‘All we hear are empty promises’: Inside the return of climate strikers to the streets just weeks before Cop26

Hundreds of thousands of young people around the world are expected to join the global climate strike today. From Germany to Uganda we speak to some of those involved

Emma Snaith
Tuesday 28 September 2021 17:36 BST
Watch live as Greta Thunberg joins the Fridays for Future climate strike in Berlin

After a summer of record-breaking floods, wildfires and heatwaves, German climate activist Luisa Neubauer feels betrayed by the lack of urgency among world leaders to tackle the climate crisis. 

“No political party dares to speak up about what needs to be done,” she tells The Independent.

But the 25-year-old is hopeful that the return of school strikers to the streets this week will help to refocus the world’s attention on the climate emergency: “It’s easy to ignore surveys and reports and studies, but it’s impossible to ignore young people on the street demanding climate justice,” she says.

On Friday 24 September, young people will protest in more than 1,500 locations across 92 countries as part of the global climate strike. Some half a million people around the world are expected to join the demonstrations to demand urgent climate action.

It comes just over three years after Greta Thunberg, founder of the Fridays for Future movement, staged her first solo strike outside the Swedish parliament.

The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns may have dampened climate activism over the past year and a half. But with Covid restrictions easing, and just weeks to go until the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow, activists are taking to the streets with a renewed energy.

The Independent speaks to some of those at the forefront of the global movement.

Germany: Luisa Neubauer

Luisa Neubauer, who aims to put pressure on the German government this week
Luisa Neubauer, who aims to put pressure on the German government this week (Getty Images)

Luisa Neubauer, the most prominent face of Germany’s Fridays for Future campaign, is in the final stages of planning more than 400 separate climate strikes that will take place across the country today.

It’s no mean feat. The country is expected to see some of the biggest protests worldwide, two days before voters go to the polls to elect a new parliament. Plus Greta Thunberg is set to join the protests in Berlin.

Neubauer highlights that the extreme weather events of the summer, both in Germany and abroad, have shaken many people out of their complacency over the climate crisis.

“I think a lot of people thought that [in Germany] we were in a way immune to climate disasters,” Neubauer explains. “Politicians and the media have been telling us that the climate crisis is something that’s happening only in the far distant future, but never in the here-and-now.”

That changed in July, when devastating and deadly floods in Germany and Belgium pushed the climate crisis to the forefront of people’s minds. Research found that the record-shattering rainfall that caused the floods was made up to nine times more likely by human-driven global heating.

But with days to go until the German elections, Neubauer and other activists are deeply disappointed by the lack of ambition among the country’s main political parties to confront the climate emergency.

“Right now there is no political party that has a plan to stay below the 1.5C target [accepted by countries under the Paris Agreement],” Neubauer says. “All we hear are empty promises.”

She adds: “And those most affected in Germany cannot vote – the youngest people. That’s why we need to fight on the streets.”

As well as urging the German government and other rich countries to drastically cut emissions, climate strikers are calling for them to provide assistance to vulnerable countries most affected by the climate crisis.

“Germany is the fourth country most responsible for the climate crisis in terms of historical emissions,” Neubauer says. “There’s a lot we have to make up for and pay back.”

Uganda: Hilda Flavia Nakabuye

Hilda Flavia Nakabuye founded Fridays for Future Uganda, which now has more than 50,000 members
Hilda Flavia Nakabuye founded Fridays for Future Uganda, which now has more than 50,000 members (C40 Cities/YouTube)

Ugandan activist Hilda Flavia Nakabuye is determined to make sure that the voices of activists from the most climate-vulnerable countries are heard at this year’s global strike.

The 24-year-old student founded Fridays for Future Uganda in 2019 after she realised that the climate crisis was behind the droughts and floods that forced her family to sell off their land and leave their community. In just a few years, the group has attracted more than 50,000 members and is now the largest youth movement in Africa.

Nakabuye says that while people all over the world heard about climate disasters across Europe and the US this summer, the crisis in Africa went unreported.

“When we have a flood in Uganda, or Kenya or Nigeria, it’s just business as usual,” Nakabuye says. “But if there is a flood in Germany, it will be everywhere in the news.”

The main focus of this year’s global strike is climate justice – and Nakabuye is keen to make sure that the demands of the most affected people and areas (MAPA) are amplified. More than 20 climate strikes are planned across Uganda today.

“We are calling on the Global North to pay reparations to MAPA for historic emissions and injustices,” Nakabuye says.

She explains that these reparations could be used to help countries in the Global South adapt to the ongoing impacts of the climate crisis.

Fridays for Future activists are also calling on rich countries to meet long-held promises to provide vulnerable nations with $100bn (£73bn) funding each year to help them tackle greenhouse gas emissions, and to ensure vaccine equity around the world.

Nakabuye adds: “The entire continent of Africa is responsible for only 3 per cent of global emissions, but we are facing some of the worst effects of the climate crisis already.”

Over the past few months alone, there have been devastating floods in Uganda and Nigeria, deadly wildfires in Algeria and widespread famine in Madagascar driven by drought.

More locally, Nakabuye hopes the climate strike will draw attention to the fight to save the Bugoma Forest, the largest remaining block of natural tropical woodland in Uganda, which is being cleared to make way for sugarcane plantation.

Fridays for Future Uganda will also highlight the campaign to stop the construction of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline. If completed, the pipeline running from Uganda to Tanzania will be the longest heated crude oil pipeline in the world.

US: Liv Schroeder

Liv Schroeder is part of protest taking place across the US
Liv Schroeder is part of protest taking place across the US (Liv Schroeder)

Growing up in Washington and California, 19-year-old activist Liv Schroeder has also seen the impacts of the climate crisis firsthand, as wildfires grow bigger with every passing year.

Her chronic kidney illness makes it hard for her to cope with heatwaves and air filled with smoke from wildfires. Schroeder says that last August she was told not to go outside of her building in Seattle due to wildfire smoke. Just one hour outdoors was “equivalent to smoking 20 packs of cigarettes”.

It was this experience battling the impacts of extreme weather, as well as her passion for ocean conservation, that led Schroeder to join the Fridays for Future movement in the US and take on the role of National Policy Coordinator.

The group is planning 168 separate climate strikes across the US on Friday, with the two biggest protests taking place in New York City and Los Angeles.

Schroeder hopes that the protests will help “reinstill hope” among young people after a summer of climate-fuelled weather disasters across the US, from flash foods and power outages on the east coast following Hurricane Ida to wildfires and a once-in-a-millennium heatdome on the west coast.

“In this past year, lots of people have been grappling with climate anxiety and despair,” she explains. “But that fear and anger translates really well into action - there’s a lot of energy behind this global climate strike.”

Fridays for Future US is also using the strike as an opportunity to unveil their national demands, including calls for Joe Biden to declare a climate emergency, and more climate seats in international, national, and local decision-making spaces.

“We want to channel the energy from the climate strikes into policy development, passing climate legislation and getting more people involved in the [Fridays for Future] movement,” Schroeder says.

She says that despite Biden being elected as a “climate president”, his policies do not go far enough in tackling the emergency.

“Anyone who isn’t taking the boldest climate action possible is complicit in environmental destruction,” she adds.

UK: Scarlett Westbrook

Scarlett Westbrook of the UK Student Climate Network is part of more than 50 climate strikes due to take place across the country
Scarlett Westbrook of the UK Student Climate Network is part of more than 50 climate strikes due to take place across the country (Scarlett Westbrook is member of the UK Student Climate Network and campaigns for climate education)

Cop26 is at the forefront of Scarlett Westbrook’s mind as she prepares to strike in London.

With only weeks to go before the crucial climate talks in Glasgow begin, the 17-year-old member of the UK Student Climate Network warns that the event is still riddled with accessibility issues.

“It’s not only about keeping global heating under 2C,” she says. “We need to take the world with us in the green transition and make up for our historic colonial debt.”

Westbrook points out that the UK-led conference could exclude delegates, campaigners and journalists from the most climate-vulnerable countries. The UK has only just begun administering Covid vaccines to those unable to obtain them elsewhere, and there are concerns over expensive accommodation and travel costs amid the pandemic.

The Climate Action Network, which includes groups from more than 130 countries, warned earlier this month that these barriers made it impossible to ensure the Cop26 talks will be "safe, inclusive and just".

Westbrook is also hoping the climate strikes will focus attention on Boris Johnson’s lack of ambition in tackling the emergency as the UK gears up to host Cop26.

“Since the IPCC report was released, we haven’t had any meaningful policy solutions,” she says. “I think that shows how seriously Boris Johnson is taking the climate crisis.”

Released in August, the landmark IPCC climate report found that the international goal of limiting global temperatures to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels risks slipping beyond reach without urgent and immediate action.

But Westbrook is confident the global climate strike will be “on the government’s radar”, with more than 50 strikes planned to take place across the UK today.

She believes that the wave of school strikes in 2019, alongside Extinction Rebellion protests, played a key role in pushing then-prime minister, Theresa May, to declare a climate emergency.

“The fact that a lot of teenagers shouting with placards on the street caused that is momentous," Westbrook says. “We know that we can put enough pressure on the government to make them take action.”

Can climate strikes really make a difference?

From wildfires in Siberia to floods in China and landslides in India, the slew of climate-fuelled extreme events over the last year have been impossible to ignore.

Unsurprisingly, this increasing awareness of the ecological emergency has led to a rise in climate anxiety, with young people particularly affected. A global survey earlier this month found that 75 per cent of young people believe that "the future is frightening".

And yet, in such anxiety-inducing times, the Fridays for Future movement offers young people a glimmer of hope.

"The beautiful thing about the climate strikes is that we can actually make a difference,” German activist Luisa Neubauer says. “We still have time to stop the most catastrophic climate scenarios from happening."

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