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Climate activists are turning up the heat in their protests against fossil fuels


Europe has been trying to replace Russian natural gas after Moscow cut supplies over the summer. Germany is firing up old coal-burning power plants to fill the void and investing in new, liquefied natural gas facilities. Meanwhile, climate activists there are becoming increasingly disruptive in their protests against fossil fuels. As Esme Nicholson reports, the civil disobedience is unpopular, but support for the message is growing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: It's rush hour on a cold, snowy morning in Berlin. At a highway exit on the western edge of the city, commuter traffic has come to a standstill as a dozen climate activists sit down on a pedestrian crossing and glue themselves to the road. One of them is Lina Johnsen.

LINA JOHNSEN: We're here today because we can't just look and see what the government is doing right now. They're not taking overdue measures to protect future generations' lives.

NICHOLSON: Johnsen and a dozen others sit in front of four lanes of cars and trucks. Some of the drivers rev their engines out of frustration. Others get out of their cars and shout in anger. Johnsen admits she's intimidated, but...

JOHNSEN: I'm more scared of how people will react when we, like, fight for food or drinking water in, like, a few decades. Like, I want to circumvent this, like, future. I don't want this.

NICHOLSON: One driver, 48-year-old Jenni Proller, says she's also anxious about the future of the planet, but that this is not the place to discuss it.

JENNI PROLLER: (Through interpreter) I have nothing against protests, but this is something else. The gall of these people. I'm trying to get my daughter to an exam. She's a law student and sitting the bar this morning.

NICHOLSON: Another activist, 33-year-old Theodor Schnarr, says he knows he's unpopular. According to a recent poll conducted for Der Spiegel magazine, 86% of Germans disapprove of protesters disrupting their commutes, but 53% agree that the government is not doing enough to tackle climate change. Schnarr has been arrested and locked up twice for stopping traffic. As a biochemist, he says he's all too aware of the science behind the warnings about climate change.

THEODOR SCHNARR: If we would compare the situation to war, we wouldn't go on as normal. And we are in a desperate situation. So we also should act like it and implement an emergency economy. This is one of the things that the German government should do.

NICHOLSON: Germany's three-party coalition government is not skimping on spending. Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a social Democrat, announced an extra 200 billion euro budget to help cover rocketing energy prices this winter. But this money is paying for fossil fuels replacing Russian gas. The economy and climate protection minister, Robert Habeck, who is a member of the environmentalist Green Party, insists this is a short-term measure.

ROBERT HABECK: (Through interpreter) The fuel of the future is not coal, gas or oil. Our task is to create a carbon neutral economy. That's why this government will not tolerate NIMBY-ism about wind parks. And it's why we expect everybody to do their bit to help build a future free from fossil fuels.

NICHOLSON: Forty-six percent of Germany's electricity comes from renewable sources. Harbeck is confident he can double this in the next seven years. Christoph Bals from the NGO Germanwatch praises the government for passing ambitious legislation on renewable energy but says it's taking too long to implement because of disagreements between the coalition's three parties.

CHRISTOPH BALS: (Through interpreter) Germany is way behind on renewables and embracing electric vehicles because Green Party policies are being blocked and delayed by the libertarian Free Democrats.

NICHOLSON: And that's just two of the three parties in government. Bals says activists who violate the law must face the legal consequences. But he says Germany's highest court has sided with environmentalists before.

BALS: (Through interpreter) Germany's constitutional court has already ruled that the previous government's lack of action on climate change was unconstitutional. So the same court may well view these protests as legitimate because they aim to protect greater legal interests, namely the fundamental rights of future generations.

NICHOLSON: Police have conducted a number of raids against the group and are investigating whether a recent protest delayed an ambulance from reaching a fatal collision. Schnarr insists they always let the emergency services through.

SCHNARR: We don't want to endanger people. We don't want to endanger ourselves. This is the very opposite of what our government is doing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

NICHOLSON: But back on the highway, police struggle to unstick the activists and are unable to let through an ER doctor on his way to hospital. It's clear a sense of urgency and frustration is shared by all. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.