement, which was awarded the title of "Champion of the Earth" by the UN in September 2019, has been in vain. It mobilized a part of the youth — even if, for Europe, it is mostly well-off and educated young people — who had never protested before. During the three days of the 2019 international strike, 1.8 million people marched on March 15, 2 million on May 24 and over 4 million on Sept. 20 according to the organizers' figures. The organization also helped raise awareness about the urgency of climate change with a large part of the global population.

The young activists, whose movement aims to be apolitical, have managed to insert the climate issue on the political agenda of many countries. The subject has become an important topic in the European and American elections, and the European Parliament declared a climate and environmental emergency last year, as did some individual countries and local authorities.

"These young people have had access to many top politicians, although sometimes they were mostly interested in taking selfies with Greta Thunberg," says Katrin Uba, an associate professor at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, who is studying the Fridays for Future movement. "However, I still don't see clear policies that respond directly to the demands of Fridays for Future."

The generational nature of Fridays for Future is a solid basis for their long-term engagement on the issue.

It's enough to keep the pressure on the younger generation. They now have to reinvent themselves in a world turned upside down by COVID-19. While the pandemic has dealt them a blow by preventing them from marching every week and relegating climate issues to the background, the activists have somehow managed to keep the movement alive during quarantine. They continued the strike online every Friday, organized internet conferences with experts, demonstrated locally in small committees and carried out symbolic actions, like the German activists who put up thousands of signs in front of their parliament.

"Social movements have ups and downs, in cycles. COVID-19 has, at least temporarily, led to a low," says Joost de Moor, a postdoctoral researcher at Stockholm University working on climate activism. "But the generational nature of Fridays for Future, where its young members identify themselves as those who will suffer if the climate crisis remains unresolved, could provide a solid basis for their long-term engagement on the issue."

The next global climate strike, scheduled for Sept. 25 — both in the streets and online, depending on the health situation — will allow us to see where this mobilization of the world's youth truly stands.

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