In August 2018 in Stockholm, Sweden, something utterly unremarkable happened. A student, Greta Thunberg, then 15 years old, skipped school for one day a week and sat outside the parliament building holding up a sign. The sign said, “School strike for Climate”. I believe most students that skip school would be ignored, but Thunberg started an international movement, Fridays for Future. Many feel inspired by her and adore her, but many have quite the opposite response.
In 2019 Thunberg was invited to the UN and gave her now famous speech, where she called out world leaders in no uncertain terms and asked them “How dare you?”. Somehow this youth movement, which is itself so young, has created tremendous momentum, and is taken very seriously by both supporters and opponents. And this although the organization is a bit amorphous and many of the supporters are not of voting age – at least not yet. Books will be written about this phenomenon, no doubt. Actually, there are already a few, including some by Thunberg herself.
It is difficult to know how sustainable this movement is, but right now it provides an interesting success story. One charismatic individual started a movement that maintains a commanding presence on the political stage and influences key decision makers. Students creatively protesting. Their message is loud and clear: there is no time to waste on tackling climate change. And they essentially claim that the current generation of grown-ups has not been keeping their promises. The current politicians produced a lot of talk and very little action. To their frustration often when real decisions have to be made, protecting the planet always seems to take a back seat. To the members of the Fridays for Future movement this is a let-down, amounting to a betrayal of their generation. And consequently, they took to the streets. In many cities worldwide the protesters met every Friday for a short march with speeches before the actual event. I observed a protest like that in Hamburg a while ago and it had the most benign and peaceful atmosphere. The goals of the students may be radical, their protests are not.
Although clearly a grassroots movement, there are some prominent figures that emerge and attain media fame. In Germany one of these leaders is Luisa Neubauer, a very articulate, likable, and smart young woman from Hamburg. She is a regular presence on talk shows where she crosses swords – verbally – with much more seasoned politicians. In these events she seems completely at ease and unintimidated. she also had meetings with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. These high-level contacts are remarkable for a movement that was non-existent just months ago. It is hard to say if the leaders of Fridays for Future have a detectable impact on actual decision making, but they certainly have very high visibility. Another example for this is the fact that Thunberg was invited to speak in front of the United Nations. Her brief encounter with Donald Trump at this occasion was famously recorded on video: she is glaring at him angrily, but they do not exchange words.
As the German face of Fridays for Future Neubauer is very active on social media, especially twitter (@Luisamneubauer). It is here where she is also often trolled and attacked by people who disagree with the goals of Fridays for Future. As seems to be the new normal, at least some of the attacks do not criticize her positions but are personal and often misogynistic. During the Covid pandemic – still ongoing as of this writing – the movement shifted away from the streets to virtual events and heavy use of social media, but I think it is fair to say that they lost some momentum. A good example of Neubauer’s mastery of social media is her podcast. Her most recent episode features a warm, casual, and friendly exchange with one of the most respected climate scientists in Germany, Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. But it opens with an short interview with Jane Fonda. The 83-year-old Fonda applauds Neubauer’s efforts, and the contrast between two women who are at very different ends of their life-expectancy is remarkable.
In Europe, Fridays for Future seems to be mainly an urban movement. This is not surprising as this is where it is easy to organize street protests and demonstrations. But in times of the internet, I would have thought the movement would be more successful reaching deeper into rural communities. Interestingly, a similar pattern seems to be present in the US. The US section – if that is an appropriate term for a decentralized movement – is comparatively small and mostly confined to the northeast of the country, plus two local groups in Florida. Compared to the force of the movement in Europe, it seems almost absent in the US. Furthermore, no highly visible leaders seem to emerge. Indeed, the sparse website of the movement does not mention any names and provides no meaningful information on the local groups. It is not clear to me why this is the case. But arguably the USA has a large contingent of people who deny that climate change is happening, let alone see the urgency of doing something about it.
So, how is it possible that the Friday’s for Future movement has gained so much influence in Europe and relatively little in the US? It seems to me the mechanism they use is shame. Of course, this is only my interpretation, but it seems plausible to me that adults in Europe, where at least in intellectual circles the fact that climate change constitutes a serious crisis is widely accepted, people feel bad about not doing enough for the environment or not reducing their carbon footprints enough. This leads to some people acknowledging that they should not be driving a big car – and when they do, they have a bad conscience. Or they feel attacked in their way of life. The Fridays for Future movement singled out flying as one of the particularly bad behaviors people employ. And clearly flying to far away destinations is especially bad for the environment and increases your carbon footprint enormously. Yet there is often no alternative to it. However, flying short distances that could also be covered by more environmentally friendly means, such a train, can be avoided and is another target of “Flight Shaming”. In my opinion this points to a crucial difference between the US and Europe: in the US often the only alternative to flying is the car, which is also not very environmentally friendly. And – maybe more importantly – so many Americans do not think that climate change is real, and consequently cannot be shamed into feeling bad about their behavior.
But it works for me: I feel bad flying, although I feel I have to, and I feel bad driving. Although probably not as powerful as in Europe, even here in the US the Friday for Future movements hold up a mirror for all of us: individuals can have an important impact. Do I do enough?