Geology professor Nikolaus Froitzheim believes civil disobedience is inevitable to avert the climate crisis. The other day, he chained himself to the state chancellery in Düsseldorf. Who is this man?
When you think of a street blockade, your elders might first think of hooded autonomists. In recent times, a sit-in brings to mind the school-striking Greta Thunberg in front of the Swedish parliament.
But last Saturday, it was a 63-year-old from Königswinter, a professor of geology at the University of Bonn, who slowed down motorists on Oxford Street in the pouring rain with only a cardboard sign. "I'm afraid of the climate crisis - how should our children live?" it read. The sense of urgency must be great for someone to do such a thing.
Nikolaus Froitzheim feels that way. For decades, measures to protect the climate have been systematically thwarted by the "lobby of the combustion system," he says. Now, he says, the consequences are unmistakable worldwide, including in Bonn. "Without civil disobedience, we won't get anywhere," Froitzheim says. To that end, the scientist has joined the Bonn chapter of Extinction Rebellion.
The other day, the activists chained themselves to the Düsseldorf State Chancellery to seek a conversation with Minister President Armin Laschet. "But he didn't come out, even though he was there," Froitzheim reports.
For a long time, the Königswinter resident, like most of his colleagues, viewed climate change primarily with academic interest. Having grown up in Munich and earned a doctorate in geology in Bonn, Froitzheim spent a dozen years as a project assistant at the ETH in Zurich and later in Basel. An avid hiker and climber, he noticed changes in the Alps even then - the melting glaciers and thawing permafrost.
"The consequences of the man-made greenhouse effect were there for everyone to see from the late 1980s. Nevertheless, I also always thought the people in charge would take care," Froitzheim says. In 1998, he took over the professorship for structural geology and regional geology in Bonn. The tectonics of the earth's plates is his specialty.
Private consequences of the climate crisis too
It was a lecture by climate researcher Mojib Latif at a 2018 geological symposium in Bonn that made Froitzheim realise the urgency of the problem. "Through excessive burning of coal, gas and oil, we have advanced into dimensions of CO2 emissions that are unparalleled in the history of the earth," he says. Froitzheim read up, gave lectures, organised a public lecture series that is still running today (see info box).
He also drew private conclusions with his wife Jutta: The couple had a solar system put on their roof, no longer fly, don't eat meat and are involved in solidarity farming. Both want to be role models and not be accused of hypocrisy. "Our youngest son is even a vegan activist in Cologne and now wants to talk us out of chicken eggs," says Froitzheim.
But in his view, all that is no longer enough. For three decades, he says, climate protection has been repeatedly postponed out of convenience. Scientists have concealed scientific relationships from the public and have not pointed out in climate scenarios that extreme variants are also a possible reality.
Even if Froitzheim himself is glad that his own field of expertise and his actions do not overlap, he demands that the scientific community abandon the purely neutral observer position. Within the university, he has never been personally criticised for this, but rather received encouragement.
In the activist's view, civil disobedience alone is not a silver bullet. He would also like to see more initiatives that set an example, for example in agriculture or in decentralised energy production, for example through citizens' cooperatives. He emphasises: "We don't want to take anything away from people. We want a different way of doing business." In this combination, he says, decision-makers get the backing they need to act.
Although many people expressed support for Froitzheim at his lone protest on Saturday - part of a nationwide action involving 200 participants - he is troubled by how many gullible people heeded the calls of the "lateral thinkers," while the climate crisis elicits far less protest among adults.
Froitzheim says, "Our biggest challenge is the destruction of the natural foundations of life and the climate." To prevent this, the geology professor and climate activist considers a wet pants on Oxford Street and a possible misdemeanor negligible. Soon, a vigil on Münsterplatz will continue the action, he announces: this time quite legally with police registration.
Lecture series "Aspects of Global Warming“
Nikolaus Froitzheim organises the public lecture series "Aspects of Global Warming" at the University of Bonn together with the "Students for Future". The online lectures by climate experts take place every Wednesday from 6:15 to 8 p.m. via Zoom. Access via www.ga.de/klimareihe
Original text: Martin Wein
Translation: Mareike Graepel