By Marino Unger-Verna
They say their party takes the urgency of the climate crisis seriously.
The Green Party just doesn’t have much traction in US electoral politics. Thanks to the two-party system, Americans who care deeply about environmental issues tend to vote for Democrats who they see as more likely to be able to win elections and enact change. That’s not the case across the pond. In the European Union, where many countries are governed by multiparty coalitions, robust Green parties exist that are primarily devoted to addressing the climate crisis. During the pandemic, a group of university students in Germany built up a new grassroots movement that they say takes the urgency of this crisis seriously. Klimaliste, literally meaning “climate list,” campaigns for a green future in line with the targets outlined by the Paris Agreement. Their aim is to enter as many state parliaments as possible.
Teen Vogue sat down with Collin Wittenstein, one of Klimaliste’s cofounders, to discuss the group’s approach, what it’s like to enter the political arena as a university student, and his tips for young people interested in taking up a cause.
Editor’s note: This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Teen Vogue: What led you and your co-founders to establish Klimaliste?
Collin Wittenstein: We looked at the German political landscape, and despite Germany being part of the Paris Accords there was no political party which had the goal of achieving the 1.5 degrees [Celsius limit on global warming] in their policies, let alone had a scientifically sound plan of achieving it…so [we thought of Klimaliste as] kind of politics as self-defence. When you calculate how much [carbon dioxide budget] Germany has left, 2040 is just not possible.
We were protesting for over one year on the streets and nothing really happened. There was a lot of talking about the topic of climate change, and we were getting invited to meetings with politicians, but there was no action. So that’s when we thought about bringing the protests from the streets into the parliament. We knew it would be hard, but we wanted to change the political discourse in a way that is just not possible when you’re protesting on the streets.
Would you say it was a big leap, going from doing street protests to building a political movement?
Yeah, I would say so, and we were also nervous about it. You have to be aware of deadlines and you need a whole bigger team. But the Fridays for Future movement came in quite handy because we were really connected in the scene. And then we went to the Parents for Future and made some advertising for it, and we went to the Scientists for Future, and the Students for Future, and all those different groups — and Extinction Rebellion — and made a lot of advertising for it.
In a lot of ways you seem to position yourselves to be a party of the youth — one of your core policies is lowering the voting age, and you’re founded by students. How do you feel about the ability of young people to shape politics and policy?
I think in politics, young people are really underrepresented and not really in the debate. I think you can also see that right now, like the way students suffer from the corona crisis, you don’t really hear about it in the media. You don’t see politicians addressing it. I don’t know [if] Klimaliste is the [only] way to fix it, but there are problems with the way political parties are structured. When you want to be politically active, you have to start at a really low level, like hanging posters for the election — you have to work your way up slowly.
With us you can just come in, and you don’t even have to be a member. I think a lot of young people want to be involved in politics, want to be politically active. But for some reason, political parties seem really unattractive to them.
Thirteen percent of voters under 30 in Baden-Württemberg voted for groups listed as “other” in the last state election — so voting for a non-established party does seem to appeal to many.
Yeah. At the established parties, there are people coming in with ideals, but you have to work your way up. And when you’re finally in a position of a bit of power, you just do what keeps you elected. The difference in Klimaliste is you don’t have to work your way up. You don’t need to be in Parliament because that’s all you did for the last 10 to 15 years — you’re way more free to do what’s actually needed on the climate side.
Are you in any way worried about splitting the vote, or do you think people should be able to vote for even small parties if they believe in them? Klimaliste won 0.9% in the state of Baden-Württemberg, which may have been enough to prevent a Green-Social Democratic coalition, but you did also force those parties to adopt some more climate-focused policies.
I think it’s a weird way of thinking about democracy in politics. Like, [thinking] all those people who voted for Klimaliste would have voted for the Greens is just not feasible. And there were so many people who reached out and said […] “it’s so good that you’re here, for the last 20 years I didn’t really know who to vote for. Now, I finally see a party which actually stands for what I really want.” It’s just not as easy as to say votes which we got would have otherwise gone to the Greens.
With the change in discourse, there are going to be more people voting for the climate in particular, and I think that can also help the Greens. The Social Democratic Party (SDP), the Greens, and the Left Party all support, at least in their words…1.5-degree [Paris Accord] politics. Of course, it’s not just Klimaliste, but I definitely think we played a part.
The Greens said before the election that they want to keep in contact with us no matter the outcome, and we have a lot of scientists on board. I think one really big problem with the parties is they don’t really have [enough] expertise.
What do you think about voters in other countries? The United States, for example, has independent candidates, but they’re rarely elected.
In the US, I don’t think Klimaliste is the way to go. The “winner-takes-all” system… I think you’re just hurting yourself. What you have to do there is really to go into the Democratic Party — I don’t see, at least on a national level, the Republicans going for climate change anytime soon. At least there’s some [of this energy] around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal; there’s sometimes quite a bit of talking [about climate] in the Democratic Party.
The head of the [German] Green Party actually at one point compared Klimaliste to Bush v. Gore, because back then [Ralph Nader] was [the main] independent candidate, [Ralph Nader]. [Back in 2000, people said] “if all those independents voted for Al Gore maybe he would have been president,” which, because America has a “winner-takes-all” system, makes sense. But [the Green Party leader] went from that argument and projected it onto Klimaliste. In Germany, where we have a completely different political system, I think it’s not feasible.
Would you say that the political system in Germany makes it easier to bring about change?
You can definitely see that. I think there’s way more diversity in the system, and I think it also isn’t as polarizing. When I consume American media…when you don’t support candidate A, it means you have to support candidate B, which in Germany isn’t really the case. You can critique the conservatives, but you can also critique the Social Democratic Party.
What piece of advice would you give young activists trying to change things and push for climate policies?
The most important thing is that you need to be persistent. It’s a lot of work, and the change is coming really slowly…sometimes even way slower than you want it to be or it has to be. But giving up is also not an option. So you still need to keep fighting.
This article originally appeared in AGU’s EOS Magazine and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration to strengthen coverage of the climate story.