In August 2018, Greta Tunberg, then 15 years old, led a sit-in in front of the Swedish parliament to fight the climate crisis. Then the Friday Movement was born for the future. Today, every Friday, young people from 215 countries around the world unite to protest in front of their school, national parliament or local town hall. Helena Marshall was a pioneer of this movement in Germany. She first struck out in 2018, along with several other young men, and hasn’t stopped since. As an economics student, she believes that young people watching this crisis may decide that they can still solve the problem.
In an exclusive interview for BlastingTalks, Helena Marshall shows us the power a generation can have over its governments and politicians. This proves that every young person has considerable power to put pressure on political leaders to take concrete measures to limit global warming.
Latest news: Helena, you are responsible for the national public relations work for the future of Germany. When did you join the Friday for the Future initiative and why?
Helena Marshall: It all started in 2018 when I read articles and summaries of the IPCC special report on 1.5 degrees. That really worried me, because what the best scientists were saying seemed pretty obvious, but nobody was doing anything about it. I was in a very depressed state. I’ve seen all these NGOs, all these people trying to take climate action, and it clearly hasn’t worked.
I didn’t think there was anything I could do to change things. And then, in the fall of that year, Greta Tanberg went on strike, and many other people around the world went on strike at school. Greta then spoke at COP24 in Poland, and her speech went around the world. Then I realized that many people in Germany feel the same way I do.
We all started doing these WhatsApp groups or just adding people, and a few days later we organized our first school strike, the very first strike Friday for the future in Germany. I didn’t stop after that because the school striker really felt strong and felt he had the potential to do something.
You’ve just finished high school and are starting a degree in economics.
Why this choice? Did you choose this subject to stop climate change?
Of course, I think about the climate crisis a lot, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the last few years, so that comes to me as a student of economic theory. The climate crisis will indeed change the way we live in our society, but it will also change our economic system – indeed, it should. The question is what these changes will look like and how they can be implemented. When I study economics, I look for answers to these questions. It is perfectly clear that it is not a question of climate or economics. It is about facing up to the climate crisis and taking all necessary measures to end it.
Most FFF members are teenagers or young adults, the generation that will be most affected by global warming.
Do you sometimes feel ignored or humiliated because of your age, or does it have the opposite effect?
Of course we are told we don’t know what we are talking about when we are young. However, I think what animates minds and society the most are the stories we tell about ourselves. I think as young people, when we look at this crisis, we can decide that we need to solve this problem, that we can still save a lot. We need to tell our stories authentically, make ourselves vulnerable and show not only our fear and anger, but also our determination. In this respect, our age and the way we look at the world is a great advantage.
The FFF has established itself in 215 countries. How did this happen? What is the main argument for convincing young people around the world to strike every Friday?
I don’t think that’s the best argument or the most convincing. I think a lot of young people now have the same feeling they used to have, the desire to go out. Young people all over the world are already becoming aware of the climate crisis, whether they are dealing with heat or natural disasters themselves or just seeing it on the news. So I think this movement is much more of an opportunity for us young people to finally be able to act. It gives us an outlet for our anger and fear, which we can use effectively to bring about change. So it’s not so much about individual travel and interacting with people from all those countries, but much more than that. The movement was created because young people inspire other young people. We have been given power by ourselves, by our generation.
If someone is reluctant to act, for example. B. Sitting in front of a school, what alternatives do you recommend?
For a long time I didn’t say I was a climate activist, because I thought it sounded very exclusive. It seems that to be an activist, you have to be qualified in some way. But no, I’m just a determined young man who learned on the job. When planning our first events, we made sure this happened. So I think in many places we need to believe that ordinary people can be extraordinary. There are many ways to bring about political change and galvanize political leaders into action. I think the best first step is to talk to other young people who are already involved in movements in your community.
Against COVID-19, you’ve orchestrated digital attacks. Have people lost all motivation to fight climate change this time?
It’s easy to do online, but it’s not as effective because you’re always stuck in your own communication bubble. If we strike online, that’s a great way to come together and be together as a movement, but it’s obviously not the best way to create something that the media or the press can talk about. COVID has made us think about much of what we do, and about many aspects of our lives. So instead of mass demonstrations, we organized things with fewer people. Last April, for example, we put up 10 000 posters for our Parliament. We also innovated by all kinds of artistic actions or bicycle demonstrations to create more distance between people.
In March 2021, the FFF will launch a global climate strike under the slogan No more empty promises. It wishes to draw the attention of the main political and commercial players to the fact that they are not achieving their objectives as set out in the Paris Agreement.
What are these empty promises and what urgent objectives should be set to save life on planet Earth?
We see that many governments and business leaders are finally grasping the reality of the climate crisis, or at least claiming to. We see many promises and targets, such as the prospect of climate neutrality by 2050 or CO2 reductions by 2030. It’s an important step, and that’s fine, but whether we stay at 1.5 degrees depends on what we do now to reduce emissions. In many places, elected leaders who may be in government for four years are setting targets for 2050. In some ways, this may even be easier than taking the concrete steps that need to be taken now. This is our message: We need targets and promises, but more than that we need concrete action now to reduce emissions dramatically next year.
Twelve FFF climate activists wrote a letter to US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Reuters calling for immediate action. First of all: What do you think of Biden’s entry into the Paris Agreement and its climate commitments/targets?
I have hope, but I also think it’s not enough. With President Biden, it is much more likely that we as an international community will abide by the Paris Agreement than it is with President Trump. We see climate as part of their core agenda, and that is indeed encouraging. But at the same time, it’s not enough for what needs to be done. Fortunately, there are all these young people and these great movements in the United States pushing for radical change. I think it’s very nice to see.
One sentence in the letter: The crisis is racist, sexist and elitist. Can you tell us more?
What is the best way to fight for climate justice?
I think now, with the pandemic, the people who were most at risk before are now the most affected by the pandemic. So we see that the poor, women and people of color are disproportionately affected by this crisis. The same goes for the climate crisis: People who are already victims of injustice in some way in our current system will feel the effects of injustice more acutely on many levels. For example, poorer areas often have fewer trees and therefore suffer more from the heat. This is just one example of why we are talking about climate justice and not just climate change mitigation. We must take into account the current injustices when proposing solutions to the crisis.
Most of the countries concerned are under-represented. How can we give a voice to communities who cannot attend summits or negotiations, or even use digital tools to make their voices heard?
They have a voice, the question is whether we are prepared to give them a platform and whether we are prepared to listen to them. The role of governments and institutions is not just to invite the most prominent white activists. The media also play an important role in this area. Before Greta Tanberg, there were student climate strikes in the United States, led by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) activists, but we didn’t get much attention. We see disproportionate media coverage when activists from privileged communities speak out, when really we should be reaching out to people already affected by the climate crisis who can speak out and tell stories much more credibly than we can.
As for me, of course I am afraid, and I have a legitimate fear of the climate crisis, but the people whose homes have already been destroyed by the climate crisis are on the front lines, and they are choosing to act against it anyway. I think these are really strong voices that we need to listen to.