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Fridays for Future – Following Greta Thunberg!

Heike Kuhn is Head of Division - Human rights; gender equality; inclusion of persons with disabilities at the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany


BERLIN, Apr 10 2019 (IPS) - What happens worldwide on Fridays, a regular working day and consequently, a school day? We are all witnessing that students do not attend their classes: during the week of March 15, 2019, according to fridaysforfuture, there were at least 1.6 million striking students in more than 125 countries on all continents.

Students ask their governments and parents: “Why should I be studying for a future that soon may exist no more, if no one does anything to save that future?” And they pledge: “Dear adults, use your power!” The youngsters gather in front of their town halls, exposing signs and pictures #Fridaysforfuture or #Climatestrike.

How did this global movement start? It all began with the activism of one person, a girl from Sweden. Who is that girl? Greta Thunberg is a Swedish student, aged 15 in 2018. Due to the hot summer in 2018, causing severe fires in large forests in Sweden, she decided on August 20 to boycott school lessons until the general elections in her country on September 9 would have taken place. And she did. Her motivation: To advocate for the obligations voluntarily taken over by the Swedish government to reduce carbon emissions as foreseen by the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

But even when the elections had taken place, she continued to boycott school lessons on Fridays. As a climate activist she has become a role model for thousands of students all over the world. In the following months, students followed her, in December 2018 there were more than 20.000 students in about 270 cities “on strike”, in Japan, Finland, USA, Australia and Germany. And these demonstrations do continue – every Friday, having now reached the impressive number of 1.6 million participants.

You can listen to Greta Thunberg’s impressive speech addressing political leaders at the climate conference in Katowice (COP 24).   What is her message to all these leaders and politicians? She argues that the adults in charge only speak about green growth because they are too scared to take measures which could be unpopular.

From her point of view, the wrong decisions taken in the last decades are the cause for the mess we are in today. And she explains to the powerful leaders that they are not mature enough to take responsible decisions, even this burden is left to the children. Whereas in industrialized countries people can enjoy wealth, people in developping countries, especially children, suffer and are threatened with regard to their future.

This is a powerful statement. In the meantime, Greta has celebrated her 16th birthday. She has the Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism. However, she is capable to come up with a clear view and responsible position with regard to the future and the action needed.

Her view is much clearer than the one of adults, among them politicians, entrepreneurs or each of us. With strong impetus she explains that she does not understand why governments and citizens would not act, as climate change is threatening all of us.

We all know that climate change is a reality, only very few persons still deny the facts and the evidence behind it. Climate is changing rapidly, deepening the abyss between those who can adapt and protect their lives – the rich – and those who are directly exposed to it, many poor people in Africa, Asia or Latin America.

They are threatened by floods, avalanches, tsunamis or simply because of drought. Climate change is the reason for people to leave their villages thus becoming refugees. Climate change makes childhood much harder for so many girls and boys worldwide or even destroys childhood at all. Far too often there is no education which is the most important way out of poverty and which creates perspectives for families.

At the same time, everyone is talking about sustainable life styles, but what is really happening? As citizens and as customers we see and feel our share. When taking the car or air plane even for short trips, we know we could easily walk or take the train. When consuming too much meat, we know we could eat less. Furthermore, we still use too much fossil fuel or witness the ongoing deforestation of tropical rainforests.

However, we are perfectly aware that giving up some of these climate threatening habits would be very easy for us – so why are there so many obstacles?

Coming back to Swedish activist Thunberg and her recent presence in the media: Greta was invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos/Switzerland in January 2019 and there she talked to the powerful leaders of our governments. How did she get there? By train, of course, which meant she was travelling for 32 hours from Stockholm to the Alps.

Once again, she delivered a most impressive speech, claiming that our house is on fire: A short summary of her key note: In Davos, where the focus is on economy, finance and growth, these seem to be the main global problems. As to Greta a turnaround is urgently needed, since financial success comes with an unthinkable price tag.

Citing the scientific findings of the IPCC, she refers to the short deadline for homo sapiens to stop the emissions of green house gas. And she clearly states that this change will be uncomfortable to many of us. She urges leaders to take influence on political decisions and reminds them that the bigger their platform is, the bigger their responsibility is, too.

Who listens to Greta? Which politicians and leaders take action after the global movement fridaysforfuture? In my country, Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has complimented Greta on her activism and expressed sympathy for the global movement (a slight irritation after a comment of Chancellor Merkel during the Munich Security Conference in March 2019 has been discarded). But where is the action needed?

Let us remember that global leaders voluntarily agreed on two major texts in 2015: the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Whereas SDG 13 asks for taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts, showcasing the political will of all the subscribing 192 countries, the legal character of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change is a binding one.

What action have leaders taken since then in order to fulfil their ambition and legal obligations? In 2015, Greta was 13 years old, in 2018, when analysing the global climate situation, she started her activism. In between, on the occasion of the International Women’s Day on March 8, Greta Thunberg was proclaimed the most important woman of the year in Sweden in 2019. On March 31, she received the German Special Climate Protection award (Goldene Kamera). And three Norwegian MPs have nominated her as a candidate to receive this year’s Nobel Prize for Peace.

From my point of view, the most important consequences of Greta’s wake-up call are the fact that it brings about a global discussion for the change needed.

Furthermore, it causes incentives for real leaders and reasonable politicians to act today. I personally hope that Greta will be right in her analysis of the IPPC’s report that there is still a short deadline left for homo sapiens to stop the emissions of greenhouse gas and safe our planet.

And, hopefully, that Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the famous bestseller “Sapiens” may revise his conclusion at the end of his book, that in the course of seventy thousand years homo sapiens has become the master of the entire planet and, at the same time, has become the terror of the ecosystem.

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