Climate activists are fuming as Germany turns to coal to replace Russian gas
BERLIN — It's rush hour on a cold, snowy morning in Berlin. Commuter traffic has come to a standstill at a highway exit on the western edge of the city, as a dozen climate activists sit down on a pedestrian crossing in front of four lanes of cars and trucks.
The activists belong to a group called Letzte Generation, or Last Generation. Like many scientists, they argue that it'll be too late for future generations to stop the climate crisis if governments don't act now.
Lina Johnsen, a member of the group, looks cold as she finishes sticking her chapped, ungloved hands to the icy tarmac using industrial-strength superglue.
"We're here today because we can't just look and see what the government is doing right now," says Johnsen, a 24-year-old university student focusing on environmental science. "They're not taking overdue measures to protect future generation's lives."
Germany, Europe's largest economy, is racing to replace Russian natural gas after Moscow cut off a key pipeline over the summer. At odds with the government's climate protection promises, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's governing coalition is investing more in fossil fuels, not less. It's firing up old coal power plants and investing in an entirely new liquefied natural gas infrastructure to fill the void left by the now-defunct Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline.
As a result, climate activists like Johnsen are carrying out increasingly disruptive protests on an almost daily basis. Some days it's on a major city thoroughfare; on others, the runway at Munich or Berlin airports.
Climate urgency meets road rage
Sitting with others who've glued themselves to the road at a recent protest, Johnsen is blinded by the headlights of the vehicles the activists are holding up.
Some of the drivers rev their engines out of frustration. Others get out of their cars and shout in anger.
Johnsen admits she's intimidated, but it pales in comparison with the bigger picture: "I'm more scared of how people will react when we fight for food or drinking water in a few decades," she says. "I want to circumvent this future. I don't want this."
One driver, 48-year-old Jenni Pröller, says she's also anxious about the planet's future but this is not the place to discuss it. "I have nothing against protests, but this is something else! The gall of these people!" Pröller shouts. "I'm trying to get my daughter to an exam. She's a law student and sitting the bar this morning."
Another activist, 33-year-old Theodor Schnarr, says he knows he's unpopular. According to a recent poll conducted for Der Spiegel magazine, 86% of Germans disapprove of protesters disrupting their commutes, but 53% agree that the government is not doing enough to tackle climate change.
Schnarr has been arrested and locked up twice for stopping traffic. As a biochemist, he says he's all too aware of the science and warnings of climate change.
Burning fossil fuels is speeding up climate change that's already causing catastrophic consequences in the world, and scientists warn it will worsen as nations fail to make dramatic cuts to harmful gas emissions.
"If we would compare the situation to a war, we wouldn't go on as normal," Schnarr says. "And we are in a desperate situation. So we also should act like it and implement an emergency economy. This is one of the things that the German government should do."
Fossil fuels as a short-term necessity
Less than a week after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Economy and Climate Protection Minister Robert Habeck warned that Germany may have to resort to using more fossil fuels in the short term to secure its energy supply.
"When it comes to guaranteeing energy supplies, pragmatism beats any political determination," Habeck told public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.
This fall, Scholz — the Social Democratic chancellor who formed a government with two other parties — announced an extra 200 billion euros (about $212 billion) to help cover rocketing energy prices in the coming season. This money is paying for the fossil fuels replacing Russian gas.
Now Habeck — a member of the environmentalist Green Party — is the Cabinet minister responsible for finding these fossil fuels. He insists measures like his LNG deal with Qatar are short-term solutions.
But in a recent interview with public broadcaster ZDF, he argued for a clean energy path forward. "The fuel of the future is not coal, gas or oil," he said. "Our task is to create a carbon-neutral economy. ... It's why we expect everybody to do their bit to help build a future free from fossil fuels."
About 46% of the country's electricity has come from renewable sources this year, according to Germany's environmental agency. Habeck is confident he can double that in the next seven years.
Christoph Bals, policy director at the nonprofit Germanwatch, says it's taking too long to implement the government's ambitious legislation on renewable energy because of disagreements among the coalition's three parties.
"Germany is way behind on renewables and embracing electric vehicles because Green Party policies are being blocked and delayed by the libertarian Free Democrat members of Cabinet," he tells NPR.
The Free Democratic Party transport and justice ministers are among those calling for tougher punishment for climate activists occupying roads and airport runways.
Bals says while he understands the activists' frustrations about increased use of gas and coal, those who violate the law face legal consequences. But, he says, the highest court has sided with environmentalists before.
"Germany's constitutional court has already ruled that the previous government's lack of action on climate change was unconstitutional," Bals says, referring to a decision in 2021. "So the same court may well view these protests as legitimate because they aim to protect greater interests, namely the fundamental rights of future generations."
Police have been raiding activists' homes
Climate justice group Letzte Generation has ramped up its protests across Germany. Its strategies — including public acts of museum artwork vandalism — have sometimes run parallel to activism seen in other parts of Europe.
German police have conducted a number of raids on the homes of Letzte Generation members and are investigating whether a recent protest delayed an ambulance from reaching a fatal collision.
Schnarr insists they always let the emergency services through: "We don't want to endanger people. We don't want to endanger ourselves," he says. "This is the very opposite of what our government is doing."
Back on the highway, a policeman uses a pastry brush dipped in cooking oil to dissolve the glue fixing Johnsen's hands to the road. Another officer stands by with a bandage and handcuffs at the ready.
It's a slow and painful process. An emergency room doctor waiting in the line of vehicles is delayed 90 minutes on his way to the hospital.
As exchanges become curt, it's clear that a sense of urgency and frustration is shared by all.
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