Motorists in Germany are banding together to oppose climate activists’ calls to limit the use of cars. Politicians are taking them seriously because, unlike the Fridays for Future movement and its leader Greta Thunberg, most members of the Fridays for Horsepower group can vote. By SPIEGEL Staff
Christopher Grau is a self-described “gearhead” and “technician,” but he still has a thing or two to learn about being an influencer. His performance wasn’t particularly good in his latest video — the picture was shaky and the sound terrible — but that didn’t stop more than 150,000 people from watching his hour-long diatribe against Germany’s current climate protection policy.
Unlike many critics of Germany’s planned tax on CO2 emissions, though, he wasn’t railing against it because he found it halfhearted or weak. He was indignant that any such scheme exists at all.
Grau, a full-time mechanic who mostly repairs Fords, appears in the video as a young man with a receding hairline and a black hoodie. He programs engine software and optimizes exhaust manifolds and cylinders. Very few people, aside from car tuning enthusiasts, had ever heard of his four-man company, Beast Factory. But all that changed in late September, when he posted a short Facebook entry to vent his frustration with all the climate demonstrations.
In it, he fantasized about a Love Parade for Future, which he now says was just a joke, a flippant idea. But his friends from the car scene loved it, and he received countless positive comments. A friend then created a Facebook group called Fridays for Hubraum (Fridays for Horsepower) and made Grau an administrator. According to the group’s description, they intend to “counter the rampant climate mania with some fun.” And they wrote: “There are more of us.”
“Apparently I struck a nerve,” Grau says on the phone. The response has been overwhelming. The closed Facebook group already boasts more than 540,000 members.
One Slogan Was All It Took
Grau appears to have unintentionally launched a collective movement for concerned motorists — and all it took to unite this new online resistance was a slogan.
Wait, resistance? What exactly are they resisting?
“Paternalism,” they say. Also the “pretension” and “holier-than-thou terror” embodied by Greta Thunberg and her followers.
Grau’s group is a sign of the growing dismay felt by many German voters. It shows just how polarized German society is over the climate issue.
Walking through central Berlin or another major German city on a Friday, a person could be forgiven for thinking the Germans are all on the same page when it comes to environmental protection. But while many parents write permission slips for their children to attend the Friday climate protests — where they are joined by teachers, artists and scientists — another segment of society sees this new protest wave as a direct assault on their way of life.
The comments in the Fridays for Horsepower group — or any other “climate skeptic” online forum — reflect the anger felt toward young people who have taken issue with virtually every aspect of their parents’ generation: how they travel from A to B, what they buy, how they produce goods and services, what they eat and even what they enjoy.
And it’s hard to escape these critics. They can be found online, in the media and on the street. In Hamburg and Munich, owners of SUVs find notes on their vehicles that say things like, “Your car is too big,” or, “Climate change leaves me feeling cold.” There are also more detailed messages like, “Ever consider taking responsibility for your actions? Or does your ego need such a flashy car?”
To which the recipients of these messages may think, ‘Excuse me? There are people who see the sheer existence of my vehicle as an act of aggression? Aggression is going around and sticking notes on cars!’ At least that’s how many of the motorists who go online to vent their frustrations see it.
A Special Place in Germans’ Hearts
For many people, the climate debate has long since snowballed into all-encompassing questions: How am I allowed to live? How should I live? And who has the right to tell me what to do? Germans might be more amicable to living more sustainably if they didn’t associate this with increasing government interference in people’s daily lives — a touchy subject. Plus, it’s no secret that Germans love their cars. Many still view them as a symbol of freedom. Indeed, most people here treat their vehicles as more than just basic utilitarian machines. It’s unlikely that a threat to, say, oil furnaces would stoke people’s emotions quite as strongly.
But that’s precisely what’s happening with Fridays for Hubraum. More than half a million people have banded together on Facebook in reaction to Fridays for Future, though the two movements are not entirely comparable. Fridays for Horsepower is just a Facebook group, not a series of mass protests on the streets. It only takes a few mouse clicks to join a group like this. Even if every one of the group’s 540,000 members were active and took their cause seriously — and didn’t just join the group for the heck of it — their number would still pale in comparison to the 1.4 million people who took to the streets in Germany for the Fridays for Future protests on Sept. 20. And that was just one day.
But the horsepower aficionados are mostly adults, and unlike many of the Friday demonstrators, they are also eligible to vote. This is why they are taken so seriously.
The controversy surrounding climate protection is unnerving for most political parties. In Berlin, especially among the parties of the grand coalition — which pairs Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) together with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) — politicians are afraid of provoking rebellions by outraged citizens like the yellow vest movement that rocked France. After all, that mass movement was sparked by a planned fuel tax increase. The insurgents, many of whom live in impoverished rural areas where there are no trains and only sporadic bus service, were soon joined by right-wing populist protesters.
Alexander Dobrindt, the conservative CSU party whip in the German parliament, the Bundestag, is concerned about a possible backlash: “Anyone who wants to pass the costs of climate protection on to families, commuters and rural areas will inevitably reap protests and increase the risk of a yellow vest movement in Germany,” he says.
Yellow Vests in Germany?
Could that happen here, in the land of the car? The German government coalition hasn’t forgotten the protests against the proposed ban on diesel vehicles in Stuttgart because of fine particle emissions. Could this possibly lead to a yellow vest movement in Germany? It’s not a pretty thought. The German government caved to pressure from the streets — or at least from people who drive a car there.
When the top representatives of the grand coalition recently met for protracted late-night climate negotiations, it was primarily the CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD) who insisted on limiting the introductory price for one ton of CO2. In the end, it was decided that anyone who emitted one ton of CO2 into the atmosphere would, for the time being, only have to pay €10 ($11). An earlier proposal had called for €20, but this was rejected as too high by the CSU. The CSU announced earlier this month it wanted to rethink the matter. The long version of the climate plan could not yet be adopted, party officials said, because they hadn’t had enough time to read the document.
Dobrindt says: “We want and need to win the battle against climate change, but we will only be successful if we work with the population, not against it.” If people are not allowed to speak their minds about environmental protection, he says, “it will create a deep rift in our society.”
The SPD appears similarly concerned about alienating its voter base. Falko Mohrs, a Social Democratic member of the German parliament, says environmental and climate protection are absolutely a must, “but we can’t allow ourselves to leave people in the lurch.”
Mohrs, 35, is well-versed on both sides of the issue. He was a member of the youth delegation at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009, and he campaigned for climate protection. Before entering the Bundestag in 2017, he worked at VW, most recently as a production coordinator for the Touran and Tiguan models. “The industry has to change too,” he says, “but that’s not possible overnight. It’s particularly important that we, the SPD, take into account the concerns of both sides.”
‘No One Needs to Be Afraid’
It’ll be hard to make both sides happy. The SPD’s transportation expert, Kirsten Lühmann, says her party is facing pressure on two fronts. There are the progressive, environmentally conscious voters who believe the party’s planned climate protection measures don’t go far enough. “It’s difficult to completely satisfy these people,” she says. Then there are large numbers of voters who complain about the SPD’s proposals for higher fuel and heating oil prices.
People in this latter group are wont to write emails or leave comments on Lühmann’s Facebook page. These range from complaints that the entire policy is antisocial to statements from hardliners who contend that climate change is a hoax. “We have a real communication problem here,” Lühmann says, adding that she always tries to make clear to people that reaching a compromise in the fight against global warming would, in fact, lessen the burden on everyday citizens. “No one needs to be afraid,” she says. But whether anyone will take her reassuring message to heart remains to be seen.
She says that the government and parliament must implement new laws quickly to take the wind out of the resistance’s sails. “The political right is trying to do the same thing with climate protection as it did with the refugee issue: It’s seizing upon half-truths and reformulating them into lies,” says Lühmann.
The pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), which is traditionally more inclined to represent the interests of motorists than the concerns of climate activists, is trying to distance itself from the Greens and Fridays for Future, but without falling into step with the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) milieu.
FDP leader Christian Lindner has maintained his distance from the Fridays for Horsepower group, which is supported by AfD politicians. “There are climate change deniers, and there are those who exploit climate protection to further socialist ideas. The key positions of the AfD and the Greens are polarizing our country, just like the issue of migration,” says Lindner, who went on to say that it was the task of the FDP “to challenge them both and reach a reasonable middle ground.”
His own reaction to the climate strike, however, has not always been balanced and rational. His remark that climate protection was better left to the “professionals,” rather than children, was considered a blunder, including by members of his own party. Even he admitted to having opened up “a stupid flank” with the statement.
In fact, nearly all political parties are struggling with the climate package, even the Greens, who are expected to use their influence in Germany’s upper legislative chamber, the Bundesrat, to make the plans more ambitious. But will they manage to do so — and are they even trying? How disappointed will their clientele be if they fail?
Denialism Equals Votes
Climate change is the defining issue of our time. There are contradictions and conflicts of interest, but it’s easy to take an unequivocally populist line as long as one ignores some disturbing facts. For the AfD, climate policy is a new, hot topic for winning points with voters.
Not surprisingly, the party has happily jumped on the current online initiative. AfD co-leader Jörg Meuthen has nothing but praise for the group: “Fridays for Horsepower is a logical and reasonable reaction to the ideological madness of the environmental activists,” he says.
The new AfD group in the Saxony state parliament endorsed and “welcomed” the “protest movement” with a Facebook post. It has also become a member alongside a number of other party members, including Bundestag co-floor leader Alice Weidel, the party’s designated environmental politician Karsten Hilse and the Bavarian parliamentarian Martin Sichert.
Weidel’s fellow co-floor leader Alexander Gauland recently told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper that criticism of the government’s “so-called climate protection policy” was, after the euro (the party wants to eliminate the common currency) and immigration, “the third biggest issue for the AfD.” He said it gave his party a “unique selling point.”
In the AfD parliamentary group, Karsten Hilse, a former policeman from Bautzen in eastern Germany, is one of the key proponents of his party’s climate policy goals. Hardly a week goes by without Hilse challenging conventional climate wisdom: “The claim of the ‘third-warmest summer since records began’ has no basis whatsoever,” he recently quipped in response to a report by Germany’s National Meteorological Service (DWD). He called the German government’s climate package “a joke.” Merkel’s cabinet “likes to be driven by naive children, whose left-green agitators are pursuing a totally different agenda than supposedly saving the world.”
Just Do Whatever the Greens Don’t
Just how important the climate debate has become for the AfD was made clear recently with the release of a 55-minute documentary film bearing the inflammatory title, “Diesel Murdered by Eco-Madness.” Another film project is already underway: The idea is to critically examine Greta Thunberg and her fellow activists, along with the “eco-madness and the lobbyists behind it,” says parliamentary group spokesman Christian Lüth.
The issue is ideal from the perspective of the AfD. It’s a highly emotional topic and, according to surveys from the Allensbach Institute, a respected pollster, AfD supporters are much less concerned about climate change than the majority of the population.
Besides, the AfD’s main rivals, the Greens, take the exact opposite stance on the issue. Top AfD officials know that this alone is enough to mobilize their supporters. A strategy paper by the Berlin chapter of the AfD for the years 2018-2019 states that dealing with the Greens is “of vital importance” for the party because the environmentalists are diametically opposed to the AfD, and hence play an important role in helping the party achieve its political potential. The paper notes that whenever the Greens come out in support of something, “the AfD must automatically be against it — and vice versa.” In conclusion, the text argues that the more effectively the AfD can emphasize that it is fundamentally different from the Greens, “the better the party can enhance its own potential.”
‘We’re Open and Nonpartisan’
Car tuner and climate influencer Grau says his group intends to carefully monitor its membership to keep from being infiltrated by the far right. “Suspicious accounts don’t stand a chance,” Grau says, adding that they have already excluded Lutz Bachmann, the founder of the xenophobic group Pegida.
People who assume key roles in the group are checked even more carefully, Grau says. The movement already has seven online administrators and some 30 moderators, all of whom were required to sign a data privacy statement and were vetted.
What about AfD members or party officials?
“We’re open and nonpartisan,” says Grau, “but I want to see objective arguments and not extremist shit.” Nevertheless, he adds: “If the AfD likes us, what are we supposed to do about it?” At any rate, Grau says he reserves the right to impose sanctions on any members who violate the rules.
Grau says he is neither an AfD supporter nor a climate change denier.
He simply wants to continue driving and working on cars without taking flack for it, and he has other suggestions on how to save the climate, like planting trees, for instance. Roofs could be painted white to reflect sunlight back into space — an idea he found online. Exercise bikes could also be connected to the power grid to help generate power when pedaling.
Old Habits Die Hard
The most important thing, it seems, is that nothing happens to cars. For many Germans, their vehicles represent a kind of safe haven. For some, they’re a status symbol. For others, a place to sing, swear or pick one’s nose. And it’s a rare German who doesn’t feel at least some twinge of sadness when their beloved automobile is towed away to the junkyard.
With that in mind, along comes this movement of agitated children. Thanks to them, not only will fuel likely get more expensive, but a fundamental aspect of modern life is being called into question, namely: Why are cars allowed to occupy so much public space, regardless of whether they are on the road or parked? Why are traffic lights switched according to the needs of motor vehicles and not according to the needs of pedestrians and cyclists? Why do all new apartments absolutely require parking spaces?
When urban planners created the ideal of the “car-friendly city,” motorists quickly became accustomed to driving unencumbered, everywhere and anywhere, as if it were a God-given right. “Nobody can tell me how to live my life,” a man wrote online after finding a critical note on his car. “It doesn’t matter how big or small my car is — it’s nobody’s business.”
Fridays for Horsepower gives people like that an outlet to vent their frustrations. Discourse in the group can be polemical and brutal — or worse. There have been calls to murder Greta Thunberg, and some members have even expressed rape fantasies. This prompted Grau und his fellow gearheads to take the group offline temporarily.
Is this merely the usual deluge of online vitriol? Or is something more sinister at play?
Greta Thunberg and her fellow activists trigger such intense reactions because what they say comes across as an absolute truth, even though there are no absolute truths.
But what if she’s right? An overwhelming majority of scientists tell us that CO2 emissions must be significantly reduced by 2030 to prevent global warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Scientists also tell us that by the year 2050, the world, its people and their industries cannot release any more CO2 — at all — without transforming the planet into an inhospitable place, one hostile to all life. All of this sounds very much like an absolute truth.
It’s a truth that calls into question every aspect of how we live, be it capitalism, growth or consumerism. This truth tells us to pull the plug immediately if we’re serious about saving the world.
This is a huge deal. It can’t be brushed aside, and it’s not going away.
Species extinction can’t be negotiated away. Floods don’t care about arguments. Humanity has managed to ignore the problem for decades, but along come Greta and her cohorts who say: You must! You must change your lives! You must change everything!
There are many ways to react to such an absolute truth. One could call Greta and people like her crazy and hysterical. Climate change? What climate change? Oh come on, it won’t be so bad. Everything will work out just fine.
No Going Back
Some people may see Greta’s truth as a looming threat that calls into question their lives, their jobs and their cars — indeed, their very existence.
People who experience existential fear may be more inclined to embrace rebellion, militancy and radicalism. People who are afraid may attend Pegida demonstrations in Dresden or wear a yellow vest as they protest along the Champs-Élysées. People who are afraid may view political opponents as enemies who must be fought, perhaps even wiped out.
Another kind of reaction to Greta’s message can be witnessed among progressive circles in major cities. It is reflected in schools’ tolerant approach to the Friday climate demonstrations, in the supportive behavior of parents and in media reports. Nearly all of them say: Greta’s right. They agree that everything has to be different — or this planet won’t have a future.
There’s no going back, at least in an abstract sense. Practically speaking, though, the SUV is still parked out on the street and the next flight has been booked.
And then there are those climate change activists who sanctimoniously act as if they can do no wrong and adopt such a rigid attitude that it scares many people. Skeptics wonder if this paves the way for an uncompromising culture — for a reign of do-gooder terror, a holier-than-thou dictatorship. Might those who want to save humanity also increasingly be willing to take the path of extremism?
Determined but Peaceful
No. Not yet, at any rate. Look at the young people involved with Extinction Rebellion in Germany, for example. They’re purposeful, determined and unwavering. But they’re peaceful.
They have notions of what may, under no circumstances, be allowed to happen. And they have notions of what absolutely has to happen. Their principles may be radical, but they are entirely nonviolent.
The economy will collapse if we do what these young people say? The world will end if we don’t, they reply.
Who is listening to them? Half of society? The majority of the population? Will climate change deepen the rift that has emerged in Western societies?
Christopher Grau from Fridays for Horsepower has a problem now. Many members of his group, emboldened by the outpouring of support they have received, want to emulate the methods of their rivals — and go demonstrate. “We have to take to the streets,” they say, or: “Off to Berlin!”
But Grau is determined to avoid demonstrations, even if this attitude could cost him members. It’s no use, he argues in his video, and it’s a risky move. “We would open ourselves up to attack,” he says. In his experience, it would only result in “stress and suffering.” He adds: “If anybody organizes a demonstration with Fridays for Horsepower, I’m out. I’ll quit.”