How Do You Fight Against Climate Change without Blaming the People?

“The coal-industry is not the only antagonist of the activists of the German anti-coal-network.”

Ende Gelände! (the German anti-coal network), 2017

Tadzio Müller is sitting alongside two of his fellow speakers at a workshop “The working class and climate justice: Do they belong together?”, one of many workshops taking place over two days (5–6 July) at the Summit for Global Solidarity in Hamburg. The summit was organized by a variety of civil society organizations and took place just before the G20 Summit as a form of protest. Tadzio is a handsome, chilled guy in his early forties, he has distinctive facial features, very short hair, a four-to-five-day-old beard, and eyes that are brimming over with excitement. On that warm, sunny afternoon around thirty people are sitting around him and his two colleagues in the yard outside the room where the workshop is taking place and listening carefully to his story.

Tadzio speaks in accent-free English about his experience at a so-called climate camp in Lausatia, East Germany, in May 2016. He had been participating in the blockade of the coal plant “Schwarze Pumpe”, which is known to be one of Germany’s dirtiest (see figure 2, below). Tadzio is describing how over the weekend of 13–15 May 2016, around 3,000 to 4,000 mainly young people from all over Europe came together in Lausatia to block the mining and processing of lignite. This protest action was organized by the anti-coal network Ende Gelände! The name of the network refers to a German proverb meaning “That’s it!”, the phrase referring to the terrain, site, or compound of the Schwarze Pumpe, respectively. Some activists, from well-known environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace and Robin Wood, supported the action that aimed to legitimize civil disobedience as a form of protest against Germany’s coal industry and the German Government’s climate policy.

Tadzio describes the situation he and his fellow activists faced at the protest site:

“Activists hanging on ropes under a bridge over the coal-train railway for more than thirty hours, their banners saying ‘That’s it! Coal phase-out now!’ and angry locals, workers, even suspected Neo-Nazis, carrying flags of the Union of Mine Workers, entered the site and started to throw firecrackers at the activists, shouting at them, claiming that the protesters’ aim was to destabilize the livelihoods of the workers and locals.”

figure 2

As part of the global campaign “Break Free from Fossil Fuels” and after the climate camp and blockade in Rhineland in 2015, it was Ende Gelände!’s second action of this kind. And this was the second time an action by Ende Gelände! had managed to attract high media attention, adding fuel to the ongoing debate about the national coal phase-out, which is necessary in order for Germany to reach its climate goals by 2050.

But there is a major obstacle to overcome before a coal phase-out can be feasible. Tadzio confesses that when confronted with the question what a just transition in Lausatia should look like, what kind of alternative there would be for the locals in order to secure their livelihoods, he and his fellow activists can merely answer honestly: “We have no idea! We do not have realistic proposals.” Indeed, the notion of a German coal phase-out is not something that’s existed only since last year; already, in 2012, the then Minister for the Environment, Peter Altmaier, stated that the government cannot act against the will of the people. Many scientists, politicians, and intellectuals argue that the energy transition – or Energiewende, as it is called in Germany – has to be a sociopolitical project in order to succeed.

Craig Morris is a scientist at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS). In the book he co-authored with Arne Jungjohann, Energy Democracy (2016), he claims that the energy transition itself has led to increased democratic citizen participation since German reunification, and has also meant that citizens have seen an increase in choice about their preferred energy sources. Only by this process has it been possible for the renewables sector to see growth beyond all expectations, to eventually make up 34 per cent of Germany’s entire electricity production in 2016.

“There’s a saying in Lausatia: ‘I’m a miner. Let someone else be something better’”, Tadzio explains, indicating the strong sense of pride and identification the coal-workers actually feel in relation to their work. Lausatia is one of Germany’s largest lignite mining areas, with a long history in the lignite industry that can be traced back to the eighteenth century. The current 8,000 workers strongly identify with the mining environment. This is because this is all they’ve ever known and also because the industry has offered generations – their parents and grandparents and their parents and grandparents – financial security. What can the climate justice movement offer these people who, apparently, neither need nor want a change? “That’s where I’m stuck right now”, Tadzio admits at the end of his talk.

The “just transition” or “structural change” as German politicians like to call it, appears to be a dilemma, a blind spot, in this process of energy democracy. “The climate movement is not compatible with workers in the coal-mining industry”, this is one intentionally provocative thesis discussed in another workshop held by Ende Gelände!. A red-haired activist recalls that the activists have been blamed by locals of being young people who “storm Lausatia, kick up a fuss and then leave, severing all structures aimed at a constructive dialogue” between the different parties. “That cannot be totally denied”, another dark-haired activist chips in. This dilemma brings to the surface how complex the idea of a just energy transition is in reality.

figure 3

For Tadzio and his fellow climate justice activists, the enemies first and foremost are the coal extracting energy companies as well as the police. The enemy’s name in Lausatia changed during 2016 from Vattenfall to LEAG (Lausitz Energie AG and Lausitz Kraftwerk AG). Vattenfall – one of the four big German energy companies, along with RWE, E.ON, and EnBW – decided to pass on all of its coal assets to the Czech investor EPH Energetický a Prùmyslový Holdings. This company is led by an extremely wealthy Czech: Daniel Křetínský. Although the local and national media commonly referred to the deal as a “sale”, the fact is that it was not: the deal came about as part of Vattenfall’s strategy to withdraw from the fossil fuels industry and to concentrate its investments in renewable resources instead. For the financial year 2015, Vattenfall announced a total loss of 2.1 billion euros due to the changing energy landscape. As a consequence, EPH did not need to pay so much as a cent to Vattenfall in order to take over its coal plants. Instead, EPH even received about 1.5 billion euros towards renaturation measures of the opencast mining site Cottbus-Nord, which had only recently been entirely extracted in December 2015.

As the 8,000 LEAG workers still enjoy among the best protected and best paid jobs in Germany, with fierce support from the Worker’s Union IG Bergbau, Chemie, Energie (IG BCE), it is climate justice activists like Tadzio who are perceived as the enemy. The head of the Unions, Michael Vassiliadis, claims that a realistic phase-out of coal cannot be undergone before 2045 and that the current debate about a phase-out sooner is simply “absurd”. Environmental organizations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), on the other hand, demand a phase-out by 2035 at the latest, in order to avoid the worst-case climate scenario. The German government is to set up a commission on this issue when its subsidies for hard coal mining end in 2018.

Politicians at both the national and local levels are involved in the conflict. During the blockade in Lausatia in 2016, a group of around a hundred people held a counter-demonstration against the Ende Gelände! campaign. Their spokesperson, former Social Democrat Ulrich Freese, announced that he stood “on the side of the people who live and work in the area”. His party comrade and the Minister for the Economy of the Federal State of Brandenburg was cited by the German news agency “dpa”, calling the activists “lawbreakers coming from all over Europe” and claiming that “every reasonable thinking person knows that we need lignite during the energy transition still for a long time”. There were, however, a few politicians accompanying the activists. Among them, the Green MP of the Landtag of Brandenburg, Benjamin Raschke, who was impressed by the “very serious discussions between the activists and Vattenfall employees at a dizzy height on the coal excavator”, where arguments were exchanged about the fears of an economic crash in the region, renewable energy alternatives, energy storage technologies, and tourism. At some point during the workshop, Tadzio, a confirmed communist, had to admit that, in the Lausatian case, the Marxist theory “doesn’t quiet work”: the working class has a strategic position to fight for change, but does not have any interest in being a catalyst for systemic change.

Realism, warnings about a global climate catastrophe, and calls for change, aren’t attractive issues to advertise for. As currently observed, even protecting the interests of Germany’s car industry seem to be a lot more important than a commitment to large-scale reduction in national carbon emissions. But there’s no point in blaming local people who are unwilling to adapt to a new system. After all, it’s not the local people setting national or international climate goals. It’s the government. Germany set its climate goals for 2050 to meet a reduction of CO2 emissions of 80–95 per cent. And already the country is failing to meet the goals that should be achieved by 2020.

Tadzio says that he will continue searching for a solution to solve this conflict in energy democracy. He works as a Senior Analyst for Climate Justice and Energy Democracy at the Rosa-Luxemburg Foundation. The foundation is close politically to the German left party (Die Linke), based in Berlin. He and his colleagues agree that workers’ unions will have to play a pivotal role in maintaining a just transition. Right now, within the renewable energy sector the conditions of work are rather insecure; and workers are barely organized. Therefore, it will require the state, the industry, and civil society to push the unions to become drivers of a realistic just energy transition.



This article was created and published as a result of the Blue Link workshop held in Hamburg/ Potsdam in 2017. More information about the workshop and the project is available here.