Opinion: Fighting for our Future

16-year-old Jan Riecke shares his opinion piece on the recent "Fridays for Future" protests in Berlin.

Photo by Jan Riecke



Jan Riecke is a 10th grade student at the John F. Kennedy School in Berlin.

On Friday, March 29, I was standing among thousands of people in front of the Brandenburg Gate waiting for climate activist Greta Thunberg when I felt someone tap me on the shoulder.

“Hey, could you take off your backpack, please? You keep bumping the kid behind you in the face.”

I turned around to see a boy around the same age as I am looking at me, polite but insistent. A smaller boy, maybe about 8 years old, stood next to him. “Yeah, sure, no problem,” I answered and swung my bag off my back. “Sorry about that,” I added.

Suddenly, the irony of the situation hit home. There I was, unaware that I kept bumping into a little boy, while he stood in silence. It took a complete stranger to step up and speak for him.

That’s the way it’s supposed to be, isn’t it? When youth lack the power to voice their grievances, the older generations represent their interests. But when the looming peril of climate change became apparent, the old did not conduce change. They did not think about the future, and they did not stand up for that 8-year-old boy. Instead, they would have let me knock into him until he fell.

Having the courage to stand up for what’s right is what led to the Fridays for Future movement — a series of weekly protests in which students skip school to rally for political action to stop climate change — and the reason so many of us were gathered there that day.

Fridays for Future was originally inspired by the 16-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg, who started protesting in front of the Swedish Parliament during school hours in August 2018. Her goal was for Sweden, a signatory of the Paris Agreement, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as outlined in the accord. Ever since, the movement has grown and expanded across the globe. The rallies have come to Berlin as well, making me want to learn more and take part. The protest on March 29, to which Greta paid a visit, was among the largest in Germany so far.

That morning, when I arrived to the march’s starting point at Invalidenpark, it was packed. The air crackled with frustration but also unity. There was chanting and music playing in the background, but what struck me most was when we began marching together in simple solidarity.

As my classmates have become more active in their own fight against the climate crisis, I was interested to know how they’ve changed their own lives as a result. One friend mentioned that he and his soccer team agreed to take their bikes to training in the winter, even though their parents had offered to drive them.

Another friend, Amelie Vita, told me she feels as if the topic of climate change doesn’t come up enough in our school curriculum. She said global warming is touched upon here and there, but that’s it.

“I wanted to be a part of [the protest] and help my generation,” she told me.

But what about responsibility? Students are skipping school to march for climate awareness. Amelie is in 10th grade at the John F. Kennedy School, a vital year in the Berlin school system, as the exams of the Mittlerer Schulabschluss (“certificate of intermediate education”) are fast approaching. What did her parents think?

“My parents encouraged me to go to the demo. They are also the ones that told me about it,” she said, adding that it was relatively easy to make up the work she missed at school.

Schools debate how best to enforce the “Schulpflicht” (“compulsory education”) in Germany while allowing students to speak out against climate change. I also sat down with my ethics teacher, Matthew Baildon, to discuss the climate change strikes from the point of view of a teacher. He told me he tries to talk about climate change issues in his ethics classes, though he agrees it remains largely excluded from the curriculum. He also said he supports the protests and wishes teachers could take students on a “field trip” to make the demonstrations school-related and avoid the issue of skipping school altogether. He doesn’t punish students who miss his classes to demonstrate: instead, he assigns them a small task.

“If you do go, then I need a little bit of an essay of what you did and what you felt,” Baildon said.

Still, there are some people who are suspicious of students’ motives for joining the protests. German politician Christian Lindner, the leader of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), has brought the credibility of the protesters into question. He has said that the kids should leave it up to the “professionals” to solve the crisis. But many others have pushed back at this notion. In fact in March, 12,000 scientists, a number that has since risen, signed a petition saying the kids are right to protest.

The movement intends to bring about change. Greta says she wants people to “panic,” to feel the urgency of the problem at hand and to take action before we hit the predicted point of no return.

When I spoke with Amelie, she said her first objective was simply to be heard.

“First, they [the policy makers] actually need to see us and take us seriously,” she said. “They should also really think about the problem.”

Mr. Baildon believes it will take a while for any tangible responses by the government: “I think that changes can be made. I, unfortunately, don’t think it’s gonna happen right away. I think we’re gonna, as the term goes, ‘shoot ourselves in the foot,’ first, and then realize that we have to make changes.”

But haven’t we shot ourselves in the foot already? We’ve known about the crisis for more than 50 years now. While the evidence may have been vague to start with, more and more concrete scientific studies have been published over the years repeatedly warning against climate change. If we wait any longer, there may not be anything left to salvage.

Mr. Baildon fears the same: “We’re not going to make it fast enough, I think. We have just too many people, the oil companies that are putting money into the politicians to keep with the fossil fuels. If we would start going with solar, or wind power, for energy, then we could make a difference. It’s just too slow.”

Is that it? The tale of the earth drawing to a close with an apology that reads: “We were just too slow.” We failed to listen when it mattered most. We bathed in blissful ignorance while our children took to the streets, demanding change. But protesting can only be the beginning. We have to take the fight from the streets into the parliaments, to confront the policymakers and to save our future.

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