Fridays for Future. It took a 15-year-old girl to wake up the world. Scientists had been telling us for thirty years that the planet was nearing a tipping point, beyond which many species – including our own – will be faced with an increasingly uninhabitable earth. Despite the cold hard facts, business as usual continued. Now a movement of youth has shown up to open our eyes.
For about a year, the rapidly-expanding Fridays for Future (FFF) movement has dominated global headlines and forced policy discussions; here in Austria, the topic of climate change has become the central election issue. The movement calls on kids and adults the world over to strike for climate action on Fridays. Each protest starts at 11:55 – a symbolic time chosen because, according to FFF and climate activists, humanity is just five minutes from midnight.
Now Fridays for Future is planning Week for Future, their largest collective action yet, which wil take place from September 20 to 27, catalyzing as many people as possible to demand that leaders save our only world. We met with three representatives to talk about the climate crisis, their objectives and why – despite all the terrible news – people should refrain from despair.
It’s just obvious
“We’re just trying to put out messages that are actually obvious: that we should change the way that we live,” says 24-year-old activist Philipp Wilfinger, who calls FFF a “tool for major awareness.” And maybe it’s starting to work: “People just started waking up all over the place.”
“I think it’s a mix of the right time and the right people,” says Emilia Wess, a 16-year-old student who started getting active in January this year and is now among the FFF organizers in Vienna.
In August 2018, a teenager in Sweden named Greta Thunberg started skipping school to protest parliamentary inaction on climate change, sharing pictures on social media. Others joined her, and the Fridays for Future student movement was born. By December, Greta was speaking at the UN Climate Change Conference. By January this year, she was addressing the world’s elite at Davos.
“I don’t want you to be hopeful,” Thunberg said. “I want you to panic… I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” The clip was shared millions of times; the message has spread. During this month’s upcoming Week for Future, the movement will be present in 138 countries and 2,347 cities.
A transnational crisis
At an international level, countries have shown that they can cooperate on climate issues. The most-touted example is the 32-year-old Montreal Protocol, which successfully banned ozone-destroying CFCs. The 2016 Paris Agreement attempts similar success, setting out a comprehensive global response in order to “keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius” and attempt to “limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.” (Heating beyond these thresholds, climate scientists say, will likely create feedback loops that continue to heat the planet in ways humans can no longer stop.)
This isn’t “just” an enviromental issue – it will touch all areas of policy, including security. As one report from the International Organization of Migration (IOM) explains, both climate processes (e.g. salination) and one-off disasters (such as hurricanes) will increasingly drive migration. Impact estimates vary, but one oft-cited (which doesn’t mean accurate) prediction says that by 2050, some 200 million people will have been displaced by “natural disasters and environmental degradation”; estimates range from 25 million to 1 billion people.
But just as global heating is likely to be a destabilizing force, action to curb emissions will also affect millions – which is why Fridays for Future has twin goals: Limiting global heating to 1.5 C, but also ensuring “climate justice.”
“If we make major changes to […] work towards a sustainable society then we should make sure that we don’t leave anyone behind,” says Wilfinger. “If people are working with industries that are not sustainable, like the oil, gas and coal industry, we have to [make sure] employees find new jobs, better jobs, early pensions or whatever they need.”
Similar support needs to be provided to the developing world as a whole, too. Countries like Austria, said Wess, “have to make the changes faster because for [others] it’s going to be much harder.” Indeed direct support needs to be given.
“We really have to help [less] developed countries … that don’t have so many financial or technological resources,” said Wilfinger. Countries should develop without making “every mistake we made. But this is a very, very hard topic because we have to [avoid being] imperialistic, but really just provide solutions and resources and make changes in a way that fits local circumstances.”
Panic but don’t despair
Because curbing emissions will require sacrifices, it is essential that societies around the world are on board – which means they need to be informed. FFF recently called on Austrian journalists to stop talking about “climate change”. “Tell it as it is. It’s a crisis and we have to face it,” argues Wilfinger. ‘Climate change’ is “the most harmless word you can find for something that’s really ruining our planet and our life on Earth.”
Among leaders, there is a prisoner’s dilemma: none will act until all the others do. Elected leaders and political parties are reluctant to force reform at the expense of living standards (in rich countries) or economic development (in poor countries), because doing so could mean incurring the wrath of both voters and big donors.
That might be changing. “Right now we are connected everywhere, and we’re able to move information to more people,” says school teacher Mark Long, comparing the situation today with the mass climate efforts of his own youth. “I think, in the ‘80s, if we had had this campaign we would have had more success. Kids are much more aware now. They they’re not like they were when I was growing up.”
Fridays for Future = All hands on deck
What’s needed, says FFF, is for everyone to work together. “The climate crisis and the ecological crisis are the most complex challenges we’ve ever faced as humanity,” stresses Wilfinger. “There’s people that say, ‘Oh, I have the perfect solution. Here it is. It’s in this book that was written in the ‘80s or something…You should be very skeptical if someone says that they have found the perfect solution for the biggest challenge of humanity.”
There are no silver bullets. Instead, says Wilfinger, we all have to “put our brains together and and think really hard and try to create a whole new world.”
Some actors even within the movement think they have the answer – Fridays for Future in Germany made recent headlines because a Marxist-Leninist youth group used the platform to call for an end to capitalism. How does FFF bring together people who hold disparate ideologies?
By starting with the shared goal: Keeping temperature increases below 1.5 degrees, and achieving climate justice. Starting with an ideological stance is “approaching the problem from the wrong direction,” says Wilfinger. “Of course we have to make major changes to our economic and our political and societal systems [but] it’s more like, okay. What what exactly do we need to change and where do we need to go. There’s so many layers…I can also imagine forms of capitalism that [are] not harmful for our planet and our people.”
Unity of purpose is essential. “That’s why it’s so important for us to be independent from any political parties,” says Wess. “We shouldn’t be too radical in one direction [or] we will lose so many people, who won’t listen to us anymore.”
“We have to come back to the middle ground and get everybody working together. This is the thing that has to happen,” says Long, seriously. “I know that humans can cooperate.”
A changing mindset
In their open letter to the Austrian press last month, FFF explicitly told media NOT to focus only on tales of tragedy and crisis, because these would spread “feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness or apathy.” Instead, people need to demand political action – and consume less.
“I think it’s totally possible to have a really, really great future that is [also] sustainable, and that’s also what the scientists say,” notes Wilfinger.
You “have to do your research” when it comes to making sustainable purchases and choices, Long agrees. But those individuals decisions will add up. People are “questioning their actions and what they’re buying. This is going to become 85% of the world’s population, and then we’ve achieved something.”
“It’s about social norms,” says Wilfinger. “If it’s not socially acceptable to fly to New York every week or to eat steak every other day, then things are going to change.”
Wess acknowledges that making good choices is “complex”. “There are so many factors to think about: Where did it come from, how was it made, how far did it travel.” But the first step is to be conscious and understand that these are choices. “It’s about awareness.”
“We cannot separate social norms from political changes,” says Wilfinger. “The political sphere have done the exact opposite of what they should have done, and they were working against people who were trying to raise awareness.”
But now, people are starting to demand action. “All this push in the last decades equals everything that’s happened in the last year. That’s what’s amazing,” says Long. “For decades there was this slow movement…and in the last year it just snapped – boom!”
Now, says FFF, it’s time for leaders to take charge. “We make [individual] changes that make us feel better,” said Long. “But at the same time, without the pressure on politicians we don’t get the big changes.”
“Politicians are responsible for the big structural changes,” says Wilfinger. “They need to make it cheap and attractrive to live a low-carbon lifestyle and make it really expensive to do carbon-expensive stuff.”
“The concrete policy changes are not large right now, which is very frustrating for those of us striking for this every week,” says Wilfinger. Several cities have declared a climate emergency to highlight that more needs to be done, but more needs to happen. “But then, we already have so much public attention on the topic. It’s fodder for the new election in Austria that’s coming up in two weeks.”
The country isn’t lacking for policy proposals. Two weeks ago, Austrian researchers at the network of the Climate Change Center Austria (CCCA) published a catalogue of specific political, legal and social reforms required for the country to reach its Paris Agreement commitments – from taxing air travel, meat and CO2 to reducing speed limits, restructuring cities and constructing more emissions-neutral buildings. All this might be painful and unpopular; it is nonetheless required, as meteorologist and climate researcher Helga Kromp-Kolb told the daily Der Standard: “Discussing which measures are mandatory is obsolete. They are almost all mandatory.”
But the fact that a plan exists, says Wilfinger, is “really really cool.” The question is whether leaders are actually willing to implement it.
On September 13, Fridays for Future hosted a debate among all the major parties, who put forward their proposals to be assessed by a panel of scientists. These were rated on a scale from red (bad) to dark green (very good). Result? While none got the very best score, the NEOS tied with the Greens for having the most effective plans (light green), while the conservative ÖVP and the FPÖ came in at the bottom (orange). In other words, there’s room for improvement even in the ideal-scenario world of party platforms and campaign promises. Which is why Fridays for Future and its allies and supporters continue to strike each Friday – we’re still just five minutes from midnight.
Five things you can do for the environment
So what can ordinary people do besides wait for election day to roll around? A lot. Here are five things that Fridays for Future says everyone should do:
- Consume less in general: Unsustainable temptations surround us, but we don’t have to give in. “We have so many things we don’t need. Everything is just there, you can buy it at the supermarket. It’s so easy to live unsustainably,” says Wess. But it’s also easy (and cheaper) to be more conscious. “By now it really is something I have in the back of my mind every day. ‘Is this a good decision, do I have to have this?’ Of course I don’t make the right decision every time, but I’m trying.”
- Eat responsibly: Think about “food choices,” says Long. People shouldn’t shamed because they haven’t gone vegan or because they like mangoes – that’s alienating – but everyone should consider what they’re eating. “Just decide that if you do eat meat, eat less meat,” recommends Long. “Buy close – if I pick up tomatoes and they’re from Spain I’m not going to buy them.” Those daily choices add up.
- Wear second-hand clothing. Fast fashion is an environmental killer, the FFF reps say. Wilfinger quit buying new clothes two years ago (we couldn’t tell by looking at him). Instead he shops second hand or goes to clothes-swapping parties that are organized each week in Vienna, and gets excited when he makes a cool find. “It’s really fun to go to and to check out new things and just to see how long you can actually wear stuff [and have it] still look good,” he says. “It’s something that also makes me happy because I’m sticking with my values and am in line with with the way I want to live.”
- Don’t drive short distances. This one, admits Long, is “really hard for people.” But driving is a major source of emissions and everyone should do it less. “You can take a little roller [and walk] down to Hofer. Use a car when you really need to, but don’t take these short trips.”
- Join FFF in striking on Fridays. The easiest thing to do is show up to a protest and begin actively demanding change. “I think what’s so great about FFF is that really everyone can join,” says Wess. “There are so many great people and everyone is so open and tolerant. Anyone can just come and say ‘I want to help’ and do something. So just come!” Long agrees. “It’s a movement of energy. I mean you can just feel it.”
But I don’t speak German. That doesn’t matter, they insist roundly. Mark Long doesn’t speak much either. “There’s no language barrier in this movement at all – we are all working toward to the same goal. English is the unifying language that is happening for this particular movement.” Wilfinger agrees: “We have to have everyone join us, and eventually we have to have people strike from work to really put pressure on politics… We strikers need the grownups to join us.”