Ms. Otto, would you throw mashed potatoes at a painting to protest for climate protection?
They are certainly alluding to the actions of the last generation. No, I wouldn’t do that. If I were to take part in such actions, I could possibly end up in police custody for a few hours – and I don’t want to risk that. Legal problems could prevent me from doing my job. I also see my role in other areas of activity such as research, teaching and training the next generation of experts on climate change and the energy transition. Nevertheless, I support the actions of climate activists.
Because I think they are entitled. We simply don’t react enough to the consequences of climate change. The roads to which members of the Last Generation are stuck could also be blocked by wildfires or floods, as we are already seeing in some parts of the world. And in the future this will happen even more often due to climate change. We need to look at what’s at stake.
Ilona Otto is Professor of Societal Impacts of Climate Change at the Wegener Center for Climate and Global Change at the University of Graz.
© Source: University of Graz/Leljak
But does it absolutely need protest actions like those of the last generation?
These protest actions attract attention. People talk about it.
The issue of climate change is not a priority
People also talked about the Fridays for Future movement. And their protests were legal.
The Fridays for Future movement continues to be important and has made a big difference. But climate policy is not as advanced as it should be. CO₂ emissions continue to rise. Therefore the protests of the last generation are justified. It’s all too slow. Decision-makers and companies still have priorities other than climate change. That needs to change. Climate change needs to be back at the top of the priority list. If we don’t act radically now and don’t change climate policy, it will only get worse.
The last generation demands a permanent 9-euro ticket and a speed limit on the motorways. That’s why the climate activists are sticking themselves together, blocking roads and soiling works of art. Is it worth it?
A speed limit and a €9 ticket are good demands, but it takes a lot more than that. I understand that this is just the beginning. We should take these protests seriously and think about the reasons for these actions. That means we have to think about what we can do to avert the climate catastrophe, how everyone can save on carbon emissions. Policy makers need to expand renewable energy infrastructure and companies need to reduce fossil fuel consumption.
It takes time to understand the protests
My impression is that few people care about the reasons for the actions of the Last Generation. Rather, they condemn the protests and sometimes even call for harsher penalties for the climate activists. The demands for climate protection are lost.
It’s true that people get upset about it. This also has to do with how the protests are portrayed in the media. In the end, the actions are primarily intended to stimulate debate – and that’s what’s happening right now. Of course it would be better if the climate activists could relax and do some other actions. But we don’t have any more time. The question that arises is: What is more pleasant – standing in a traffic jam because climate activists are stuck on the street, or because flooding and the cars destroyed as a result are blocking the way? Because the latter could happen in the future.
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The members of the Last Generation are now being abused as “road blockers”, “museum rioters” and “criminal offenders”. They have even been compared to the left-wing extremist terrorist group Red Army Faction (RAF), which has been responsible for several murders, bomb attacks and kidnappings. What do you think of these comparisons?
Comparisons to the RAF are totally inappropriate. But it has to be said that many protests and social movements throughout history were initially sharply criticized. I am thinking, for example, of the women’s movements, the protests against racism in the USA or the lesbian and gay movements. Here, too, there were people who viewed these actions as crimes. Maybe it just takes time for people to understand the motivations of climate activists. And maybe their actions, like other protests in the past, can also do something positive.
Do you also see the danger that the climate movement is becoming radicalized?
The climate movement is actually becoming more radical. But perhaps that is also necessary because nothing is changing in climate policy. I understand that the young activists are disappointed. So that there is no misunderstanding: I am against violence of any kind. It is important that nobody is harmed during the protests. For this reason, climate activists should ensure, for example, that there are enough escape routes for their actions.
Successful change is possible
Illegal occupations and blockades are actually nothing new in the history of climate activism. The forest occupations in the Hambach Forest, for example, are likely to be remembered. Does climate protest have to become more rigorous at a certain point in time?
Not in principle. However, there are enough examples from the past to show that such actions can successfully transform society and politics. For example, the protests by farmers in several countries like the Netherlands, where roads have also been blocked. Or the women’s movements. Otherwise, weaker, discriminated groups in society generally have no chance of asserting themselves. This also applies to young climate activists. They are mostly still students, not yet going to work, do not hold top positions in companies or occupy important positions in politics. You have to make your voice heard elsewhere.
Can Fridays for Future and the Last Generation still bring about a major climate change?
We all have to bring about the great climate change. I don’t understand why young people first have to take to the streets for this. The future of our children and grandchildren is at stake. It is clear that we need major political and societal changes to tackle climate change – and everyone can contribute. I hope that the protests by climate activists will continue to shake people up.