In August 2018, Greta Thunberg, then aged 15, held a sit-in in front of the Swedish parliament in order to fight against the climate crisis. Following this, the Fridays For Future movement was born. Now, young people from 215 countries unite every Friday around the world by protesting in front of their schools, national parliament or local town hall. Helena Marschall was a pioneer of the movement in Germany. In 2018, she made her first strike accompanied by several other young people and has not stopped since. Being now a student in economics, she is convinced that “young people looking at this crisis can decide that they can still solve this problem.”

In an exclusive interview for BlastingTalks, Helena Marschall shows us the power a generation can have over their governments and politicians and proves that there is "so much potential in every young person" to put pressure on political leaders to urge them to take concrete actions to limit global warming.

Blasting News: Helena, you are responsible for nationwide public relations at Fridays for Future Germany. When did you join Fridays for Future and why?

Helena Marschall: It all started in 2018 when I read articles and the summary of the special report of the IPCC report on 1.5 Degrees. It really made me worried because what the best scientists were saying seemed pretty clear yet no one was doing anything. I was in a very defeated state. I saw all these NGOs, all these people trying to make climate actions happen, and it obviously wasn’t working.

I didn't really think I could do anything to change the situation. And then in the Fall of that year, Greta Thunberg started to strike and a lot of other people around the world started school striking. Then, Greta spoke in Poland at COP24 and her speech went around the world. That’s when I realized that in Germany, a lot of people felt exactly the same as me.

We all started making these WhatsApp groups or just adding people and within days we had our first school strike, the very first Fridays for Future strike in Germany. After that I didn't really stop because school striking felt really powerful and felt like it had the potential to do something.

You have just graduated from high school and are starting your studies in economics.

Why this choice? Did you choose this subject in order to stop climate change?

I'm obviously thinking a lot about the climate crisis and I've been doing a lot of work around it for the past two years, so this is an aspect that comes to mind as a student of economic theory. Indeed, the climate crisis will change the way we live in our society, but it will also change our economic system - in fact it has to. The question is what that change will look like and how to make it happen. When studying economics, I’m looking for answers to these questions. What is absolutely clear though, is that it's not a matter of the climate or the economy. It's a matter of facing the climate crisis and taking every necessary steps to stop it.

Most of FFF’s members are teenagers or young adults, the generation that will be most impacted by global warming. Did you ever feel unheard or denigrated due to your age or does it create the opposite effect?

Of course we get comments that we don't know what we are talking about as young people. However, I think what moves the minds of people and majorities in society are the stories we tell about ourselves. I think that as young people looking at this crisis we can decide that we have to solve this problem, that we can still save a lot. We have to tell our stories in an authentic way, by being vulnerable and by showing our fear and our anger, but also our determination. In that regard our age and the way we look at the world is an immense advantage.

FFF has established itself in 215 countries. How did it happen? What is the main argument to convince young people around the world to go on strike every Friday?

I don't think it's having the best argument or being the most convincing. I think a lot of young people already feel the same as what I felt before, the urge to “take to the streets”. Young people around the world can already see the climate crisis, whether they themselves are already affected by heat waves or natural disasters or just seeing it on the news. I think that this movement is therefore much more for us young people, a way to finally have a way to act. It gives us an outlet for our anger and fear to use them effectively to create change.

So it's not so much about traveling individually and talking to people from all these countries, it's much more. The movement started because young people inspire other young people. We're empowered by ourselves, by our generation.

If someone is a little reluctant to take actions like sitting in front of schools, what alternatives do you recommend?

I didn't call myself a climate activist for a long time because I thought it sounded very exclusive. It sounds like you have to be qualified somehow to become an "activist". But no, I'm just a determined young person who learned on the go. By planning our first demonstrations, we made it happen. So I think in many places we have to believe that regular people can be extraordinary.

There are many ways to make political change, to scare political leaders and get them to act. I think the best first step is to talk to other young people already involved in movements in your community.

Faced with COVID-19, you have organized “digital strikes.” Did this period make people lose their motivation to fight climate change?

It's easy to do things online, but it's not as effective because you're still stuck in your own communication bubble. When we go on strike online it's a great way for us to come together and be together as a movement, but it's obviously not the best way to create something the media or the press will talk about. COVID has forced us to rethink a lot of the things we do, like so many aspects of our lives.

So instead of mass demonstrations we have been organizing things with less people. For example, in April of last year, we put up 10,000 placards in front of our Parliament. We have also innovated through all kinds of artistic actions or by doing bicycle demonstrations to create more distance between people.

In March 2021, FFF will launch a global climate strike called “No more empty promises.” It aims to point at the major players in the political and commercial world, to show them that they are not achieving their objectives such as those defined in the Paris Agreement. What exactly are these “empty promises” and what are the urgent goals that must be set to save human life on planet Earth?

We are seeing a lot of governments and a lot of business leaders finally understanding the reality of the climate crisis or at least claiming to. We see a lot of promises and goals being set like climate neutral for 2050 or this reduction of CO2 by 2030. It's an important step and it's great, but whether we stay in line with 1.5 degrees depends on what we are doing to reduce emissions right now. In many places, elected leaders who may be in government for four years, are setting goals for 2050. So in some ways, it may be even easier than taking the concrete steps that we need to see emerge right now. That is our message: we need goals and promises, but what we need even more is concrete action taken now to dramatically reduce emissions in the next year.

Twelve FFF climate activists wrote a letter posted on Reuters to US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris calling for urgent action. First, what are your thoughts on Biden rejoining the Paris Agreement and on his climate promises/goals?

I have hope, but also I think it is not enough. With President Biden, we are much more likely to keep in line with the Paris Agreement as an international community than with President Trump. We see climate as part of his main agenda, and that's really encouraging. But at the same time, it's nowhere near enough for what needs to be done. Fortunately, there are all these young people and these huge movements in the US pushing for radical change as well.

I think that's really nice to see.

In the letter, one sentence is: “the crisis is racist, sexist and elitist.” Could you expand on this? What would be the best way to fight for climate justice?

I think we can see that right now, with the pandemic, the people who were already most at risk before, are also the hardest hit by the pandemic. So we have seen poorer people, women, people of color, being disproportionately affected by the effects of this crisis. It's the same with the climate crisis: people who are already somehow victims of injustice in our current system will feel the effects of multiple layers of injustice harder. For instance, the poorest neighborhoods often have fewer trees and are thus hit harder by heatwaves.

This is just one example of why we are talking about climate justice, and not just the fight against climate change. We must take the current injustice into account when proposing solutions to the crisis.

Most of the affected countries are under-represented. How can we give a better voice to those communities that cannot participate in summits or talks, or even use digital tools to make their voice heard?

They have a voice, it's just how ready we are to give them a platform and how ready we are to listen to them. It is the role of governments and institutions not to simply invite the most prominent white activists. The media also have a huge role to play here. Before Greta Thunberg, there were school climate strikes in the United States led mostly by Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) Activists, but we didn't see much reporting about them.

We see that there is a disproportionate amount of media attention when activists from privileged communities speak while we should really turn to people already affected by the climate crisis who can talk about it and tell the stories with so much more authenticity than us. Obviously, for my part, I'm afraid and I have a legitimate fear of the climate crisis, but people whose homes are already ravaged by the climate crisis are on the front lines, and they still choose to act against it. I think these are the really powerful voices that we should be listening to.