The connection is noisy. “Sorry, I’m just on my way back from Spain,” climate strike activist Cyrill Hermann (18) apologizes for the poor cell phone reception. The train journey from Seville to Zurich takes two days. What you do as a young person with environmental awareness, but it’s not relaxed.
And then Hermann says this sentence: “I understand everyone who flies.”
The idealism with which the Greta movement began in Switzerland at the end of 2018 has given way to a new pragmatism. Young people are more worried than ever about the climate crisis. But they no longer believe that individuals can save the world, they doubt the climate demo concept – and they are incredibly exhausted.
The climate-moving young people feel burned out
“Our mainstay were the demos. But it’s impossible to keep up the pressure for 20 years,” says Hermann. It is becoming more and more difficult to get people onto the streets. “The climate strike lacks internal resources, many are exhausted and no longer like it.” The fact that he “still does anything at all”, although he realizes that it’s not good for him, is only due to one thing: his fear of the consequences of climate change.
Many in the movement feel like Hermann. For three years they sacrificed themselves outside of school, took a gap year and let their studies slide. They were project managers, moderators and press spokespersons in personal union. Prepared meetings, wrote manifestos, mobilized hundreds of thousands. Now many are at the end of their strength – and don’t know what to do next.
“Actually, I’m burned out and I talk to people every week about wanting to retire. But that’s a lot harder than you think,” says Meret Schefer, an 18-year-old activist from Bern. In the beginning she was very euphoric. “I really thought we could turn everything around.” But the euphoria was followed by pressure. If she went on vacation and didn’t have her laptop with her, she stressed that she couldn’t do her job.
A sense of duty has dominated her life to this day. “I want a day when I feel like I don’t have to do this and that and that. But when I can think: Do I want to play the violin or go for a walk?” She hadn’t had that since she was a child. Still, giving up is not an option. «My main goal is ‘through’. to stick with it.”
The climate demos did not bring enough concrete results
The climate crisis is personal for many of the committed young people. “It just overwhelms you when you get active. You get more and more negative information about the state of the world. Then you try to compensate with more and more commitment, »says Anna Lindermeier (20), who almost gave up her biology studies for the movement. Now she’s asking herself: How much can I do and how much does it make sense to do so that I’m still doing well?”
The young people are sobered by the results of the climate demos. In terms of realpolitik, nothing would have changed even with the green wave. In Switzerland, the CO failed2-Law last year at the ballot box – also because parts of the climate strikes revolted against it.
And although the young climate activists have devoted all their time and energy to the protest movement, the climate news has only gotten worse.
Hardly any country is on the right track to achieve the Paris climate goals – to reduce permanent warming to well below two degrees and if possible below 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to the pre-industrial age. The latest world climate report paints a bleak picture: The world is racing towards the so-called tipping points, those changes in the ecosystem that can no longer be reversed.
Commuters get annoyed: “It costs money – and a lot of it!”(00:57)
Almost everyone is afraid of the climate
This causes panic among young people who are concerned about climate change. “For me it’s quite physical, I get sick, I can’t breathe when I read texts or reports that show reality. When I observe events or political events, everything screams in me,” says Meret Schefer from Bern. Dozens of activists with whom SonntagsBlick spoke for this article know what she describes. The symptoms have a name: “Climate Anxiety”.
This climate scare is a global phenomenon. British education researcher Caroline Hickmann surveyed 10,000 people between the ages of 16 and 25 in ten countries. In the study published in December in the journal The Lancet, 59 percent of those surveyed said they were “very” or “extremely worried” about the climate crisis. More than half often feel sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty about it.
The need is great, the contact points are still rare. “There are hardly any cases here, especially not as a main diagnosis,” says Marc Stutz, spokesman for the Psychiatric University Clinic in Zurich. Instead, the main diagnosis is often depression. The number of young people in Switzerland had already increased before the pandemic and had increased during the pandemic – “which, however, has nothing to do with the climate issue”.
“Better to attack the financial center than a flight ban”
But with all the crises that young people have had to experience in recent years, who can say exactly what is the cause – and what is the trigger? Climate, Corona, war: The committed young people not only have to deal with this for themselves, but they also know that all these crises are connected. They are systemic.
“Personal responsibility is not enough,” says Anna Lindermeier, pouring milk into her coffee. Real cow’s milk? Lindermeier shrugs his shoulders. “Most of the time I use oats, but I’m not pedantic.” Giving tips on how to behave, as the climate strike often did in the beginning, is not enough and only distracts from the real causes. “It’s better to attack the financial center than trying to stop everyone from flying.”
Unions praise cooperation, climate strike doubts
In recent years, Lindermeier has helped build the “Strike for Future”, a kind of climate strike 2.0. The trade union federation was brought on board to jointly demand social climate protection. The climate youth hoped that this would result in a higher number of participants and a broader understanding among the population.
But the collaboration failed. The last day of action on April 9 was a flop in terms of participants and received little attention from the media. Unia, the largest trade union in Switzerland, nevertheless praises the cooperation: “Sustainable networks of relationships have emerged in many regions, which we see as a great opportunity.” The cooperation with the climate movement has also helped to anchor the climate issue internally. “This is important, especially since some of our members are particularly affected by the consequences of global warming, such as the construction workers who are exposed to increasingly extreme weather conditions.” We are very interested in a further exchange.
But on the part of the climate strike, it is unclear how things will continue. This will be discussed at a reflection meeting on June 19.
«I still find the initial idea of the project very valuable. But there were certain problems with the implementation,” admits Lindermeier. With the brisk climate strike and the traditional trade unions, worlds collided, networking cost time and energy, the common demands were not strong enough for the street fight.
Has the climate strike gotten bogged down?
“The way we produce is central to combating climate change. But even those who are interested only understand the connection between the reduction in working hours and the climate if you talk about it for half an hour,” says Cyrill Hermann self-critically, who is also currently preparing the discussion rounds for a national strategy meeting at the beginning of June.
The activists know that they have to focus. You just don’t know what for yet.
The fact that activists are blocking a gas station in Rümlang ZH does not even move their own Gschpänli on Thursday morning. In the telegram channel of the Zurich climate strike, 1,200 people read the message by noon, only three left a heart. In the Swiss channel, the reactions are similarly meager. Eight times fire, once hand clapping. A comment.
Nevertheless, the young people who are concerned about climate change feel responsible for constantly having to do “something big”. So that it is reported at all. So that scientists can be heard. Or as tailwind for politicians.
The Greens and the Left put additional pressure on the young people
The climate-moved young people also blame green and left-wing politicians for the pressure they feel. They let concrete instruments for action, such as the climate action plan, which the climate strike wrote together with renowned scientists, fizzle out – but they emphatically incited young people to protest.
“Jacqueline Badran once said to me: ‘Great, keep the pressure off the road!'” says Cyrill Hermann. He feels let down by the adults. “It’s super crazy that we have to stand up for the children of tomorrow alone. We are still children ourselves.”
“Being so active is a psychological burden. But it’s a moral obligation for me as a privileged person in the Global North,” says Anna Lindermeier.
The young people on the climate strike deal with the mixture of frustration, fear and excessive demands in different ways. Some switch to civil disobedience, blocking and sabotaging. Some, like Dominik Waser (23) from Zurich, who sits on the municipal council for the Greens, switch to institutional politics. And some just leave.