Youth street protesters turn sights on climate 'villains'

Green New Deal Rising activists protest in Glasgow during COP26. November, 2021. Green New Deal Rising/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

Green New Deal Rising activists protest in Glasgow during COP26. November, 2021. Green New Deal Rising/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

What’s the context?

Frustrated by slow action on climate threats, youth activists are trying more targeted confrontations with bankers and politicians.

  • Youth activists frustrated by slow action on climate threats
  • Targeted confrontation with key leaders now popular
  • Ukraine war, other hot topics incorporated in efforts

LONDON/BRUSSELS - Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, more than 6 million people flooded into the streets in 2019 as part of mass Fridays for Future protests, aiming to force governments and companies to act more swiftly to slash emissions and curb climate change.

But while the protests boosted public awareness of climate threats, the response from institutions was largely reports, letters and "creative accounting", said German activist Luisa Neubauer, who with Sweden's Greta Thunberg helped organise the strikes.

"They're trying to blind us with the nice words and promises, and prevent us from looking into the details and (calling) them out," the 26-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks on the Pyramid stage at Worthy Farm in Somerset during the Glastonbury Festival in Britain, June 25, 2022. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
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Now, with mass climate protests dampened by years of COVID-19 restrictions, youth activists have been exploring new ways to hold institutions to account and accelerate action to avoid the worst impacts of a hotter planet.

That includes targeting protests more selectively at leaders of major institutions - from governments to banks - who hold the power to shift both the policies and money behind climate-wrecking emissions.

As fossil fuel emissions continue to rise, despite pledges of cuts, "we need to apply everything we have," Neubauer said. "We, as a movement, should be everywhere."

Youth activists Evelyn Ocham and Luisa Neubauer hold a press conference outside Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt after meeting CEO Christian Sewing. June 28, 2022. Hosam Katan/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

Youth activists Evelyn Ocham and Luisa Neubauer hold a press conference outside Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt after meeting CEO Christian Sewing. June 28, 2022. Hosam Katan/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

Youth activists Evelyn Ocham and Luisa Neubauer hold a press conference outside Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt after meeting CEO Christian Sewing. June 28, 2022. Hosam Katan/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

Dana Fisher, a sociologist who studies climate activism at the University of Maryland, said the shift marks a key evolution in climate activism.

"Fridays for Future certainly did bring out young people in ways that we hadn't seen before - for a very small moment in time," she said.

"What we've seen is that a lot of climate activists have become really frustrated with the lack of progress," she added, with many now thinking targeted confrontation and disruption are "the only way forward".

Neubauer said her work has also shifted to trying to call out "greenwashing" by banks and other companies keen to portray themselves as acting on climate threats while making little real change.

This week she met with Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, working with Ugandan youth activists to pressure the bank to abandon financing for a proposed new oil pipeline in East Africa, and other fossil fuel expansion.

"They invest in fossil fuels and try to show the public that they are doing something else," said Ugandan activist Evelyn Acham, who insisted Deutsche Bank officially distance itself from the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP).

Acham said it is too dangerous to openly protest in the street in Uganda, but her 'Rise Up Movement' is finding other ways to pressure banks, such as by organising meetings with bank officials and sending them the latest U.N. climate change reports.

"I'm so scared of the future," she said in a telephone interview. "That's why I speak up and I just can’t go back and stay comfortable when people are dying."

Climate 'villains'

Many young activists are now directly targeting climate polluters and their enablers in politics, finance and the media, said Oscar Berglund, a lecturer at the University of Bristol who researches climate protest movements.

"There's a more specific focus on the climate 'villains,'" he said, adding that many current protesters were politicised by the Fridays for Future movement.

One of the movements making headlines in Britain is Green New Deal Rising. Since launching last August, its volunteers have sought - and filmed - confrontations with key politicians such as British finance minister Rishi Sunak.

The activists - primarily in their early 20s - recently disrupted an oil and gas industry event in Parliament with loud speeches accusing the companies of driving both the climate crisis and higher energy costs.

"We feel that, too often, decision makers go unchallenged," said Hannah Martin, co-executive director of Green New Deal UK, which organises the movement.

Activists hope to build a multi-party coalition of political support for more radical and swift climate action.

Popularised in the United States by politicians such as U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, "green new deal" proposals aim to address climate change alongside social justice problems such as inequality and racial discrimination.

Martin says younger climate activists "understand the interconnectedness of these issues," which is why they campaign on a variety of political causes, including attacking the British government's policy to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

The group has surprised UK parliamentarians at public events and inundated them with persistent questions, something Martin calls an accessible way for grassroots activists to get politicians "on the record" about their green views and actions.

"At the end of the day, they're our representatives and they should be held accountable," she said.

Ukraine war links

Some young climate activists have also found ways to link their fight to hot-button issues.

In Poland, the war in neighbouring Ukraine persuaded climate justice activist Wiktoria Jędroszkowiak to drop out of university and travel across Europe to confront politicians on fossil fuel financing.

When her phone buzzed at 5am with a call from a friend saying the Russians had invaded Ukraine, her first reaction was to rush to a Polish train station to help arriving refugees.

"But after a moment we realised, 'Wait, this is not our job,'" the 20-year-old said. "I mean, like, we're climate justice activists. We know what this war is about."

For Jędroszkowiak and fellow campaigners, merging action on the Russian invasion and climate change is a natural fit.

Staunching the flow of Russian fossil fuels could help dry up funding for the invasion while curbing climate change and potentially stoking renewables investment, they say.

In May, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the Eastern European activists cornered French President Emmanuel Macron, calling him out for not forcing French oil and gas company TotalEnergies to retreat from Russia.

Another recent confrontation posted online showed Jędroszkowiak being accosted by security at the Austria World Summit after repeatedly asking Frans Timmermans, who leads the European Commission's Green Deal work, about the EU's policy on green investments.

Jędroszkowiak said politicians seem anxious to avoid youth activists, highlighting this week's G7 leaders summit in a closed-off castle in Germany's Bavarian Alps.

But confronting politicians face-to-face and interupting speeches are an important way to break through to them and to wider audiences, she said.

"We want to shatter all of these theatres they create and reveal their lies," she said, in a social media message. "Our power now lies in being unpredictable and everywhere."


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