BERLIN — It’s rush hour on a cold, snowy morning in Berlin. Commuter traffic has been ground to a halt at a freeway exit on the western edge of the city as a dozen climate activists sit at a crosswalk facing four lanes of cars and trucks.
The activists belong to a group called the Letzte Generation, or Last Generation. Like many scientists, they argue that it will be too late for future generations to stop the climate crisis if governments don’t act now.
Group member Lina Johnsen looks cool as she finishes gluing her chapped, gloveless hands to the icy track with industrial-strength super glue.
“We’re here today because we can’t just look and see what the government is doing right now,” says Johnsen, a 24-year-old college student majoring in environmental science. “They are not taking backward steps to protect the lives of future generations.”
Germany, the largest economy in Europe, is racing to replace Russian natural gas after Moscow cut a key pipe during the summer. At odds with government climate protection pledges, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s ruling coalition is investing more in fossil fuels, not less. That firing up old coal power plants and invest in completely new LNG infrastructure to fill the void left by the now-defunct Nord Stream 1 pipeline.
As a result, climate activists like Johnsen are holding increasingly disruptive protests on an almost daily basis. Some days it is on a major thoroughfare in the city; in others, the runway of the Munich or Berlin airports.
Climate urgency meets road rage
Sitting with others who have hit the road at a recent protest, Johnsen is blinded by the headlights of the vehicles the activists are stopping.
Some of the drivers rev their engines out of frustration. Others get out of their cars and shout in anger.
Johnsen admits she’s intimidated, but she pales in comparison to the bigger picture: “I’m more afraid of how people will react when we fight over food or clean water in a few decades,” she says. “I want to avoid this future. I don’t want this.”
One driver, Jenni Pröller, 48, says she is also anxious about the future of the planet, but this is not the place to discuss it. “I have nothing against protests, but this is something else! The audacity of these people!” shouts Proeller. “I’m trying to get my daughter to an exam. She’s a law student and she’s sitting at the bar this morning.”
Another activist, Theodor Schnarr, 33, says he knows he is unpopular. According to a recent survey conducted for Mirror magazine86% of Germans disapprove of protesters disrupting their movements, but 53% agree that the government is not doing enough to tackle climate change.
Hannibal Hanschke/Getty Images
Schnarr has been arrested and jailed twice for stopping traffic. As a biochemist, he says that he is very aware of the science and warnings of climate change.
The burning of fossil fuels is accelerating climate change that is already causing catastrophic consequences around the world, and scientists warn that it will only get worse as long as nations do not make drastic cuts in the emissions of harmful gases.
“If we were to compare the situation to a war, we wouldn’t go on as normal,” says Schnarr. “And we is it so in a desperate situation. So we should also act like one and implement a emergency economy. This is one of the things the German government should do.”
Fossil fuels as a short-term necessity
Less than a week after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Economy and Climate Protection Minister Robert Habeck warned that Germany may have to resort to using more fossil fuels in the short term to ensure its energy supply.
“When it comes to guaranteeing energy supply, pragmatism trumps any political determination,” Habeck told the public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.
This fall, Scholz, the Social Democratic chancellor who formed a government with two other parties, announced an extra 200 billion euros (about $212 billion) to help cover skyrocketing energy prices in the coming season. This money is paying for the fossil fuels that replace Russian gas.
Now Habeck, a member of the environmentalist Green Party, is the cabinet minister responsible for finding these fossil fuels. Insist on measures like yours LNG deal with Qatar They are short-term solutions.
But in a recent interview with public broadcaster ZDF, he advocated for a clean energy path to follow. “The fuel of the future is not coal, gas or oil,” he said. “Our task is to create a carbon-neutral economy…That’s why we hope everyone will do their part to help build a future free of fossil fuels.”
Some 46% of the country’s electricity came from renewable sources this year, according to German environmental agency. Habeck is confident that he can double that in the next seven years.
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Christoph Bals, policy director at the non-profit organization Germanwatch, says it is taking too long to implement the government’s ambitious renewable energy legislation due to disagreements between the three coalition parties.
“Germany is way behind on renewable energy and adopting electric vehicles because Green Party policies are being blocked and delayed by libertarian members of the Free Democrat Cabinet,” he tells NPR.
Transport and justice ministers from the Free Democratic Party are among those calling for harsher punishment for climate activists who occupy highways and airport runways.
Bals says that while he understands activists’ frustrations over the increased use of gas and coal, those who break the law face legal consequences. But, he says, the highest court has sided with environmentalists before.
“Germany’s constitutional court has already ruled that the previous government’s inaction on climate change was unconstitutional,” says Bals, referring to a decision in 2021. “Then the same court may well consider these protests legitimate because they aim to protect larger interests, namely the fundamental rights of future generations.”
The police have been raiding the houses of the activists.
The climate justice group Letzte Generation has intensified its protests across Germany. Their strategies, including museum public acts. artwork vandalism – have sometimes run parallel to activism seen in other parts of europe.
German police have carried out a series of raids on the homes of Letzte Generation members and are investigating whether a recent protest delayed an ambulance before fatally crashing.
Schnarr insists that they always let emergency services through: “We don’t want to endanger people. We don’t want to endanger ourselves,” he says. “This is the exact opposite of what our government is doing.”
Back on the road, a policeman uses a pastry brush dipped in cooking oil to dissolve the glue holding Johnsen’s hands to the road. Another officer waits with a blindfold and handcuffs at the ready.
It is a slow and painful process. An ER doctor waiting in line of vehicles is 90 minutes late on his way to the hospital.
As the exchanges grow brief, it’s clear that everyone shares a sense of urgency and frustration.