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Skipping school to protect the climate

by Hans Dembowski


High school students protesting in Frankfurt on 1 February 2019.

High school students protesting in Frankfurt on 1 February 2019.

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish high school student, has launched an international movement. Her decision to go on strike on Fridays in order to demand action to mitigate global warming is being copied in many countries. In Frankfurt, kids at my sons' school whether they should take part or not.

My sons are 15 and 13 years old. Teenagers have a basic understanding of climate change and are curious about politics. At their school, kids are debating whether to take part or not.  For a few weeks now, rallies have taken place regularly every Friday in Frankfurt. Nobody expects the demonstrations to stop anytime soon. Some high school students are going there, others don't and some change their miends. 

It is interesting to hear what my sons tell us about that debate. Apparently, there is a general consensus that not enough is being done to protect the climate, but some say that only those with a thorough understanding of climate science and climate policy are entitled to act. They suggest it would be better if a delegation of well-informed students held a debate with Chancellor Angela Merkel and tried to convince her.

Others insist that it is a sufficient basis for protesting to know that not enough is being done to stem a very dangerous global trend. It actually does not take in-depth knowledge to know that Germany’s Federal Government has had to admit that the country will not reach its emissions-reduction targets in 2020, and that a dispute is going on within the cabinet concerning how to accelerate emissions reductions.

Another issue students are discussing is whether it is appropriate to rally during school time. Some say it would be better not to break rules. Sacrificing leisure time, they say, would add credibility because there would be no reason for people to think that demonstrators are lazy and basically want to avoid lessons.

To judge from what my sons say, teachers are not seriously discouraging the students from joining the rallies, even during school time. They warn, however, that note will be taken of everyone who is absent without permission.      

So far, the kds do not seem to be aware of what difference civil disobedience can make in public debate. If school strikes become normal and attract masses of students, the authorities will have to respond.

The vast majority of German schools are run by the state governments. Our state, Hesse, is governed by a coalition of the Christian Democrats and the Greens, and neither party is guilty of climate denial. While the Christian Democrats normally insist on rules, the Greens have a long history of supporting non-violent action, even if – or sometimes especially when – it breached established norms. In this context, the Greens tend to cite India’s freedom struggle and the civil-rights movement in the USA as points of reference, praising leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Christian Democrats and Greens converge in their praise for the peaceful revolution that toppled Communist rule in former East Germany. Civil disobedience helped the opposition to prevail. So far, the Christian Democrats have signalled that they prefer student rallies after school hours, but they have been careful not to condemn those who do so on Friday mornings.  

I am sure that some of the leaders of the student strikes want to press the government into repressive action. If the movement gains further momentum and Fridays cease to be regular school days, the authorities would have to decide to take disciplinary action. The standard punishment for skipping too many lessons is to be expelled from school. Excluding masses of students from high-school education because they demand an environmentally safe future, however, would be extremely controversial.

I don’t think any German state government will want to do that. The point is that repressive action against politically motivated civil disobedience boosts the moral message of those practicing disobedience. A climate-change denying government might agitate against climate-protection activism, but German governments don’t deny climate change – whether at national, state or local levels. My guess is that our state government will simply wait for the movement to peter, but I really don’t know what it will do if that does not happen. It’ll face choices it does not want to make.

That sort of dilemma, of course, is what Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who started the international movement, wants governments to face all over the world. She accurately argues that unchecked climate change will destroy her and her generation's future. She asks why they should make an effort to learn if they know their lives will be ruined? International media attention has promoted her cause and made her an international role model. My generation of climate activists has done a reasonable job of raising awareness, but we have failed to reverse emission trends. Perhaps school strikes can make a difference. This is the generation that will bear the brunt - and, yes, they have noticed that extreme weather is occuring more frequently than when we were young.   

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