BERLIN—Europe, in the last few hours, has gotten a respite from the Inferno. In Paris and Berlin the temperature is now in the balmy low 80s. But over the last week, temperatures have broken records across the Continent, soaring over 114 F (45.6 C) in France.
And if the known death toll, six people, remains very low compared to the disastrous numbers during a heat wave in 2003 that killed as many as 70,000 people, the hellish temperatures have given a sense of urgency—indeed, emergency—to the already growing climate protest movement. As average temperatures continue to rise, it’s understood these kinds of heat waves are set to become more frequent and intense, and activists—backed by extensive scientific evidence—believe radical action is needed now if such hellish heat is to be kept in check.
It doesn't help that U.S. President Donald J. Trump is a climate change skeptic who withdrew from a global accord to begin addressing the challenge, but the problem is much bigger than his willful ignorance or the question of treaties. The activists want decisive measures, and they want them now.
On Friday, when France had its hottest day ever at nearly 115 degrees, protesters participated in a pre-planned blockade on the Pont de Sully bridge at the edge of Paris to demand that their government declare a climate emergency and reduce carbon emissions. A video shows the activists sitting peacefully arm in arm. Then police with riot shields rip one person’s goggles off and calmly douse the whole group with pepper spray.
“We want to make everyone aware of the necessity of ending our current system, which is built upon local and global inequalities,” one protester told The Daily Beast: “If the argument 'people are already suffering from it on the other side of the globe' is not enough, maybe the fact that people here—and many people—will be suffering from it tomorrow or even today will finally make people react.”
On the weekend of June 22 activists from all over Europe, 8,000 strong, gathered in the Rhineland to shut down the lignite coal infrastructure of RWE, a German energy giant that has emitted so much climate-altering carbon dioxide into the world that a farmer in Peru is suing the company for the melting of a glacial lake that may destroy his home town of Huaraz.
While some activists blocked the railway tracks to two power plants, others occupied the scorching black sand of the Garzweiler surface mine. To try and ward off the sun, they held aluminium blankets over their bodies. Beneath the foil, they could see the boots of the police officers surrounding them. Some protesters had run out of water. Some were having heat-strokes. Nora, a 22-year-old protester, said she was trying to stay alert but it was so hot that, “I felt like my brain was turning to banana mash.”
The protesters in Paris belonged to Extinction Rebellion, an international climate action group that made headlines in April when its partisans shut down streets in London, glued themselves to trains and peacefully asked to be arrested. Meanwhile, the protesters in the Rhineland were from Ende Gelände (here and no further), an action group that began as a campaign for Germany’s immediate coal phase-out five years ago. Today, says spokesperson Kathrin Henneberger, “We need to be active in all sectors.”
In last month’s European parliamentary elections, the surge of the Green parties—who promise a “just transition” to a low-carbon economy—reflected Europeans' growing concern over climate change. But Michael Wilk, an Ende Gelände paramedic, who has a broken nose from the days when he was involved in the anti-nuclear movement, is skeptical about the German Green party: “They’ve moved so much to the center that they will not push anything through without pressure from the street.”
According to a 2018 agreement among the German government, energy companies and environmentalists to phase out coal, RWE can legally mine lignite—the dirtiest of fossil fuels—until 2038. But to environmental activists, mining a substance that is less vital for Germany’s energy consumption than it is a huge hindrance to Germany’s transition to renewable energy, is “illegitimate,” says Hanna, one of the Ende Gelände protesters. “By breaking the law and facing the consequences, we are showing how seriously we take this.”
In the villages around the Garzweiler mine, the windows of houses and cars have layers of dust on them. Remy, 22, is from here, but says that it is not his dream to stay: “I already told a friend that we might die of lung disease if we keep living here.” Currently, the community is trying to set up a fund for people who get sick from the open coal mine. So far there are no official studies, but one young software employee told me that he has spoken to four doctors who claim that the cancer rate in villages around the mine is unusually high.
“My husband coughs,” says Uschi, a pensioner who lives on the road that leads up to the mine. “When we go away to a lake or to visit friends, he is fine.”
In the past 40 years, RWE has bought out numerous villages as the Garzweiler coal mine expanded. This year, Ende Gelände and school strikers were joined by people from the remaining villages that are slated for destruction. But not everyone is hopeful: “These protests are coming way too late,” says Johannes, whose in-laws live on Uschi’s road. A mass mobilization like this year’s should have happened 15 or 20 years ago, “Before all the towns were bulldozed.”
“Demonstrations don’t achieve anything,” says Uschi. “The state just does what it wants and the people take their severance pay.”
Further down the road, an elderly woman named Franziska has cracks in the walls of her house. She thinks this could be caused by RWE pumping out the groundwater from underneath her. But, Franziska says, “Before I put all my money into a lawyer, I’ll just build a new bathroom.” She says she tries not to let things unsettle her: not the excavator that she hears at night, nor the shadows of the nearby windmills that also are owned by RWE, which is reinventing itself as Europe’s third largest provider of renewable energy. “If I know what it is, then it doesn’t bother me.”
During a less dramatic heatwave last summer, nearby farmers saw their harvests ruined. Uschi and Franziska see this as exacerbated by the pumped-out groundwater: “The farmers already have to water their fields constantly, because all the groundwater goes into the mine.” It’s the kind of claim that makes Stefan Toennes, a former head engineer in one of RWE’s coal power plants, indignant: “The failed harvest wasn’t RWE’s fault, it was because of climate change!”
Toennes started working for RWE in the early 1970s. At the age of 24, he read “The Limits to Growth,” a report that claimed that continued population and industrial growth would bring the world to an end by 2035. “It really influenced me: I wanted to do everything I could to prevent it from coming to that,” Toennes says. Back then, his hope was to help find a way for lignite coal—the dirtiest fossil fuel—to burn more efficiently. And unlike the German Ministry for Transport, he says, RWE did adapt to new standards for pollutants like nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide. That RWE has become the target for young eco-activists, he thinks, is unfair. “We followed the rules.”
The activists would say that’s precisely the problem: it’s time for new rules. Survival depends on them.