Climate Activism in Germany: New Extremes

German climate activists are going to great lengths to urge their government to implement new environmental legislation. In their most recent protest, fifteen climate activists glued themselves to the asphalt of one of Berlin’s main highways – some protestors adhered not only their clothes but also their skin to make it harder for law enforcement to remove them. A video from Reuters captures images of aggravated drivers abandoning their cars to drag protestors off the road by their backpacks and hoods. Other images capture German police ungluing the hands of protestors cemented to the asphalt of Berlin’s main A100 highway. Many of this week’s protesters were from the climate activist group, “Letzte Generation” (Last Generation). The group was advocating for the implementation of a law that would eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and reduce food waste in Germany.

In addition to Monday’s protest, 252 other German activists have participated in this series of regional road blockades in the past two weeks; 69 of them fused themselves to the highway. Law enforcement officers from across the region are currently working to verify the identities of protestors and place them in custody. Police from the southwestern city of Freiburg launched investigations against 11 people. A Berlin police spokesperson said she could not report how many people have been detained since the beginning of the protests this week. Letzte Generation sources report that at the end of the day on Friday, over 50 activists had been placed in custody across several German cities.

“By planning to achieve climate neutrality by 2045, the German government is breaking its constitutional obligation to protect our lives,” activist and spokesperson Carla Hinrichs, said in a statement. “By 2030, we will exceed 1.5 degrees (average rise in global temperatures). The government is not only breaking international law but committing a crime against humanity by deliberately heading for a world hotter by 2, 3, 4 degrees with billions dying of hunger,” she added.

Germany is ahead of the curve when it comes to addressing the climate crisis. Global warming has become a prominent political issue that voters expect politicians to confront, in contrast to the United States, where the legitimacy of climate change is still being debated. Andreas Goldthau, a research leader at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, notes that the distinction in American and German electorates comes from decades of environmental messaging in Europe. “The whole idea of the environment being important is something that has been with most of the European electorate for the last 40 years,” Goldthau said. “So, voters understand climate change, they can make sense of it, and it is a topic they can engage with.” German climate activist, Clara Thompson, reiterates this in an op-ed published by Al Jazeera. “Germany has long adopted pro-environment rhetoric.” She notes, however, that they often lack “actual effective measures to combat the climate crisis.”

Civil disobedience is an important dimension of German climate progress; it has proven to be an efficient way to accelerate change. Germany’s robust civil society has effectively secured a significant place for climate change on the political agenda. From students skipping school to draw attention to the crisis in 2018 to a hundred thousand German voters gathering across 400 cities before the national elections, German activists have successfully accomplished significant legislative progress over the past ten years. Thompson argues that it’s because it disrupts a key component of German culture. “[Why] civil disobedience garners publicity also has to do with preserving ‘ordnung’ (order) – a strong cultural tradition in Germany that dates back to Reformist Martin Luther’s call for obedience to authorities in his writings,” she writes.

Globally, very few nations consider climate change to be a key concern. This is because they are either privileged enough not to view it as an immediate threat, or have adequate resources and international leverage to effect change. Like many rich nations, Germany is not immediately threatened by climate change. Still, through robust community organizing and activism, they have been able to overcome the collective action dilemma and make meaningful progress. Though gluing one’s hands to asphalt may seem extreme, perhaps the extremity of the situation is one of the only effective ways to strike a nerve of high-level politicians. One thing is certain – these activists have successfully captured not only the attention of their government but also that of the international community.