From Greta to Luisa, youths spearhead climate movement

Stockholm (AFP) –


They're the faces of the climate alert that propelled Green parties to strong gains in EU elections: Greta, Luisa and Leah lead a generation of youths that have put the planet atop the political agenda.

Without these youngsters, some of whom are still not old enough to vote, Europe's Green parties might have still posted strong scores, as the climate has become one of voters' main concerns.

But their ubiquitous activism -- in the streets, on social networks, and in the media -- has had an undeniable effect mobilising voters.

"The Green parties' results are due to all the young people striking, climate activism is getting more important, especially among young women. They are the ones who set the agenda for the European elections," said Katri Ylinen, a spokeswoman for the Federation of Young European Greens.

At just 16, Sweden's Greta Thunberg has become a figurehead for a movement that has gone global, inspiring hundreds of thousands of other youths in dozens of countries to strike from school in "Fridays For Future" protests.

One of them is Luisa Neubauer, a 23-year-old university student who has been dubbed "the German Greta".

The pair have met on several occasions in recent months, including in December in Poland at the Cop24 summit and in Hamburg in March for a climate march.

Social media play a decisive role in mobilising youths and getting them to take to the streets.

- From street to ballot box -

Known for her long braids and serious demeanor, Greta has also inspired other young girls and women, including Belgian students Anuna De Wever, 17, and Kyra Gantois, 20, and Ugandan 14-year-old Leah Namugerwa, all of whom have risen to the forefront of climate activism in their countries in recent months.

Green parties posted strong gains across Europe, in particular in Germany where they took 20.5 percent of votes, in France (13.47 percent) and Britain (12.1 percent).

"The European elections show that we're not only bringing the climate crisis to the streets but also to the ballot boxes," Luisa Neubauer wrote on Twitter.

Greta's most recent Instagram post was on Sunday. The teen, who was on a train headed for Austria and who is too young to cast a ballot yet, urged Europeans to vote "for the future".

- 'Greta effect' -

Swedish liberal-leaning newspaper Dagens Nyheter said Monday there was "a Green wind blowing in Europe", thanks in part to "the Greta effect".

"But you're never a prophet in your own country," it noted.

In Sweden, the Greens party lost two of its four seats in the European Parliament. However, its 11.4 percent score was a sharp rise from the 4.4 percent it scored in legislative elections in September 2018, before Greta's school strikes became a worldwide phenomenon.

Around 15 percent of Swedish women voted for the Greens party, according to exit polls by public broadcaster SVT.

"Greta is very inspiring, she motivates us. She influenced my vote, I really took to heart some of the things she said, like 'Maybe my grandchildren will ask why we didn't do anything'," said Louise Wirman, an 18-year-old high school student.

The fact that many young activists are girls can be attributed to the fact that "young women are drawn to liberal parties, while older men (lean) to the right and to some extent to populist parties," political scientist Sofie Blomback told AFP.

Some are threatened by these youngsters, and Greta, who has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, has been subjected to harsh criticism from far-right climate sceptics.

In France and Germany, activists used her handicap to discredit her campaign, accusing her of being manipulated by "ecofascists", according to the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD).

Greta's student movement has nonetheless spread around the world.

In Uganda, 14-year-old Leah Namugerwa is leading a campaign against plastic bags that litter the streets of Kampala. She has started a petition urging President Yoweri Museveni to ban them.

Like Greta, Namugerwa is also striking from school, though she says she was inspired by a New York girl of the same age, Alexandria Villasenor, who organises recurring demonstrations outside the United Nations building.