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“We can finally voice our concerns”

10.07.2019 – Marc Lettau

They are not entitled to vote. Nonetheless, Swiss school pupils will influence the outcome of the parliamentary elections in autumn. They are striking in their thousands for a consistent climate policy and to stir politicians to action. These young people are leading the way. But what makes them tick?

Friday is once more upon us; a school day. Despite this, large numbers of noisy students are marching through the city centre. Passers-by now know the reason as such demonstrations have been taking place in many cities for months. The student body is striking. They are skipping school and loudly demanding a strong climate policy with immediate effect. The younger ones are barely twelve years old; the majority are teenagers. In the meantime, twenty-somethings from the universities have also joined in. There are increasing numbers of their grandparents’ generation, but fewer from their parents’ generation. Some 50, 000 took part in the nationwide climate strike on 15 March 2019. Two months later, on 24 May, participants numbered in the tens of thousands, despite their university-entrance examinations. The movement cannot be overlooked or ignored.

“Things are not OK”

But what’s motivating this movement of young strikers? We put this question to a trio of students from the canton of Bern. First up is Thun pupil Linus Dolder (16). He describes how much the power of images spurs him on. When he is on his winter holiday, 2,000 metres up and only wearing a T-shirt, and he sees brown landscapes sparsely streaked with white artificial snow, he realises, “that things are not OK, even without having lived on this earth for thirty or forty years”.

Sophie Feuz (16), a pupil from Bern, is not focused on the “unknown future”, but rather the untenable present. “People are already losing their livelihood, animal species are dying out and glaciers are disappearing in the Alps due to the current situation.” It’s depressing to experience so much decline during one’s own short life, “and life is so very short”.

Lastly, Wirada Läderach (15) from Belp gives us three reasons for striking. Firstly, her fear of the “massive chaos” that awaits if those who are in crisis due to climate change come under even more pressure. Second, the frustrating experience, “that all those who hold our future in their hands don’t want to act”. And thirdly, the strike has given them an opportunity to, “finally voice our concern about something that has been worrying us for a long time”.

Everything. Now.

The striking youth all sound rather bolshy but come across as amazingly well-behaved. The police who are escorting the large numbers of marchers are visibly relaxed. The list of demands is more cheeky than specific. First, the main concern becomes evident as twelve-year-olds proudly carry a banner before them that hasn’t turned out so well, and that bears the inscription: “The climate is even worse than our banner”. The main demand is for “a Switzerland with zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2030”. And the first step towards “climate equality” is to recognise the crisis situation and proclaim a “climate emergency”.

This is having an impact on the political establishment. In February, the cantonal parliament of Basel-Stadt approved a climate resolution and actually proclaimed a “climate emergency”. It remains unclear as to whether this is a symbolic act to placate the student body or the start of a new political agenda. In the meantime, cities including Olten (SO) and Delémont (JU), as well as the canton of Vaud have declared themselves climate “emergency areas”.

The cantonal elections at the beginning of the year delivered signs of change in the political climate. In March, the pointedly climate-political Green Party and the Green Liberal Party increased their share of the vote from a joint 14.8 per cent (2015) to 24.8 per cent. By Swiss standards, this is an enormous shift. It also occurred at the expense of the right-wing SVP as well as the Liberals. The subsequent parliamentary elections in the cantons of Baselland and Lucerne delivered a similar picture. However, the Zurich elections are of particular interest as they have always been a reliable barometer for the national elections later on in the year. The majority of political scientists are therefore speculating that on 20 October the picture of a Green success and conservative right-wing slump could repeat itself.

What do the strikers think about the autumn elections? Sophie Feuz: “I firmly believe that we will have a significant effect on the elections.” She follows this with an “if”: “If young people don’t lose interest”. Some students of a similar age are satisfied with “just taking to the street once”. “On the other hand, more and more of us are joining in each time.” She would be even more confident in the movement if the voting age at national level was 16. Many are far more interested in political life at the age of 16 than at 20, she says: “School helps us to mature. Many young people are very switched on.” However, as soon as they are out of school, they lack any “platforms” to develop their own maturity, she says. This quickly causes them to lose any motivation they may have had to participate in political life.

The FDP corrects; the SVP hopes

The two largest conservative parties, the SVP and the FDP, are reacting in very different ways to the climate strike phenomenon and its widespread impact. FDP party president Petra Gössi wants to give the party a splash of green based on a survey of the rank and file of the economic liberal party. Thus, the FDP is now also demanding a CO2 levy on petrol and diesel. However, Gössi is meeting with some resistance. A member of the party leadership, Christian Wasserfallen, argued that it is a waste of time for a party to “change its colour”. If you want to vote “green”, it is better to give your vote to “the originals”, that is the Greens.

The SVP’s situation is far more precarious. Nobody would buy a sudden change of colour from them. So, they are initially banking on the principle of hope. They will stick to their course as SVP figures asserted following heavy losses in the cantonal elections that the climate issue may be off the table again by the autumn. However, a section of the traditional rank and file – the farmers challenged by climate change – do not believe that. The SVP leadership have therefore begun to overtly work against the youth and, for the first time, to present the party as the last bastion of motorists’ interests. Since then, party president, Albert Rösti, has diagnosed “pseudoreligious dimensions” among the young climate protesters. And the Zurich national councillor Roger Köppel expressed his compassion for the young people in an interview, saying they are being used by “left-wing climate ideologues” and are serving a “red-green environmental dictatorship” which threatens social freedoms. According to Köppel: “It’s a scandal that our teachers are dragging their students to these politically controlled climate demonstrations”.

Is Wirada Läderach being controlled by others and pseudoreligiously blind? She says that such attacks leave her speechless: “We definitely need to act now; otherwise we run the risk of something truly terrible happening.” From her perspective, the accusations are rather suspect. First, they accuse the youth of today of not being interested in politics and being rather apathetic about it. “And now, when the youth have found a topic that means a lot to them, they are accused of being controlled by others.” Perhaps the movement is deemed so provocative “because it is thinking for itself”, she says.

“More than just a family hobby”

There is also another side to the picture: striking teenagers with a climate-unfriendly beef-burger in one hand and Coca-Cola in a throwaway can in another. Where is the consistency here? He is well aware of such objections, says Linus Dolder. However: “You shouldn’t have to be perfect to have a voice.” Anyone who stands up for the climate movement is doing something: “That is what is important.” But ultimately, one’s own authenticity is what matters: “I cannot take part in the climate strike on Friday and then fly off on holiday on Saturday”.

His approach: demand change and make changes himself. He has become a vegetarian for ecological reasons, says Dolder: “Now, my mother only cooks vegetarian food.” Läderach also declares herself a vegetarian. At the same time, Dolder sees the limitations of individual action: “It is not enough for individuals to act alone. Policy definitely needs to play a part.” Politicians must lead the way so that pre-defined goals can be achieved together: “We need to ensure that climate protection is afforded far more importance than it is now in order for it to be more than just a family hobby.”

Wide debate, new perspective

Some are embracing the climate youth movement, while others are punishing them by setting boundaries. Both reactions originate from the same reference point – the climate issue. This is why the topic is becoming more and more prominent in the political debate, and is increasingly being regarded from new angles. For example, the progressive and business-friendly “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” (NZZ) recently explained on its front page that digitalisation is incorrectly understood as being part of the solution to the climate problem. On the contrary, it is part of the problem. Due to increasing streaming volumes, communication technology is now responsible for 3.7 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That is around twice as much as civil aviation. With a sidelong glance at the youth, the NZZ lectures that: “Streaming is the new flying.” Anyone who streams a video multiplies the energy consumption of their smartphone by a factor of 1,500, it says.

“We all consume a huge amount”

Wirada Läderach always has her smartphone with her. Yes, many of today’s young people are actually “comfortable, complacent children of a consumer society”. However, at the same time, they are a generation which moves around and looks for new insights. For her that means something along the lines of: “Flying is great; however, it is just not an option for the next trip.” The terms ‘consumer’ and ‘consumer society’ are also part of the repertoire of Sophie Feuz. Her protest banner, which bears the marks of regular use, reads “Revolution instead of consumerism”. By that she means that consumption, which is often thoughtless, is an enormous driver of climate change: “We all consume a huge amount and so cheaply.” The challenge is therefore to question one’s own consumption and to stand for true-cost pricing, i.e. to pay a price that covers the real costs of a particular product.

When it comes to truth isn’t it a little too easy just to wag school and sell it as a political act? Sophie Feuz’s reply is to the point. It is “rather embarrassing” and “above all incorrect” to spread such a picture. Anyone who wants to strike must submit a proper dispensation application and also receives a lot of additional homework to do. It is really easier not to strike. She had to write a presentation on “anthropogenic climate change” on top of her usual work. That was a challenge as her class teacher is a geologist and an expert on the topic: “There is no way I can just write a load of rubbish.”

CO2 emissions in Switzerland are falling

The analyses presented in April reveal that between 1990 and 2015 the emission of climate-damaging CO2 decreased by a good 10 per cent despite a simultaneous increase in the population. CO2 emissions per head are less than half as high as those in the other industrial states. This is the good news. The bad news is that upon closer inspection, Switzerland’s ecological footprint is well above the global average. As the Swiss economy imports a lot of CO2-intensive products from abroad, around 80 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by Swiss consumers occur outside Switzerland.

The struggle for a full revision of the Swiss CO2 law is in full swing in Switzerland. This should result in substantial decreases in CO2 emissions. There are disputes as to how Switzerland will contribute to future CO2 reductions: mainly abroad or predominantly in Switzerland. While the National Council has avoided setting a domestic goal to date, the Council of States has been able to agree that at least 60 per cent of the reduction should be in Switzerland. At least, that is what the advisory committee suggests.

Read more:  The green trend in the Swiss party political landscape