Climate Activists Return to the Fray Post-Lockdown

Vienna’s Fridays for Future hopes to turn tragedy to structural change via a Green New Deal.

After nearly four months of lockdown, Fridays for Future (FFF) climate activists in Vienna are regaining traction after COVID-19 brought the movement to a sudden halt. Now, with life returning to normal, activists were able to get back together in person on June 12 on Ballhausplatz to relaunch efforts to turn public attention back to the climate crisis. 

Their first event was a “dome talk” a week later, on June 19th. The question: How citizens can change politics. A canvas-covered dome of wooden poles was thrown up in front of the Rathaus and hung with FFF banners as activists gathered: some with masks, many arriving on bicycles, chatting and laughing, clearly pleased to be back. The heavy clouds encouraged rain gear, as a sea of umbTheir first event was a “dome talk” a week later, on June 19th. The question: How citizens can change politics. A canvas-covered dome of wooden poles was thrown up in front of the Rathaus and hung with FFF banners as activists gathered: some with masks, many arriving on bicycles, chatting and laughing, clearly pleased to be back. Among the organizers and long-time activists, teenagers flocked in groups, others in pairs. The heavy clouds encouraged rain gear, as a sea of umbrellas opened like mushrooms against the elements. Nobody minded. At least they were out of the house. 

The proceedings were opened by Gerhard Schuster, who introduced speaker Katharina Rogenhofer, leader of the Austrian Klima Volksbegeheren, a citizen’s referendum on climate change. A native of Vienna with degrees in biodiversity conservation and management, she was catapulted into prominence after the 2018 climate summit in Katowice, Poland, where she heard Greta Thunberg, then 15, holding her sign in Swedish, “School strike for the climate.” Rogenhofer was moved: “Suddenly climate change became less about objective science and more of an emotional topic,” she said in an interview. With two friends, she organized the first climate demo in Vienna, on Dec 21, 2018 and took over management of the Volksbeghren, which will compel the Austrian parliament to place the issue of climate change on the agenda once it reaches more than 100,000 signatures. Still, Roggenhofer told Der Standard, they need more voices to give the subject the presence it needs. 

A Force for Change

The lost momentum is a challenge, but the bigger question now is how to use the tragedy to bring about positive change. In some places, the lockdown had taught important environmental lessons – canals in Venice were clearer than anyone could remember with schools of fish shimmering just below the surface, and crowded cities like Delhi enjoyed crystal air, where children could see the distant mountains for a time. To hold on to these changes, a new systematic approach would be necessary. 

Rogenhofer sees the aftermath as an opportunity: “With the economy breaking down alongside the climate crisis, we have this once in a lifetime chance to also steer the (political) wheel in the right direction,” she said. While attention has been deflected temporarily from the climate crisis, “there is also a chance that now, with money on the table and knowledge in things like renewable energy, we can invest the right way and turn the wheel around faster than ever before.” 

From here, demonstrations will continue on a weekly basis as they rebuild the program. Julian Kragler, 19, who joined FFF as a photographer, has been frustrated by the setbacks, including having to return from a student exchange in India because of COVID-19. His team had hoped the Dalai Lama would be joining their efforts, but because of the pandemic, he was not able to do any public events.

Back in Vienna, there is more determination than ever before, particularly in light of the upcoming municipal elections on October 11, and upcoming decisions on the EU Reconstruction Funds, expected in September or October – “everything that’s going to affect our lives for the next seven to 10 years.” In addition, FFF is also helping Rogenhofer get the needed signatures for a European Citizens Initiative – 200,000 so far out of a required one million – by the March 23, 2021 deadline.  

For individuals who want to help, Rogenhofer recommends finding sustainable ways in your own life that can make a difference.  

“So, if you’re a journalist write about it. If you’re a teacher, teach children in school about it. If you are a filmmaker, make films about it. If you are a mother, talk to your children. If you are in school, participate in Fridays for Future and talk to your friends about it.” 

Once the talk was over, the canvas covering the dome was pulled off and Kragler climbed up to take a photo from above. People lingered to chat, smiling and laughing, re-energized with the first Dome Talk in months. The next:  Friday, June 26, back at Ballhausplatz from noon to 17:00. The topic: “Citizens’ councils and Sustainable Development,” with special guests Martina Handler (ÖGUT) and Fritz Hinterberger (SERI, Club of Rome Austria). 

When it was all dismantled and banners folded, one by one, the bikes and bodies slowly disappeared, with shouts of ‘See you next Friday!” And most likely, every Friday after that. 

Vanessa Iula
After leaving her home city Calgary, Alberta, Vanessa headed to Vienna where she gained a scholarship for communication and international business studies. Vanessa has written and photographed for a multitude of publications, does freelance marketing and now, is happily a member of the Metropole team.

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