Amidst weekly student strikes for the environment and the revived support for the Green Party in the European elections, Vienna was in the limelight last week as host of the R20 Austrian World Summit at the Hofburg, a networking event for cities and regions that have launched climate protection initiatives.
Founded by the Austro-American Hollywood icon Arnold Schwarzenegger, R20 gave a crowd of 1,200 visitors from some 30 nations a star-studded show featuring speeches from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Swedish climate activist Greta Thungberg and performances by drag-diva Conchita Wurst, cabarettists Pizzera & Jaus and Alpine rock singer-songwriter Hubert von Goisern.
The Greta Effect
Calling on leaders to “invest in green energy,” Schwarzenegger opened a program politicians and experts gathered to discuss best practices for managing the effects of climate change. But “isolated solutions are not enough” warned Thunberg. “Technological developments such as electric cars and solar energy should not leave people with the impression that they can solve the crisis without substantial effort.”
The 16-year-old Swede has become of face of recent wave of environmental activism, inspiring hundreds of thousands of students to strike for climate reform since her first organized protest in August of last year. Recently, she announced her plan to leave school to pursue her climate campaign full time. Thunberg explains the urgency: “One second politicians say climate change is very important, and before you know it, they want to expand airports, build new coal power plants and fly off on a private jet to attend a meeting on the other side of the world.”
Despite the conference’s media success, some local activists voiced harsh criticism. Extinction Rebellion Austria described R20 as “hypocritical – very photogenic, with very little content,” according to a report in the daily Der Standard. “Austria’s elite wants to be presented as climate action pioneers while lacking real transformation,” said climate activist Lucia Steinwender. UN Secretary-General Anotinio Guterres, expressed sympathy for the criticism: Inviting world leaders to the UN’s climate summit in New York this September, he said he expected politicians and experts in attendance to “not only give beautiful speeches, but rather present new doable measures to tackle the problem.”
But countries are not doing enough to meet the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of keeping global warming well below two degrees Celsius, Guterres agrees and recognizes that 2020 is a crucial year. This is a sentiment echoed by Austrian environmentalists: Many criticized the previous government’s weak climate plan and now fear climate policy will be neglected further due to the recent political upheaval and the caretaker government appointed to manage the country’s affairs until new elections in September.
The European Council will meet to discuss Climate Action at the end of the month, and for Austria’s transitional government, activists say, driving EU climate policy would be a good place to start.