"I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. … I want you to act as if our house is on fire." The words spoken by teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January are certain to end up high on the list of the year's most important quotes.
It's rare to see someone express the zeitgeist so clearly. It's as if millions of mainly young people were just waiting for someone to give them the go-ahead to finally do what they needed to do: stand up, take to the streets and speak out against man-made climate change.
In Germany, even more so than in other European countries, it seems the urgent call of the young Swedish activist has unleashed a veritable avalanche of protest and outrage, overrunning everything in its path. These days, panic rules the country — and it's putting pressure on politicians.
Just do 'something'
More and more German cities have declared a "climate emergency," with even the European Parliament recently getting carried away and following suit. Such declarations are essentially symbolic; the climate isn't any better off as a result, but that's not the point. It's all about creating a social climate of fear, of panic.
The latest alarming contribution is a new report by environmental think tank Germanwatch, which ranked Germany as the third-most weather-affected country in the world in 2018, after Japan and the Philippines. Germanwatch said its Global Climate Risk Index, published annually, doesn't allow for conclusions to be drawn about how climate change has influenced extreme weather events, and said its analysis included "statistical uncertainties." But that's not important —what matters is the warning that rising temperatures will make extreme weather occurrences more likely. It wasn't much, but the report was enough to spread fear even further.
Fear, however, usually isn't the best guide. When people panic, they rarely make good decisions — and that's certainly the case for a society. In a democracy, political decisions should be based on rational arguments and reason. In a climate of fear, rational arguments only come out when they help to further the agenda.
Signs of climate change?
An example: those who question global warming during extreme cold spells (yes, they still happen!) are often informed that there is a difference between climate and weather. If, on the other hand, we go through two dry, hot summers in a row, it's almost always seen as a sign of runaway climate change.
Activists like to point to allegedly unambiguous scientific findings to make their claims that climate change is upon us. But when a renowned climate researcher like Hans von Storch says that protesters only "mix up" and "exaggerate" everything, his scientific integrity is immediately called into question.
Read more: COP25: Developing past fossil fuels in India
While climate activists have pressured Germany's traditional political parties, the Greens have sailed on the waves of the environmental movement and made huge gains in recent elections. But a new conflict awaits on the horizon: should the environmentalists return to power on the federal level, the Greens and their voters will find that they cannot fulfill the raised expectations of their followers. That failure will trigger fresh disappointment, anger and even more fear.
Of course, one can and should argue about climate policy. And naturally, the climate activists have made some good points. But climate policy must be decided as everything else in politics: through societal debate, and the belief in the power of the better argument. Climate change is too important an issue to be left to climate activists alone. Their worries should be taken seriously, as should the worries of many other social groups. But being dominated by the fears of a single group is never a good approach.