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From protest to power: Greta's eco-warriors run for EU office

Aged 22, Doubravsky was a high-school student when he co-founded the Czech branch of Thunberg's school strike for climate movement in 2018, shunning class on Fridays to march for change. Now studying economics and the environment in Brno University, Doubravsky has decided to take his first steps in mainstream politics, running in June's European Parliament elections as a candidate for the Green party.
Last Updated : 28 May 2024, 10:13 IST
Last Updated : 28 May 2024, 10:13 IST

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Brussels: From protest to power: a generation of climate activists who grew up under Greta is coming of age and running for high office to win the change that eluded them on the streets.

Inspired by school-strike leader Greta Thunberg, 20-something eco-warriors - with campaigns launched from Paris to Prague - are swapping banners for ballots in their war on climate change.

Petr Doubravsky is a perfect case in point.

Aged 22, Doubravsky was a high-school student when he co-founded the Czech branch of Thunberg's school strike for climate movement in 2018, shunning class on Fridays to march for change.

Now studying economics and the environment in Brno University, Doubravsky has decided to take his first steps in mainstream politics, running in June's European Parliament elections as a candidate for the Green party.

It was his first chance to stand - Czech candidates must be over 21 - but the decision came down to far more than age.

"I had to think about it a lot," Doubravsky told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, as he ran through the many pros and cons of legislating for change from the inside versus making waves on the outside.

"Civil disobedience has the same legitimacy as politics," he said of his past life picketing parliament.

But Doubravsky also felt short of home-grown role models in what is still a young country.

"It's something we lack, especially in the Czech Republic, people going from grassroots backgrounds into politics."

Eco-army on a new march

Doubravsky is among a handful of young "school strikers" who once cut class to demand climate action and is now hitting adulthood, with some looking to use their voice in politics such as the upcoming EU elections on June 6-9.

When Europe last went to the polls in 2019, more than 6 million people flooded the streets in Fridays for Future protests, hoping to force countries and companies to slash emissions and curb climate change.

This time round, ambitious EU climate policies are facing a backlash from populist, right-leaning parties who are set to make inroads, something the young candidates hope to remedy.

"We need to make those who are responsible for the climate crisis pay for it," said Doubravsky.

Since mass protests peaked in 2019, activists have probed a host of new ways to head off the worst impacts of a hot planet.

Some have chosen the route of resistance, like Thunberg who risks frequent arrest by staging direct action worldwide.

Others have been snapped up by leading political parties looking to add credibility and youth pizzazz to their ticket.

Austria's most famous climate striker Lena Schilling is a high-profile Green candidate, while French activist Sybille Douvillez is running for socialist-affiliated Place Publique.

The shift felt a natural evolution for both Doubravsky and Douvillez after university fostered a fresh political awakening.

"Studying economics made me realise that most things are a question of choice and political orientation," Douvillez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In her second year, at the prestigious Sciences Po university in Paris, the 19-year-old juggles courses with campaigning, although she admits that her studies have - once again - taken a back seat to her battle for climate justice.

"I made the choice this year to allocate a lot of time to the campaign, because taking responsibility also means putting all your strengths into representing the young people of generation climate."

Doubravsky sees his evolution in more practical terms.

As a grassroots activist, he had lots of know-how already.

Be it organising rallies or penning speeches, he had already grasped the ropes of politicking - even if he feels less at home with the trappings of power.

"In politics, you feel this pressure about how you should look, behave and talk," he said with a knowing smile, tucking long, blonde hair behind his ear.

Green election backlash

If successful, he will become one of 720 European lawmakers, who together with EU governments, pass new laws.

The vote comes at a critical time for reaching the EU's 2030 energy and climate targets and rolling out Green Deal policies.

It also coincides with a growing backlash against EU climate policies - be it rollbacks on green targets for agriculture to a dilution of biodiversity law following farmer protests.

Far-right parties are projected to win more seats, in part by exploiting fears over the steep cost of any green transition.

While surveys show most Europeans support measures to tackle climate change, many worry about the price.

And polls suggest the right is making inroads, with the European Greens - currently the fourth biggest party in Parliament - slated to slip to fifth or sixth place. The socialists are also set to lose seats, but keep second position, according to polling data non-profit Europe Elects.

Aside from policy attacks, Schilling of the Austrian Green Party is undergoing a political baptism by fire - facing tough media questioning about her private life - while others are talking a good game but expecting little by way of success.

Mainstream politics as usual, then?

But the activists say their passion is new, as is their desire to shake up the continent's key corridor of power.

"This election is historic in the sense that we still have the climate clock counting down," said Douvillez. "The climate crisis doesn't recognise borders, so it really is at EU level that changes need to be made."

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Published 28 May 2024, 10:13 IST

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