The Climate Activist vs. the Economics Minister 'My Generation Has Been Fooled'

Luisa Neubauer, the German face of the global movement spurred by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, debates the student climate strikes with German Economics Minister Peter Altmaier.
German climate activist Luisa Neubauer: "People are only listening to us now because we're crossing a line."

German climate activist Luisa Neubauer: "People are only listening to us now because we're crossing a line."

Foto: Gene Glover / DER SPIEGEL

Geography student Luisa Neubauer, 22, of Göttingen is the German face of the "Fridays for Future" climate protection rallies inspired by Swedish teen environmental activist Greta Thunberg. In this interview, Neubauer, a member of the environmentalist Green Party, engages in a debate with German Economics Minister Peter Altmaier, 60, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Altmaier, you've been involved in politics since your school days. If you were still 16-years-old today, would you also go on strike for the climate, like Ms. Neubauer?

Altmaier: I would participate in the demonstrations, but preferably on Saturdays or Sundays.

DER SPIEGEL: You never skipped school for the CDU's youth organization, the Young Union?

Altmaier: Back when I was in school, in our free time we sawed up border posts and campaigned for a Europe without internal borders, with a common currency and a European environmental policy. We stayed up late at night arguing over the various points of our resolutions. At the time, many people said that our demands were totally unrealistic. Today, they're reality.

DER SPIEGEL: So, you understand if young people cut classes for the climate?

Altmaier: Let's be honest, at one time or another we've all pretended to have a stomach ache and skipped school. I also understand the concerns raised by Ms. Neubauer and her people. Thanks in part to what they're doing, we may look back in 20 years with pride and joy at what we've achieved. But holding these demonstrations outside the normal school hours would not be any less effective. Then we would be talking more about the climate and less about compulsory school attendance.

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Neubauer, why Fridays? Do you want to sleep in on weekends?

Neubauer: We recently demonstrated in Berlin on a holiday, and more people came than on a school day. You might not believe it, but many young people want to go to school and the strike is an incredibly big sacrifice for them. But I'm sure that we wouldn't be having this conversation if we had quietly demonstrated on Saturdays, as has been done over the last 40 years. People are only listening to us now because we're crossing a line.

Altmaier: You say that you're striking for the climate, but holding general political strikes is not something that we do here in Germany. Our right to strike is always linked to demands that can be met by an employer. That may sound like a formal argument to you, and I have no intention of patronizing you. But at the end of the day the students are striking against themselves. If you want to change the world later as an adult, and we all hope that you do, then a good education is important.

Neubauer: That's a big misunderstanding: We're not taking to the streets because we want to change something later as adults, but rather because decision-makers like you need to take action now. We're pulling the emergency brake because we're thinking beyond the next exam. When the right to strike was introduced, we were not yet facing the climate crisis.

DER SPIEGEL: When Mr. Altmaier wanted to speak at your demonstration, he was booed. Why did you refuse to engage in a dialogue?

Neubauer: It was our grassroots democratic decision not to allow any politicians to speak to us. If they want to show their solidarity with us, they can meet our demands in their ministries. And we don't think it makes much sense to have Mr. Altmaier defend his coal policy on a stage in front of a crowd of young people.

DER SPIEGEL: What was this experience like for you?

Altmaier: You know, I composed my high school essay 40 years ago on a quote by German sociologist Helmut Schelsky: "It is perfectly natural for young people to provoke the authorities of order." Without provocation, little would change in society, and I would like to express my recognition to the students that their provocation has remained within our democratic and legal boundaries. If I don't get a chance to speak on their stage, I can live with that.

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Neubauer, what is your main reproach against Mr. Altmaier?

Neubauer: The German government and you, Mr. Altmaier, have signed the Paris Agreement on climate change. This is our only guarantee that we can live to a ripe old age on an intact planet. Now this agreement is doing little more than gathering dust in a drawer because you're failing to adhere to it.

Altmaier: We not only signed it, but also negotiated at length.

Neubauer: Yes, for 20 years. How impressive!

German Economics Minister Peter Altmaier: "Back when I was in school, in our free time we sawed up border posts and campaigned for a Europe without internal borders, with a common currency and a European environmental policy."

German Economics Minister Peter Altmaier: "Back when I was in school, in our free time we sawed up border posts and campaigned for a Europe without internal borders, with a common currency and a European environmental policy."

Foto: Gene Glover / DER SPIEGEL

Altmaier: The German chancellor took part in the negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol back when Merkel was the environment minister. So, we take the Paris Agreement very seriously and we will implement it. Unlike you, I am convinced that we will reach our targets.

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Neubauer has her doubts.

Neubauer: Here are the facts: If humanity wants to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we only have a remaining global emissions budget of 380 gigatons of CO2. If we continue like this, we will have used up this budget in Germany in nine-and-a-half years' time. Despite this, Mr. Altmaier intends to continue to allow coal-fired plants to operate until 2038. That's not in line with the Paris Agreement, neither physically nor in terms of climate policy.

Altmaier: The way you blow things out of proportion, you have what it takes to become a successful politician. What you've neglected to mention is that we're not allowing coal-fired generation to continue until 2038, but instead gradually phasing it out. By 2030, we will have decommissioned roughly half of today's coal-fired plants, with the rest following by the year 2038. Your calculation also disregards the fact that much of the emissions come from transportation and the energy requirements of buildings.

Neubauer: How nice of you to bring up the area of transportation, which produces emissions that are currently higher than in 1990. Actually, the government wanted to reduce CO2 emissions by 40 percent by 2030. Not an ambitious goal, but it'll probably also be scrapped. We see that our future is far lower on your priority list than is that of Volkswagen.

DER SPIEGEL: Where would you start?

Neubauer: We have to quickly pick the low-hanging fruits in climate protection -- in other words, the 14 lignite-fired power plant units. If we decommissioned them now, we could reach our climate goals by 2020. That would be economically feasible, would not jeopardize energy security, and in 10 years we would be at net-zero emissions for coal.

Altmaier: Germany's coal commission almost unanimously approved its compromise, despite the fact that a highly diverse group of people sat at the negotiating table, including representatives of industry and the workforce, people from Greenpeace and worldwide recognized experts in climate protection.

Neubauer: I've spoken with many climate scientists who are up in arms because it falls far short of what's needed. Why don't you create a positive investment climate for renewable energy sources? We don't have to stop financing solar power at 52 gigawatts of installed photovoltaic power when we have a potential of 200 gigawatts. Now the expansion of the renewables has stalled.

Altmaier: The photovoltaic expansion is not stalling at all. When I was the environment minister in 2012, green energy made up roughly 23 percent of the power supply, but today there are days when it supplies around 65 percent of our electricity. Unfortunately, there are days when the wind doesn't blow and there's no sunshine, and then these sources can only provide 15 percent of our power. But we still have to supply hospitals, schools and industry with energy. If all wind turbines are standing still, it doesn't help to have a few thousand more. We can't allow climate protection to jeopardize prosperity and jobs.

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Neubauer, would you risk having the lights go out?

Neubauer: That's just scare tactics. I'd rather ask Mr. Altmaier what prosperity means to him and what it's worth in a country that appears determined to exceed all of our planetary boundaries and allows entire ecosystems to collapse. You imply that, thanks to coal, we could experience an endless economic upswing.

Altmaier: For me, prosperity means that even people who don't rank among the so-called top earners can enjoy certain freedoms. As a young man, my father was a miner until he lost a leg in a work-related accident and became a low-ranking employee. I still remember when he was able to afford a car for the first time. This vastly improved our family's mobility and gave us the freedom to take trips and go on vacations.

DER SPIEGEL: How would this prosperity be jeopardized by climate protection?

Altmaier: I want to ensure that in the future this mobility remains within reach of everyday people: parents, children and pensioners. We could easily make flying or driving so expensive that the number of kilometers driven or flown would be reduced to 10 percent of what it is today. But then those who could afford it would continue polluting the air all they want. Everyone else couldn't afford to travel anymore. We have to find a way to combine prosperity and environmental protection.

Neubauer: You're using fear as an argument to brush aside climate protection -- that's almost worse than the propaganda of the climate change deniers. You're saying: Watch out, climate protection is taking something away from you! But you know very well that climate protection, if done properly, is a major opportunity.

DER SPIEGEL: In the wake of the Energiewende, Germany's push to phase out nuclear energy and promote renewable sources, electricity prices have risen, though, and the automotive industry remains a major employer in the country. Aren't politicians allowed to take this into consideration?

Neubauer: If we're going to talk about costs, we also have to include the billions in subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. Politicians are rolling out the red carpet for the companies that are making a fortune on the climate collapse. And you, Mr. Altmaier, always speak so passionately about the 20,000 jobs in the coal industry. What about the 80,000 workers in the photovoltaic sector who recently lost their jobs?

Altmaier: Unfortunately, many more than these 80,000 jobs in Germany depend on us having affordable energy prices. Don't forget our tradesmen and small- and medium-sized businesses that we shouldn't put at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their competitors in France and the Netherlands. We cannot shut down both our nuclear and coal-fired power plants overnight. And, unfortunately, you're neglecting to tell people that thanks to our technological innovations we've managed to reduce our CO2 emissions. One day all cars will be electric and autonomous, and even elderly grandmothers on a modest pension will be able to afford them, and with no negative impact on the environment.

Neubauer: It's your job to find solutions here that are within our planetary boundaries. And what's dangerous here is that you portray Germany as an international pioneer on this front. I see a country that received a negative award at the World Climate Change Conference in Katowice because it has failed to take the necessary steps to truly tackle the climate crisis.

Altmaier: That award came from an NGO, not from other countries, which appreciate our efforts. Perhaps now we should talk about the role of your protests. You want to put pressure on politicians, and that's perfectly okay. But doesn't the student movement in reality say: We know much better than all the ministers and state secretaries, civil servants and specialists, what's right and wrong for the climate?

DER SPIEGEL: You sound like Free Democratic Party leader Christian Lindner, who says the students should leave climate protection to the professionals.

Altmaier: I would never say that. Climate protection clearly concerns all citizens, including students, of course. They should take part in debates and elections, just like every other group in society. But we very purposely don't hold public referenda in Germany on which coal-fired plant should be shut down, let alone when they should be decommissioned. These decisions are made by government officials who, if need be, can be held accountable if the power grid collapses.

DER SPIEGEL: But you yourself often refuse to accept binding climate protection goals, for example, for the end of the combustion engine.

Altmaier: On the contrary, the German government is currently defining the transportation policy of the future. In my role as minister, I intend to bring battery cell production to Europe and I'm prepared to subsidize this to the tune of €1 billion. But we are also in the midst of an exciting debate over whether renewable energies can be used to produce synthetic fuels that would make combustion engines CO2-neutral. So I can't yet proclaim the end of the combustion engine.

Neubauer: It's fascinating to hear you warn us not to rush things. If we had begun reducing global emissions by 4 percent annually 20 years ago, we wouldn't be having any trouble complying with the Paris Agreement. Instead, we now have to cut back worldwide CO2 emissions by 18 percent annually to meet these targets. We are racing at breakneck speed toward environmental damage that will be impossible to repair. Our appeal for you to get moving, please, is essentially a last-ditch strategy, a public outcry.

DER SPIEGEL: Has our generation failed on the issue of climate protection, Mr. Altmaier?

Altmaier: Failed is certainly not the word I would choose, but we could have done some things better and earlier. In my tenure as environment minister and chief of staff at the Chancellery, I fought in vain for tax incentives to make existing buildings more energy-efficient. We could significantly reduce our CO2 emissions if people could deduct such renovation costs from their taxes. But there was no majority in favor of this at the time, and now the finance minister says that there's no money left in the budget for this. That's the reality of politics.

DER SPIEGEL: What would Mr. Altmaier have to do in order for you to say: Now we've reached our objective?

Neubauer: When the last coal-fired plant is taken off the grid as planned in 2038, Mr. Altmaier will be 80 and I'll be 42, and possibly in the throes of my first midlife crisis. We can no longer blindly believe that the climate goals will somehow be met, given that my generation has been fooled almost constantly in recent years. We won't stop striking just because plans are presented. We also have to see that politicians are establishing sufficiently ambitious objectives, and actually tackling them.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Altmaier, how do you intend to restore this trust?

Altmaier: That's a very complex challenge. In recent years, we've apparently lost some people's trust on a number of fronts. More than 10 percent of the electorate voted in favor of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the last general election, and this shows that these voters feel ignored. Everyone who thinks that we should either do nothing at all for the climate -- or fix everything in a hurry -- has been taken in by the populists. There are no simple solutions here.

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Neubauer, are you afraid that your protests will soon run out of steam?

Neubauer: I'm afraid of a lot of things, and I'm primarily concerned about the future of our planet, but I'm certainly not worried that we won't continue to fight for the planet. I wish you the best of luck, Mr. Altmaier. I'm sure not many people would like to change places with you. But if you tackle this complex challenge and act responsibly, you could become more famous than Ludwig Erhard (the father of Germany's postwar Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle, and Germany's social market economy).

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Neubauer, Mr. Altmaier, we thank you for this interview.

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