Nina Hall, Assistant Professor of International Relations, Johns Hopkins SAIS (Europe)
Mindful also of its responsibility towards future generations, the state shall protect the natural foundations of life and animals by legislation and, in accordance with law and justice, by executive and judicial action, all within the framework of the constitutional order.
Article 20a, Protection of the natural foundations of life and animals, German Basic Law
BOLOGNA, Italy — The German Basic Law — the country’s constitution — obliges the state to protect the environment for future generations. Article 20a, cited above, was added to the Basic Law in 1994, after a long campaign by die Grünen (the Green party). Germany also stands out internationally for its strong rhetoric on climate action. In 2018, Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, emphasized that “climate action is a matter of both ecological necessity and economic rationality.”
Yet, Germany is missing many greenhouse gas emissions targets. In 2002, the German government agreed that their emissions would drop 40% by 2020 from 1990 levels, but now it appears they will only reach a 32% reduction. Furthermore, the coalition government has been reluctant to discontinue its support for the coal industry. Only in the past few months has the government announced they would put an end to the “brown coal” (lignite) industry by 2038, but it has yet to put this decision before the Bundestag. In the meantime, Germany burns more lignite than any other country, and approximately a quarter of its electricity comes from it. German politicians are also very cozy with the car industry; many have sat, or sit, on the board of Volkswagen and have pushed for weaker European Union emission standards for cars, despite the scandal over cheating on emissions testing. In short, the German government is not meeting its obligations to protect the environment in the context of a warming climate.
The gap between politician’s rhetoric and actions has not remained unnoticed. Students are now standing up in protest at German inaction over climate change. They are part of the worldwide FridaysforFuture movement inspired by lone 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who, in August 2018, began a daily solo strike outside the Swedish parliament. Students in Germany also saw political delay, and realized they could not rely on the generation currently holding power to take bold action on climate change. They were particularly frustrated that the German government was not serious about changing their economic policies to stay within planetary boundaries and meet the Paris agreement, which aims at keeping global average temperatures below two degrees. Although the students have not made Article 20a a central platform of their campaign, these students are emerging as a strong political force and demanding that the Federal Republic of Germany protects the environment for future generations. This message is gaining support, reflected in the record success of the German Green party in the European elections (they took 20.5% of the vote, beating the German Social Democratic Party).
The FridaysforFuture movement is an impressive example of a globally-coordinated protest, based on horizontal networks. Students are organizing through Instagram, Whatsapp messenger, Facebook and a basic website (which lists many, but not all the protests). They are actively supported by existing environmental groups, and some of the student leaders have received professional training from them. Luisa Neubauer, one of the leaders of the German student climate movement, has previously been very active in 350.org, and was a student ambassador for One, a UK-based development organization. However, it’s important to note traditional NGOs are not directing the student movement, but rather seeking to help train, and empower youth to tackle climate change. Campact, an NGO in Germany well-known for organizing mass demonstrations, is offering students training this summer.
In Germany, the protests started gaining force in late 2018 and early 2019. They drew impressively large crowds on March 15, 2019, with rallies all across Germany, alongside others around the world. There were protests in 150 German cities — including all the major cities from Berlin to Bonn, Frankfurt am Main to Hamburg, as well as many smaller cities and towns (the full list is here). In Berlin alone between 20,000 to 25,000 people attended the protest, and around 300,000 in all of Germany. There have, of course, been other large climate demonstrations in Germany. In 2015, in the lead-up to the Paris climate summit, between 10,000 and 17,000 people demonstrated on the streets of Berlin. Around 25,000 protested in Bonn, in November 2017, when the city hosted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations. Germany has had even larger demonstrations in recent years: demonstrations against the Transatlantic Trade and Intellectual Property Agreement in October 2015 drew 250,000 people to march in Berlin, and the anti-nuclear movement has mobilized thousands periodically since the 1970s.
The FridaysforFuture protests not only draw large crowds but are sustained protests on a weekly basis and led by the younger generations. The regularity of their Friday protests has enabled the students to gain media attention and emerge as a political force. On April 8, 2019, several student representatives held a press conference at Berlin’s Museum of Natural History. They demanded that the German government set a carbon tax, and phase out coal-based energy by 2030. They want politicians to take action this year and shut down every fourth coal power plant. The students have been backed by academics and scientists. In March 2018 a group of German scientists wrote letters to endorse their call for strong climate mitigation and this was followed by an international letter for support from international academics and scientists (disclosure: I signed this second letter).
Many decision-makers have officially endorsed the protests and complimented students for engaging in politics. Merkel has expressed her support for school students going on the streets to fight for climate change. Politicians are often eager to see students engaging in politics, but rarely had to answer directly to these younger generations’ demands. After all most of these students can’t yet vote, so it’s easy for politicians to instrumentalize their needs when it suits them but not follow-through with action. This is what we’ve seen recently, with Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the Christian Democratic Union leader, announcing she will not support a carbon tax, a decision strongly criticized by Luisa Neubauer on Twitter.
And there has been a backlash against the FridaysforFuture movement. Some see it as opportunistic way for students to get out of school. Germany has very strict laws on attendance, and weekly participation in organized demonstrations violates these rules. The liberal party’s leader, Christian Linder, was extremely dismissive of the protests, claiming that climate politics was only something “experts” should engage in, not students. He had to nuance these comments later after much public criticism.
So, what do the FridaysforFuture protests mean for the German constitution? Firstly, they have the potential to serve as a valuable reminder of the objective outlined in Article 20a. If Germany were to take its constitution and the rights of its future generations seriously, politicians would rapidly shift the economy away from fossil fuels, and towards renewable energies. They would stop building roads designed only for cars and support better public transport and bike infrastructure. They would listen to younger generations, and climate experts now, rather than carrying on with business as usual.
Secondly, FridaysforFuture could appeal to the courts to further detail the implications of Article 20a. After all, Article 20a was added as a Staatsziele rather than a Grundrecht (basic right), much to the dismay of the Green Party. This is an important distinction as Staatsziele are not actionable, whereas Grundrechte are. Staatsziele guide policy-making by providing the legislative, the executive and the judiciary with a list of state priorities. It is unclear to what extent Staatsziele have to be implemented or taken account of in legislation and judicial decisions, and their lack of precision often leaves ample room for interpretation.
Finally, in the long-term, if the protests continue, they could restart the debate on whether environmental protection should be seen as a Grundrecht (basic right), as first proposed by the Green Party in the 1970s. This would mean German politicians would be obliged to tackle climate change.
Blog Post for German Constitutionalism Series: The Past Shapes the Future, The SAIS Observer. https://saisobserver.org/category/series/german-constitutionalism/
The author would like to acknowledge the research assistance, and constructive feedback of the two editors, Miriam Siemes and Jonas Präfke, which contributed significantly to this article.