Building a Popular Front Against Climate Change

This is the third part of three-part series exploring the German Energy Transition or Energiewende, by David Ravensbergen. In Part 1, The Land of Wind and Solar, Ravensbergen describes how decentralized, small-scale changes can amount to a broad energy revolution. In Part 2, Is the German Energy Transition Everything It's Cracked Up to Be?, he takes a closer look at the promise and the reality of the German response to climate change along with energy researcher Tadzio Müller. In this third and final installment, Ravensbergen asks what the German experience can teach North Americans looking to make the transition away from fossil fuels.


In Canada, hopes of implementing a national strategy on climate even remotely equivalent to the German Energiewende are continually sabotaged by the federal government’s unwavering commitment to propping up the fossil fuel sector. For Canadian climate activists struggling against the expansion of tar sands pipelines and Harper’s Paleolithic energy policies, one big question looms: how do the Germans do it?

According to Tadzio Müller, the explanation is simple. “What the German government has done was the result of 35 years of social struggle by movements.” While it may be tempting to chalk up the change to a healthier public discourse or more reasonable elected officials, Müller insists it wouldn’t have happened without the tireless work of activists. “The laws that were passed were fought for by movements. The government has done only what it has been forced to do.”

Nowhere is this lesson more visible than in Chancellor Merkel’s 2011 decision to completely shut down German nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima. Müller notes that Merkel’s government at the time was “a conservative-neoliberal coalition that had being in favour of nuclear power as one of its key brand elements.”

For some environmentalists who see nuclear power as a necessary component of a post-fossil fuel energy mix, the German public’s resolute anti-nuclear stance is difficult to grasp. But regardless of where you stand on nuclear power, the remarkable fact that a center-right government legislated the end of its own domestic nuclear industry while committing to a massive expansion of renewable energy begs explanation.[view:in_this_series=block_1]

A large part of the answer lies in the breadth of the social coalitions that mobilized around environmental issues like industrial pollution and acid rain in the mid-70s. As Joachim Jachnow writes in his excellent summary of the changing fortunes of the German Green Party, environmental activism gained critical mass around the issue of nuclear power: “Ecologists, feminists, students and counter-cultural networks joined with farmers and housewives in mass protests that brought nuclear-plant construction sites to a halt in Wyhl (Baden-Württemberg), Grohnde (Lower Saxony) and Brokdorf (Schleswig-Holstein).”

Out of these successful mass actions against the expansion of nuclear power, an unlikely coalition between the radical and conservative wings of the environmental movement began to take shape. As Müller explains, it was this loose alliance that slowly began to change German public opinion on energy and the environment. When renewable energy went mainstream with the introduction of feed-in tariffs the alliance grew bigger still, bringing those motivated by profit as well as conviction into the fold. By the time Fukushima happened, the anti-nuclear movement had become so powerful that Merkel was left with no choice but to expedite the nuclear industry’s downfall.

So what lessons can be drawn for people outside of Germany working towards building a movement capable of stopping climate change? The important thing to keep in mind is that the environmental movement in Germany had 35 years to achieve the limited progress of the Energiewende. We haven’t got nearly that much time. “How do you mobilize the green constituency to take action beyond what they’ve been doing so far?” asks Müller.

Owing to the urgency reinforced by the latest IPCC report, Müller argues that the time has come to step up the both the frequency and efficacy of nonviolent civil disobedience. “We need a drastic expansion of disobedient actions beyond what 350 has been doing so far. From Germany it looks a bit funny when people do these actions where they cross a line and then count the number of arrests—I’ve never seen an action in Germany count its success according to the number of arrests.”

While Müller acknowledges the major differences between North American and German movement culture, he says the strength of civil disobedience undertaken by the German environmental movement has been its focus on ambitious goals rather than symbolic gestures. In addition to mass protests and blockades that halted the construction of new nuclear reactors, tens of thousands of activists have taken part in highly coordinated lockdowns to prevent train shipments of nuclear waste from France from arriving at their destination in the German nuclear waste storage facility in Gorleben.

Often carried out in freezing conditions and with the help of local farmers using their tractors to build roadblocks for logistical support, these actions worked to keep the pressure on politicians who were looking for ways to renege on their commitments. “The radicals in the anti-nuclear movement were absolutely crucial in keeping the flame alive through the years when the issue didn’t have a lot of play in the media.”

Müller argues that radical activists have the necessary experience, skill and imagination to coordinate the kinds of ambitious direct action that could increase the pressure on climate change. Just as importantly, however, those radicals need to be integrated into a broad movement capable of winning support from diverse sections of society.

“The interesting challenge is how do you get all those different types of actors to work together: anti-capitalists, climate justice radicals, big greens and farmer’s groups,” says Müller. “That requires constant and active coordination and getting out of your comfort zone.” Drawing on the experience of the German anti-nuclear movement, Müller argues that building a popular front against climate change is the task ahead.

For a popular front strategy to work, groups with strong disagreements about both the causes of and solutions to climate change need to temporarily suspend their differences in pursuit of the common goal of drastically cutting emissions. Working together doesn't necessarily mean adopting the same strategies, but it does mean refraining from actively undermining other sections of the movement. Selecting a viable focus for action is also key. For Müller, struggles against pipelines like Northern Gateway and Keystone XL represent key points where a broad-based environmental movement can have the strongest impact. 

“We are too weak at this point to achieve the outcomes and effects we want to achieve, so we need to find points of leverage where we can amplify our power. We need to look at systems and at weak points,” says Müller.

“We know we can pressure Obama because we know that environmentalists are part of the Democratic coalition, and since the Keystone XL is an international decision we know that this goes over Obama’s desk. It’s these details that make choosing the Keystone XL as a focus a sound strategic decision.” 

Ultimately, the differences between different sections of the environmental movement will need to be worked through. But with the latest IPCC report confirming that the majority of remaining fossil fuel deposits need to stay in the ground if we are to have any chance of avoiding the wholesale destruction of runaway climate change, broad alliances are more important than ever. 

In the months and years ahead, Canadian environmentalists would be well advised to learn a bit of German: Fossil fuels? Nein danke. 

David Ravensbergen’s writing has appeared in Discorder, The Tyee, the Montreal Review of Books and the Montreal Mirror. Originally from…

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