Scientists Join Swiss Hunger Strike to Raise Climate Alarm

Disappointment with COP26 is driving climate activists and researchers to seek ways to speed action outside the United Nations process to slow global warming.

Guillermo Fernandez holds a sign reading "Hunger strike for the climate for our children" during his hunger strike next to the Swiss House of Parliament in Bern on November 28, 2021. Fernandez wants to force to Federal Assembly to gather for a mandatory training session on the climate and ecological emergency. Credit: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

Guillermo Fernandez holds a sign reading "Hunger strike for the climate for our children" during his hunger strike next to the Swiss House of Parliament in Bern on November 28, 2021. Fernandez wants to force to Federal Assembly to gather for a mandatory training session on the climate and ecological emergency. Credit: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

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In early November, as politicians promised more climate action in their opening speeches at the United Nations climate talks in Glasgow, Guillermo Fernandez started a hunger strike in Switzerland’s Federal Square, saying he wouldn’t eat again until the Swiss Federal Assembly agreed to a climate science briefing. He said he wanted to spur his own country to greater climate action. As COP26 proceeded, and then closed, he lost weight—and hope.

Last week, Switzerland-based climate and biodiversity scientists penned a letter supporting Fernandez’s demand as a reasonable one in the context of the escalating climate crisis. Some of them joined his hunger strike in early December with one-day fasts.

Some social scientists who study the climate protest movement say its adoption of public self-starvation as a tactic indicates growing anxiety about global climate policy gridlock, and serves as a symbolic expression of the craving for new ways to force swift climate action.

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For Fernandez, the driving motivation is anguish for the future of his family. They are worried about him but support him, he said in early December. After more than five weeks of fasting, he’d lost about 38 pounds and said he can feel his body transitioning to a different state with a much slower heartbeat. But he’s encouraged by the swelling number of messages of support and the possible gathering of votes in the assembly for a hearing.

The full parliament meets only three times a year in short sessions, and he said it’s important for the Swiss assembly, and other governments around the world, to address the climate crisis before time runs out.

“The situation for our kids looks very, very grim,” he said. “We are in front of something that is beyond evil. What is coming is an atrocity. I ardently desire to live, but to protect the future of my children, I am ready to die.”

He said he started thinking about a hunger strike, and discussing it with his family, on August 9, his younger daughter’s birthday, as he finished reading the latest climate science assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

“It got in my head, the scenarios,” he said. “The [most likely] curve drives you to hell, with 2 degrees warming by mid-century, 3C by end of the century. That probably means hunger everywhere and war everywhere.

“In 10 years time, when my daughter is about 20, she would lose total hope for the future,” he continued. “Anticipating the despair that she would feel…that really broke my soul.”

Switzerland “actively lobbied” against references about the need for rich countries to financially help poorer nations adapt to global warming at COP 26, strengthening Fernandez’s resolve to protest. And Swiss banks are also complicit, he said, by offering safe financial harbor for climate-damaging portfolios. 

During COP26, Switzerland pledged a voluntary $25 million donation to an international climate adaptation fund, but Fernandez said that’s too little, too late.

“I feel ashamed,” he said, noting that Switzerland, as a rich country with a large carbon footprint, could actually help lead the way to a quick transition to a low carbon world. “I know Switzerland is a bad player in that game. I want them to be a good player.”

In their letter, scientists who contribute to intergovernmental climate change and biodiversity reports urged the Swiss government to accede to Fernandez’s demand for a climate briefing. 

“Some of us support Guillermo in his hunger strike, while others deplore the fact that it has taken the extreme measure of a concerned father and citizen to raise the issue to a level of national importance,” they wrote.

Policy makers in all countries should consider the latest scientific evidence on the climate crisis and enact policies to decarbonize societies quickly, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by at least half in the next 30 years, said Sonia Seneviratne, a climate researcher at ETH Zürich who signed the letter.

Post-COP26 Blues

Hunger strikes are an especially intense and personal expression of a rising global tide of civic climate activism, said social ecology researcher and climate activist Julia Steinberger, with the University of Lausanne. Young people know they will be most affected, so, in recent years, they’ve marched in the streets by the millions with Fridays For Future and mobilized politically with the Sunrise Movement and other campaigns in the United States, she said. Climate activists have taken hundreds of acts of civil disobedience aimed at disrupting business as usual, including peaceful occupations of big logging, pipeline and coal mine projects around the world.

While the scale and scope of these movements may be historically significant, they still haven’t slowed the rumbling of fossil fuel development. In the 26 years since annual global climate talks started at the first U.N. Conference of the Parties in 1995 in Berlin, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry have increased 56 percent.

The wins for the climate movement have been small, and scientific certainty is growing that failing to cut greenhouse gases fast will threaten billions of people around the planet with climate-driven disasters. A research paper in Nature released at the start of COP26 showed how widespread those concerns are in the scientific community, and how they can be deeply emotional.

In the survey, a majority of the scientists said they expect to see catastrophic climate impacts in their lifetime. Concerns about climate have shaped major life decisions, and more than 60 percent of the respondents “said that they experience anxiety, grief or other distress because of concerns over climate change,” the study found.

Such emotions can foster intensely personal acts like hunger strikes, Steinberger said. She worries about a copycat effect that could spread to younger people. 

“One of the things I’m worried about is that the climate movement is young, and young people feel things more intensely,” she said. “It’s one thing if a grownup does it. Guillermo does not want young people doing this.” 

Similar actions in the past, including Mahatma Gandhi’s anti-colonial hunger strikes, show that, as dangerous as they can be, such protests can foment “the ultimate social pressure,” which can spur change, she said. At the same time, she added, fasting is a deeply personal choice that can easily be ignored. She organized scientists to write the letter in support of Fernandez so he couldn’t be marginalized. 

“He’s a serious guy, a committed citizen, and I wanted people to be able to see him as a person,” she said. “He is putting himself in danger for us. it’s a personal act, but also an altruistic act.”

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Other climate-concerned hunger strikers in recent months have also tried to move the political needle. In the U.S., as COP26 started, a group of four activists fasted at the United States Capitol to try to get Congress to commit to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Earlier this summer in Germany, several activists said they would refuse food until the leaders of major parties agreed to a personal meeting. The protest ended when Olaf Scholz, who is now set to be chancellor, agreed to meet the hunger strikers in public after the election.

And in neighboring Austria last summer, Extinction Rebellion activist Martha Krumpeck started a hunger strike with the goal of getting the Vienna city government to publicly acknowledge the harmful climate impacts of a proposed highway project. She ended her protest when the government put a hold on the project pending a new review of its climate impacts.

Is There a Better Way?

Even if hunger strikes can nudge environmental policy, nobody believes they are the best way to solve the climate crisis. But given the slow progress at the United Nations climate talks, what else remains? 

Some climate policy researchers say it’s time to think about climate governance—the process of developing and implementing climate policies—outside the boundaries of the United Nations process. 

“Are there any actors out there that could be an alternative to the UNFCCC?” said climate policy researcher Charlotte Unger, with the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany. Urgency is growing, she said, because the climate pledges so far under the United Nations process aren’t enough to avert dangerous warming.

“I think we really need to start looking,” she said. “What accelerators are there; what can we bring into this to broaden our efforts to meet our climate goals?”

Climate clubs—smaller groups of countries, or even non-national actors, that can take actions with global significance are one option to consider, Unger said. For example, during COP26 more than 100 countries pledged to cut methane emissions 30 percent by 2030. Methane heats the planet 81 times more than carbon dioxide in the short run, so the reduction could slow the short-term global warming rate. In a 2020 research paper she showed how climate clubs can complement the United Nations climate framework, including the Paris Agreement.

Other climate governance options being tried right now include citizen’s climate assemblies, such as those recently held in France and Germany, as well as ballot initiatives that would write climate goals into national constitutions. Climate lawsuits, some of which have already forced a few countries to change environmental policy, could be considered another form of governance, she said.

But many of those options are non-binding, which might not be forceful enough at this late stage, said David McClean, who focuses on climate through a lens of philosophy and business ethics at Rutgers University. He advocates for the creation of a global climate authority, potentially under the auspices of the U.N. Security Council, with some power to enforce climate agreements.

McClean said worsening cycles of devastating climate impacts could drive countries to give up some national autonomy in the short-term to ensure long term security. There is precedent in the realm of international trade, regulated with “robust enforcement mechanisms,” including sanctions, like those used by the World Trade Organization. An international escrow system could give such a system teeth, as countries would forfeit parts of their deposit if they fail to meet climate goals.

There’s too much at stake to rely on non-binding agreements, “when it comes to saving the world from the worst climate change will cause,” he said. “How can voluntary compliance be a proper moral response?”