Severe policing and “scary” political rhetoric is fuelling abuse against climate activists, Germany’s best-known environmentalist has said.
“It’s not a shift any more, it’s a slide,” said Luisa Neubauer, from the German branch of Fridays for Future, the protest movement that grew out of Greta Thunberg’s school strikes. “There’s an increase in hate language, there’s an increase in threats, and the threats are getting more concrete. So they’re not saying any more ‘I hate you’ but they’re saying ‘We should come to your place, we should go get you.’”
Germany has increasingly cracked down on climate protests as they have grown more disruptive, with police using laws designed to fight organised crime to tap phones, raid homes, freeze bank accounts and place activists in preventive detention. In September, the human rights group Amnesty International added Germany to a list of countries where the state was restricting the public’s right to protest.
“The shift that we’re seeing – the sliding of societal normality – that is not just something that has to do with laws and police presence,” said Neubauer. “This is something to do with rhetoric that has been taken over in almost the entire democratic party spectrum in Germany.”
A government spokesperson said Amnesty was wrong to include Germany in its map and that protest was always possible, but must be within the framework of the law. They said: “From our point of view, engagement in climate protection should unite us as a society, not divide us.”
Activists argue it is the increasingly extreme rhetoric from mainstream political parties that is doing just that.
Senior politicians in Germany have compared Last Generation, a nonviolent protest group that has blockaded motorways and thrown paint on glass-covered artworks, to terrorist organisations such as the Red Army Faction, a far-left group that killed dozens of people in the 1970s and 80s. Earlier this year, in tweets that have since been deleted, politicians from the centre-left and centre-right parties drew links between Last Generation and the Taliban.
The chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who has described the protests as “completely idiotic”, appeared to compare climate activists to Nazis last year after two people disrupted a panel at which he was speaking in Stuttgart. “Let me say frankly, these black-clad spectacles at different events, always by the same people, remind me of a time that lies long in the past – and thank God for that,” he said, to loud applause.
Scholz and his team denied he was referring to the Nazis in interviews and press conferences over the days that followed, but refused to say which other black-clad group from history he could have meant. When asked again by the Guardian whom Scholz had meant, the government spokesperson referred to a previous statement from a colleague who had said “the chancellor’s comments stand for themselves”.
Neubauer, who criticised Scholz’s comparison at the time, said his language had changed the way people saw activists. “He is the leader of the country. People read his remarks … and suddenly feel a complete new ownership, accusing me and making threats against activists like me and others,” she said.
A member of Neubauer’s security detail agreed with her assessment that threats against her had grown more common and concrete. The security guard shared an internal report compiled the week after the event in Stuttgart that documented “very many hate comments”, some violent and threatening, in particular under articles about Scholz. “There were often comments that Scholz was right and they [climate activists] were like the ‘Sturmabteilung’, ‘fascists’ or ‘climate terrorists’,” the report found.
The threats have grown to a point where Neubauer, a 27-year-old geography student, goes to lectures with a bodyguard. She said she had to decline a recent request to sign an open letter in support of asylum seekers “because I knew that weekend my security guards were on a break”.
The hate is “99.9% from men”, she added. “They had websites open where people would fantasise about how best to rape me.”
There was a broad swell of support in Germany for the climate movement in 2019 as Fridays for Future protests sprang up across the country. But public opinion has soured as protesters from Last Generation, who want to raise the level of urgency and put more pressure on politicians, have turned to disruptive stunts that are more likely to grab headlines and get people talking about the climate crisis.
A study from More in Common, a nonprofit pushing for social cohesion, found that general support for the climate movement in Germany has fallen from 68% to 34% in the last two years. The share of people who agreed that the climate movement has “the wellbeing of all of society in mind” fell from 60% to 25%.
Neubauer said there were initially lively debates within Fridays for Future about how closely to align with Last Generation, “but now after one and a half years with nothing but a political backlash this is really changing. People are worried there’s no strategy to counter the backlash.”skip past newsletter promotion
Activists from both groups say they have grown frustrated with the slow pace of change and the government’s lack of respect for its own climate legislation.
In 2021, Germany’s top court declared the country’s climate law “partly unconstitutional” after Neubauer and other activists argued it violated their human rights. The government strengthened the law with tougher targets for each sector of the economy. Ministers were ordered to come up with an “immediate action plan” if they failed to meet their targets.
But since then, sectors such as transport and buildings have seen little consequence for failing to cut pollution as fast as the law requires. The government’s scientific watchdog declared the transport minister’s latest action plan too weak to qualify for a full analysis, while the environment agency said its planned measures would “barely” narrow the gap between projected emissions and targets.
In June, after pressure from the Free Democrat party that controls the transport ministry, the cabinet agreed to scrap the sectoral targets from its climate law altogether.
Neubauer said: “I think we will look back and they will look back and we’re going to be deeply ashamed about what is happening right now – and how we see democracies under fire from the right, but also from the climate crisis.”
The government spokesperson said climate protection was a top priority for the federal government, and the goal of climate neutrality by 2045 was more important than ever. “Climate protection efforts are successful when society and the state work together. We all bear responsibility for our environment. The young generation in particular has high expectations of politics for good reasons.”
The spokesperson listed several measures the government was taking to cut emissions, but did not address its failure to meet targets set out in its climate law.
“Honestly, right now, I don’t know where this is going to end,” said Neubauer. “Because activists are getting more frustrated, for all the good reasons, society is getting more aggressive for their reasons, and the police are standing inbetween, but clearly taking the side of those who are attacking activists … And our politicians pretend they have nothing to do with that. That’s so cruel.”
Source : The Guardian