The 22-year-old student Luisa Neubauer is often referred to as “Germany’s Greta.” Yet Neubauer is a force of her own and she’s taking Germany’s establishment to task for failing to halt climate change.
Third-year geology student Luisa Neubauer is often referred to as “the German Greta,” after the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, the frontperson of the global Friday school strikes who has risen to international fame. But Neubauer, the face of Germany’s Fridays For Future protests, is an original—a wily strategist and practiced activist behind the well-informed, revved-up young people who are calling out the country’s political class for failing to address climate change.
Within a few short months, Neubauer and her cohorts have motivated hundreds of thousands of people to join the campaign and have reframed the debate in Germany. It’s something that neither activists nor think tanks, scientists nor Green Party politicos had managed to do. By putting themselves at the center of it, the youngsters have linked the present and the future of the climate change conundrum in a cogent narrative. The issue is no longer one of distant people and the distant future, but rather it’s about them, the youngest generation, which demands a response to “the climate crisis,” terminology they’ve introduced, with credible strategies to secure their future.
Neubauer conveys this urgency wherever she goes, and this year she’s already had audiences with the French president, EU commissioners, and German cabinet ministers. “The politicians have to act, now,” she recently told German public radio, underscoring that the movement’s focus has expanded from the shutting down of coal-fired power plants to the big-ticket challenge of designing a sustainable world. “We have to ask ourselves how we want to organize the economy and live and work without wrecking the planet,” she says.
Overnight Media Sensation
Almost overnight, Neubauer, a Hamburg native, has gone from being a virtual unknown to a media sensation, her words and picture splashed across the German press and blogosphere.
At the demonstrations, it’s plain that she resonates with many of her generation (especially those much like her—an important caveat.) She doesn’t outwardly appear particularly hip, much less radical. Her usual demonstration attire is jeans, a royal-blue woolen jacket, and her signature charcoal-gray winter hat with fat pompom. “She looks normal even though she’s quite extraordinary. This is why so many people can relate to her,” says Insa Vries, an activist from Ende Gelände (Here and No Farther), a climate group that embraces civil disobedience.
Neubauer’s cell phone is her communications hub, from which she helps manage the social media accounts that are the global movement’s sole means of coordination. The branches in 120 countries link up and spread their message via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. That’s how on March 15, the Global Climate Strike amassed 1.6 million protesters worldwide—the largest student-centered demonstration ever. In Germany alone, some 300,000 young people skipped school to demonstrate in more than 150 German towns and cities.
One sees at once that Neubauer is no novice. On stage with micro in hand before a throng armed with placards and banners, she is truly in her element. On March 29, the Friday demo at the Brandenburg Gate in downtown Berlin mobilized an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 people. Although the main attraction was Greta Thunberg, who arrived from Sweden and spoke briefly, Neubauer was omnipresent: negotiating Greta through the crowd, leading the chants, introducing speakers, and periodically delivering bursts of oratory: “We’re the generation that can change this climate chaos! We’re more global and networked than the generation before us!”
Perhaps this is simply Neubauer’s 15 minutes of fame, and her novelty will wear off quickly. But at the moment the German media can’t get enough of the speed-talking young woman who takes on the talk shows’ usual suspects with a poise and self-confidence beyond her years.
On the receiving end recently was Ulf Poschardt, editor-in-chief of the conservative Die Welt news group, who appeared alongside her on the talk show Hart aber Fair. Poschardt, 52-years old and usually unflappable, obviously hadn’t done his homework. He blanched when she jumped on his lament that e-cars don’t have enough “soul” for his liking. “Excuse me,” she interjected, “but you obviously have no idea that we’re in a climate crisis! The planet can only take so much carbon dioxide, that’s why we have carbon budgets that we have to stick to,” she said. “And if you want to say that it’s all no good because of your emotional relationship to your sports car or because [e-cars] lack soul, then I have to say, sorry, we really don’t have time for this anymore.”
Pulling the Emergency Brake
In a discussion with Peter Altmaier, Germany’s minister of economics and energy, which was published in full in the weekly Der Spiegel, Neubauer unloaded on the minister when he suggested that rather than skipping school, the students should demonstrate on weekends. In school, he said, students learn how to become full-fledged citizens. Neubauer shot back: “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.”
“The young people, like Luisa, they have the facts right and they wield them very effectively,” says Volker Quaschning, a professor of renewable energy systems at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin and founder of Scientists for Future, a group of 26,000 natural scientists supporting the movement. The student activists, he says, scoured the Internet to find and read the scientific studies that explain global warming and the potential of renewable energy. “They can show up the politicians and pundits because they haven’t read them,” he says.
“The kids are saying what we’ve been saying for 20 or 30 years. But they’re getting a hearing right now that we never got,” says Quaschning. “We’ve been telling the politicians exactly this for years, and they brushed us off. But the young people, they’re honest, innocent in a way, and speak straight to the problems, which they didn’t create but will have to pay for. They have a credibility that we older people don’t have because we’re part of the problem.”
Building an International Movement
The first few school strikes in Germany, in Berlin, the port city of Kiel, and elsewhere broke out last November, inspired by Thunberg, who had plunked herself on the steps of Sweden’s parliament, the Riksdag, with a cardboard sign reading “School strike for climate.” Luisa and Greta first crossed paths in early December 2018, at the UN climate summit in Katowice, Poland, and agreed to work together, across borders.
Neubauer, despite her age, was no stranger to grassroots organizing. She had worked in a wide range of campaigns with organizations such as 350.org, ONE, Young Friends of the Earth, Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations, Fossil Free Germany, and the German Green Party’s youth wing, among others. As a child, she had marched for environmental causes alongside her grandmother, a veteran of the 1970s environmental movements which gave rise to the Green Party. As high school student, she took on plastic waste and fracking. At her college, Göttingen University in central Germany, where her scholarly focus is sustainable businesses, she was among the activists who forced the administration to divest from all of its holdings in gas, coal, and oil.
But in Katowice, and talking with Greta, she realized that weekly school strikes were the way forward: civil disobedience would finally catch the establishment’s attention. Four weeks later there were 10,000 kids chanting in front of the Ministry of Economy and Energy in Berlin, with Luisa leading the chant: “Wir sind hier, wir sind laut, weil ihr unsere Zukunft klaut!” (We are here, we are loud, because you’re robbing us of our future!”)
Hailstorm of Flak
While Chancellor Angela Merkel has paid the young activists gentle praise, saying she is supportive of their aims, Neubauer quipped that the compliment only shows how out of touch the chancellor is: “Well, it’s nice that they praise our commitment. [But] we go out on the streets to demand that [the government] take a hold of climate policy and drive forward real climate policy.” If Merkel is serious, said Neubauer, “she should meet her own self-imposed goals.”
In stark contrast to Merkel’s faint praise, Neubauer, Thunberg, and many others in the movement have had to endure a hailstorm of flak, some of it quite nasty. The teacher’s union, among many others, object to the truancy while the leader of the Free Democrats, Christian Lindner, suggested they leave politics to the professionals. The right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), has gone even further. The party, which calls climate change a sham, ridicules the whole campaign as one of privileged, supremely politically correct children of upper-middle-class Green Party voters. The response of the hard right, though, is another story. Neubauer’s lifestyle has come under heavy fire, foremost her international travel. Far-right trolls posted a doctored video on YouTube, drawing in part on her Instagram account, which shows her in places as far away as Africa, North America, and Asia and using the hashtag “#LangstreckenLuisa,” or “Long-distanceLuisa.” An Instagram image of a hand, presumably hers, holding a plastic cup of ice cream with plastic spoon stuck in it, reveals her brazen hypocrisy, these critics imply. Most of the flak comes from men, with some using misogynist insults, such as: “Little blondie should stop taking those long-distance flights and go work on an organic farm.”
The question that just about everyone asks Luisa Neubauer is when the school strikes will end. Neubauer says they‘ll return to school when Germany agrees to exit coal in 2030—rather than 2036, as planned. It is, however, virtually unthinkable that Germany’s coal commission will reconvene and renegotiate the exit date that it set just months ago. If they don’t, says, Neubauer, then they’ll strike until 2030—that’s 813 Fridays from now.
While it’s unlikely the movement can sustain its current levels of energy and enthusiasm for that long, in truth it has only just begun, and Luisa and her allies obviously have no shortage of creativity. And already they’ve shifted the debate by underscoring climate change’s existential threat. “We’re bringing the topic of climate change to the dinner tables and the classrooms and the town halls,” says Luisa. “This is certainly a success in itself.”