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The many shades of Berlin’s climate activists

How radical is too radical? Earlier this year, we spoke to the organisers driving environmental protests in Berlin. They may differ in approach, but they have one shared goal: saving the planet.

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How radical is too radical? Earlier this year, we spoke to the organisers driving environmental protests in Berlin. They may differ in approach, but they have one shared goal: saving the planet. Photo: Supplied

Climate activism was the story of 2019. It all started with a girl called Greta, who skipped school and sailed around the world to tell us our house was on fire. Closer to home, Berliner school kids followed her lead and took Fridays off to march for a carbon-free future. Elsewhere, activists from Extinction Rebellion literally used their bodies to shut down bridges, roads and squares in cities across the world, while anti-fossil fuel radicals Ende Gelände stormed coal mines to protest the ongoing existence of the German coal industry. But if 2019 was all about the climate, 2020 has been all about Corona: the pandemic replaced the environment on front pages, while social distancing measures forced protestors to pack away their placards for months on end. As the health crisis continues to roll on, activists have begun to regroup with new and radical plans to regain the agenda.

Klimaneustart: A climate blueprint for Berlin

Back with a new name and a new plan to bring direct democracy to Berlin’s climate politics, Klimaneustart is the citizens’ group hoping to breathe life back into the city’s climate debate. In their previous incarnation as Klimanotstand, the group successfully lobbied the Senat to declare a climate emergency back in January. Reconvening on August 5, the rebranded group with around 30 core members launched a new petition calling for the establishment of a Climate Citizens’ Assembly (CCA) in the Berlin Senat. Inspired by similar CCAs in France, Klimaneustart wants to bring together a randomly-selected group of around 100 local citizens, who, with the help of climate scientists and policy experts, would then make recommendations to the Senat.

“The CCA would be a representative microcosm of the population, not only for the sake of fairness, but for the sake of engagement,” says organiser Felix Nasser, a 28-year-old sustainability and climate consultant from Hamburg who helped set up Klimanotstand last year. “The topic of the climate crisis is so big that we have to get everybody to the table; people who are from different districts, who have different socio-economic backgrounds.”

The group’s drive towards a more direct dialogue with the Senat is a by-product of their frustrations with the old campaign. While Klimanotstand successfully convinced the city to declare a climate emergency and increase its 2050 reduction target from 85 to 95 percent, the victory was symbolic, with little by way of concrete policy change. And although the proposed assembly wouldn’t have the power to force politicians’ hands, Nasser argues that it would increase the Senat’s accountability. “We want the assembly to make the recommendations available to the public, so that other people would identify with them and say, ‘I think this is a good recommendation, why aren’t you politicians acting on this?’”

To turn the idea into reality, campaigners need to collect 20,000 signatures within the next six months and convince Berlin’s parliament of the merits of their cause. Luckily, the group has friends in reasonably high places, with 35-year-old Georg Kössler from the Green Party faction in the Abgeordnetenhaus among those supporting the initiative. Klimaneustart’s 33-year-old press coordinator Rabea Koss believes this assembly is just what is needed to create a blueprint for Berlin’s future climate policy. “There’s a big gap between citizens and politicians,” says Koss, whose first foray into activism was with Klimanotstand last year. “And with the Citizens’ Assembly, it’s a great tool for getting everyone on board, to take the time to really learn about a topic and to form an informed opinion.”

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Felix Nasser, a 28-year-old sustainability and climate consultant from Hamburg. Photo: Paul Alexander Probst

Radikal Klima – Berlin’s climate party

While one arm of last year’s Klimanotstand campaign is pushing ahead with plans for a citizens’ assembly, the lack of meaningful progress has sent another into party politics to try and bring about change from the inside. “There wasn’t enough follow-up at all, and the politicians didn’t show any effort to push it into the right direction,” says 36-year-old Moritz Ellenberg, another Klimanotstand co-founder. “So that’s why we said, ‘Okay, this instrument is now at an end, we have to find another instrument – and we thought we had to form a party.”

And so, out of the ashes of Klimanotstand, Radikal Klima, Berlin’s very own political party dedicated to climate issues, was born. While Corona scuppered plans for an April start, the party, which will field candidates in Berlin state elections next year, was officially launched on August 9 in 35-degree temperatures at the ELSE open-air club in Treptow. It seemed apt that a party trying to stop the earth from overheating chose one of the hottest days of the year for its launch. “We can expect more sweaty faces if we don’t act,” Ellenberg, a sports management graduate turned activist, told the party’s 70 or so sandal-clad supporters.

Underpinning the party’s “no bullshit, no compromises” approach, as Ellenberg puts it, is the goal to keep warming within 1.5 degrees that featured in the 2015 Paris Agreement. For its part, Radikal Klima wants to turn Berlin into a net-zero-emission city by 2030, 20 years earlier than the Senat’s current plans. To do this, they want 100 percent of the city’s energy and heating to be powered by renewables by the end of the decade, sourced from solar panels on all Berliner Dächer and wind farms in rural areas. To meet these targets, the city would need to dramatically change its ways. According to Stromnetz Berlin, the capital sources just a fifth of its energy from renewables. Another goal to make all transport in Berlin – including the soon-to-be-opened BER Airport – carbon-free by 2030 would mean significantly overhauling how the city moves. The party want to clamp down on cars in the capital, introducing pollution tolls on combustion engine vehicles by 2022 as well as car-free zones. As for the airport, Ellenberg says aviation simply needs to change, with planes running on fossil fuel to be banned from flying into the city by 2030.

How the party will realise its radical goals is not yet clear. For now, Radikal Klima has just a basic programme of aims but is promising to publish concrete policies ahead of next year’s state elections. While many of Radikal Klima’s supporters and founders are disaffected Green voters, unhappy with the latter’s moderate approach to climate targets, there is concern among some that the horse-trading nature of party politics could see it follow a similar path.

To allay any concerns that they will fold at the first sniff of power, Ellenberg says the party has very clear red lines. “Our foundation is relatively clear: 1.5 degrees, which on current scientific research means being climate neutral by 2030. Of course, we can make coalitions with parties that are ready to take this path, but we can’t make any compromises.”

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Help make Berlin carbon neutral. Photo: Alexander Probst

Perhaps unsurprisingly, not everyone is over the moon about these gutsy new greenies. Kössler, from Die Grünen, is worried that Radikal Klima could end up splitting the climate-focused vote and with it his party’s chances of power. “I’m always sceptical when a new progressive branch appears, especially because we have a five percent threshold to get into Parliament,” he says. “We’re hoping to get the top spot for the first time in Green hands, and that project is endangered by Radikal Klima.”

Nevertheless, Kössler, who says he sits on the radical wing of his party when it comes to the climate, does have sympathy for the cause, and hopes the party stays true to its name. “If they only say, ‘Okay, we want 2030 as a new goal,’ and the measures they propose are the same as ours, then I don’t see the point of another party. It cannot be just about the number – they have to come up with more radical measures in order to really open up the political spectrum and activate more people.”

Fridays back on the streets

As green politicians of different shades battle it out, Berlin’s branch of Fridays for Future is also ready to come out of hibernation. Inspired by Greta Thunberg, the Fridays movement in Germany grew from a handful of kids sitting in front of the Bundestag to a quarter of a million people within a few months. And while they hadn’t been on the streets since March, the Klima kids returned with a new demo on September 25.

Politically engaged from a young age, Clara joined Fridays in February of last year and, at just 19, has become one of the movement’s most recognisable faces in Berlin, playing a leading role in the incredible rise in support which culminated in a huge protest last September. “We all had bets on how many people would come. And I thought maximum 40,000 – maximum,” Mayer says excitedly in perfect English, a product of her parents’ decision to send her to one of Berlin’s international schools. “But at the end they said there were 270,000 people. I just did the numbers in my head and thought, ‘That can’t be, there must be something wrong.’ I’m still just completely overwhelmed when I think about it.”

The group’s success was tapping into broader societal concerns over climate change, but fundamental too was their use of digital tools to organise and promote their events. “They are very internet savvy and can use social media,” says Stefanie Groll, a researcher from the Heinrich-Böll Stiftung, a political foundation linked to the Green Party. And although social media has been a great tool for the movement, Mayer has experienced the dark side of how it can be used against women in the public sphere. “I have so many people sending me rape threats and deaths threats that I can’t even say where I work,” she says. “It’s strange, because you get all those nice young girls between 12 and 14 who text me the loveliest things and say, ‘Oh my god, you’ve inspired me to pursue my activism.’ And then the next minute there’s another DM with a rape threat.” She is quick to add that she’s not scared: “The fact that they feel intimidated enough to send me those messages proves that I’m doing the right thing.”

Fridays has come to symbolise a new generation of climate activists. The women leading it – Thunberg globally, Luisa Neubauer in Germany and Mayer in Berlin – are vocal, well educated and socially conscious. But given their seemingly middle-class upbringings, many have asked where these climate stars got their sense of urgency. “We were born into extremes: the extreme of the climate crisis and the extreme of individualisation, and I think a lot of young people just needed to break out,” says Mayer, who on top of organising climate strikes also volunteers at an intensive care unit at a Berlin hospital.

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Clara Mayer, 19, is one of the main organisers behind Berlin’s Fridays for Future movement. Photo: Yozy Zhang

It’s a sentiment shared by outspoken activist Tadzio Müller, who is co-founder of climate group Ende Gelände and senior advisor for climate justice and international politics at a left-wing think tank. A strong supporter of Fridays, 44-year-old Müller points out how young activists are shaped by their environment. “They’ve grown up in a world where they had to be ‘individuals’, a neo-liberal world, but at the same time they’ve gone through these events that have forced them to think in more collectivist terms.”

But despite being the symbols of the new generation, Groll says that many of those involved with Fridays still believe in political institutions. “We know from empirical research that they believe that politics and politicians can actually change something. A lot of them are not anti-state: they believe in democracy, they believe more or less in the political system that we have and they don’t want a revolution. They want a normative change within our constitutional, democratic system.”

How radical is too radical?

While all these activist groups mostly agree on their aims, the broad nature of the climate movement (“50 shades of green”, as Groll puts it) means that they often differ in their strategies. One key fault line is so-called e-growth versus de-growth: the idea that the development of ‘green’ industries, often through technological innovation, can help reduce climate emissions without harming economic growth, versus the more radical argument that only a dramatic reduction in economic activity can tackle the problem. Grünes Wachstum has become a buzzword for established parties like the Greens, but for Radikal Klima, balancing environmental and economic goals has been tricky.

“It has been controversially discussed in the party, if and what kind of growth we need. We agree that sectors like renewable energies and healthcare have to expand,” says Janka Eckert, the 31-year-old textile engineer-cum-sustainable management graduate who sits on the party’s newly elected five-person board.

“You can’t only rely on renewables research and technology, and you can’t only go by reducing carbon emissions through conventional means alone. You’d have a hard time reaching the goal and keeping our standard of living. But with the right technology you can basically do more and use more without hurting the environment,” says 34-year-old political scientist Wolf Söllner, who, before joining Radikal Klima, was a member of the Greens. However, for others, the relationship between falling economic growth and emissions – highlighted by the recent Corona shutdown – has shown that only a significant drop in economic activity can help achieve climate goals.

“With the climate, you just can’t have a few green reforms and change a few things. You need to go to the root, to growth. The only thing that will reduce emissions is reducing the size of the economy. What we need is de-growth,” says Müller. “I believe that the story that we can have some sort of climate-just transition in the Global North where nobody loses material consumption possibilities is absolute bullshit. Unfortunately, too many climate activists insist on telling it because they’re afraid of the hard-sell.”

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“We have no Plan B.” Photo: Mika Baumeister

But how radical should activists be? While Klimaneustart, Radikal Klima and Fridays for Future all try to appeal to existing political structures, Müller believes there is room for civil disobedience given the current climate. Following what he calls the “double-whammy” of the coal phase-out law – which, contrary to its name, will see Germany’s coal-fired power generation continue until 2038 – and the inability of the movement to respond with mass demonstrations due to Corona, Müller suggests a starker rethink. “When the political system doesn’t deliver, then we have to up the pain that a movement can inflict on a political and economic system. Hence the idea of having these mass, low-level blockades in the inner city. I still believe that’s the right way to go, but I’ve also been part of the disobedient wing of the movement.”

Müller isn’t alone here: last month, the activism alliance ‘Zucker im Tank’, which includes figures from Extinction Rebellion and Ende Gelände, blocked access to a Shell refinery in North-Rhine Westphalia. And while some might have preferred strategies, most participants in the movement agree that a combined effort is necessary to change climate policy. “You have to think of these as different wings of the movement that have different types of capabilities, that can do different things, but that are working towards the same goal,” says Müller.

Coexisting or collaborating?

But the question remains: how do you get these groups to work with, instead of against, each other? “How do people who want to create a political party fit together with those who break the rules of everything and those who want to have mass mobilisations like Fridays?” asks Müller. A start, he believes, would be coming together for honest debate. “You need to create non-public fora where all these actors can get together and talk with each other. And they have to be non-public, because in public conversations you have to play to your respective audience, which makes strategic coordination harder.”

In a step towards this, Radikal Klima, which sees itself as the political branch of the radical climate movement, has pledged to consult other activist groups when developing their climate plans. 2020 has so far been a tough year for climate activism, but despite all the difficulties of the past six months and the significant challenges ahead, activists are hoping to find enough common ground to bounce back. “One thing I’ve found remarkable about climate activism is its focus,” says Müller. “Because of these tipping points and ecosocial systems just breaking at some point and not getting back up again, you have a greater sense of urgency – and people are more inclined to work with each other.”