The movement is adapting its strategy to advocate for social climate policies amid a changing political landscape.
From Greta Thunberg’s one-woman protests in 2018, to global demonstrations by millions of young people, to dwindling participation during the pandemic, the climate movement Fridays for Future (FFF) has enjoyed remarkable success, yet has also experienced challenges.
As the organisation’s five-year anniversary approaches, we review FFF’s achievements, evolution and outlook. We focus on Germany, where FFF has been particularly successful.
In recent months, environmentalist protest groups more radical than FFF have attracted the lion’s share of media attention. So has FFF outlived its relevance? Or can it coexist with its upstart siblings?
Politics and activism
FFF was remarkably effective at putting climate protection on the political agenda. Its 2019 Climate Action Day mobilised more than six million people worldwide. The movement became internationally successful, creating a global network of passionate climate activists. Most FFF protesters were under 25, taking to the streets for the first time.
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These protests succeeded in changing consumer behaviour, persuading citizens to eat less meat and take fewer flights. In the short run, local FFF protests also influenced political elite discourse on environmental policy. FFF activism was a factor in the German Green Party’s electoral success and in German citizens’ general support for climate protection. Following the FFF protests, even Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court ruled in 2021 that the government’s climate protection policies were insufficient.
Nor should we underestimate the likely long-term effects of FFF activism. FFF politicised many young people from a variety of social backgrounds. Some of them are already in positions of social or political power. Others will rise to it in the future. Young women, a group still under-represented in parties and political activism, make up the movement’s most prominent figures. The organisation thus resonated powerfully with young female activists, on whom much of the political and media attention was focused.
FFF’s protest succeeded in influencing citizens and political elites alike, though the effects were only short term. The long-term effects of mass-protest experiences on activists will only materialise fully over the coming years.
After several months of remarkable mobilisation every Friday, Covid-19 put an end to FFF’s successful strategy. FFF’s whole identity had been based on mass weekly demonstrations. When the pandemic struck, the group could no longer bring people on to the street at the same volume and frequency. FFF expanded its protest repertoire with bicycles, online demonstrations and art campaigns. These experiments, however, failed to achieve the same success as earlier mass mobilisations.
Yet even before the pandemic, the number of participants in FFF demonstrations had already begun to decline. School strikes, initially considered subversive and disruptive, had now become mainstream and lost their newsworthiness. When pandemic restrictions were lifted, FFF demonstrations resumed, but no longer on a weekly basis.
Nevertheless, although FFF could not continue with its initial mobilisation strategy, the movement did manage to survive the pandemic, helped by its remarkably resilient organisational structure.
During the 2021 German general-election campaign, the Last Generation (LG) emerged as an environmentalist actor more radical than FFF. Its controversial forms of protest attracted greater media attention than FFF ever managed. And this increased attention has revealed two things.
First, more radical protests, such as paint attacks and—especially—street blockades, get more media coverage. In contrast with FFF’s mass demonstrations, LG doesn’t need lots of people to make an impact. A handful of protesters is enough to block a street and cause traffic jams for a few hours. Secondly, rather than stealing FFF’s thunder, LG protests simply took advantage of the gap left by FFF’s post-pandemic lack of mobilisation.
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The rise of a new climate movement puts FFF under pressure to respond. One of FFF’s main organisers in Germany, Luisa Neubauer, recently used an interview to criticise Last Generation’s methods. Neubauer questioned why LG would resort to such radical tactics to achieve only moderate demands, such as a motorway speed limit. She has a point. Street demonstrations against climate change attracted more support among the general population than did LG’s more radical forms of protest.
Still, despite public disapproval of attacks on art and street blockades, LG doesn’t seem to have damaged the German public’s overall support for climate-protection measures. Each movement employs very different strategies, and attracts very different supporters. This is why, despite their perceived competition, FFF and LG can coexist and complement each other.
Since 2023, the Fridays for Future movement has been following a new strategy. Recently, FFF joined forces with public-transport workers in a strike organised by the trade union Verdi. This new effort to advocate for socially viable climate measures could once again prove successful in attracting media, public and political attention.
The pandemic, and Russia’s war against Ukraine, have changed the political landscape irrevocably. Both have pushed up inflation and decreased governments’ general willingness to implement costly climate-protection measures. By advocating for social climate policies, FFF now has a chance to reinvigorate its dynamic supporter base by reaching out to a wider audience.
FFF could use its mainstream appeal to show that climate action and social justice need not be mutually exclusive. To remain successful, Fridays for Future needs to reinvent itself. Happily, it is already doing so.