This morning, thousands of schoolchildren in Australia and New Zealand began a national day of climate demonstrations that will see students ditching class in the largest #FridaysForFuture demonstration yet.
For three months, students have been ditching class every Friday to protest. It’s part of a movement started by the 16-year old Swedish student Greta Thunberg, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize this week. Demonstrations are expected today in at least 1,500 cities in 100 countries.
The protests, which started in December, have thus far been relegated mostly to Europe. And while some European politicians have welcomed the students’ enthusiasm, others have been suspicious about what forces are causing this sudden mass mobilisation.
Last month at the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of European and American leaders to discuss defence and geopolitics, German Chancellor Angela Merkel mentioned the protests in the context of Russia’s hybrid warfare – efforts to manipulate public opinion using cyberwarfare and disinformation in order to destabilize enemy governments.
“In Germany now, children are protesting for climate protection – that is a really important issue,” she said. “But you can’t imagine that all German children, after years, and without any outside influence, suddenly hit on the idea that they have to take part in this process.”
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“Hybrid warfare from Russia can be felt every day in every European country,” she added. “This hybrid warfare in the internet is hard to detect, because you suddenly have movements that you wouldn’t have thought would appear.”
Merkel faced an immediate backlash against her comments, and her spokesperson quickly backtracked on her behalf, saying on Twitter that she had used the climate protests merely as an example of how campaigns can be mobilized on the internet.
“The pupils’ commitment to climate policy is something she expressly approves of,” he said.
But Merkel’s comment hit a nerve because the exact same accusation had been made by Belgian climate minister Joke Schauvliege in January. Schauvliege was subsequently forced to resign because of what she said.
“I know who is behind this movement, both of the Sunday demonstrations and the truants,” she told an audience of farmers. “I have also been told that from state security. I can guarantee that I do not see ghosts alone and that climate demonstrations are more than spontaneous actions of solidarity with our climate.”
But after the comments were picked up by the media, the Belgian state security services issued a statement denying they had reported anything of the kind to Schauvliege, “neither verbally nor in writing.” The climate minister then held a tearful press conference where she said she could no longer serve because of the controversy. She said she had misspoke because of exhaustion.
But why would both Angela Merkel…