Four Questions for Cameron Abadi

Cameron Abadi Headshot © Britta Schumacher

The DWIH New York had the pleasure of interviewing Cameron Abadi, author of the book “Climate Radicals” which will be published in the fall by Columbia Global Reports.  In the book, Abadi profiles the fascinating activists of Letzte Generation, known for gluing themselves to street intersections and throwing food on works of art; Ende Gelände, which demands the immediate phaseout of coal by occupying mines; and the German leaders of the global coalition Fridays for Future, which organizes school strikes (on Fridays) and many other large-scale demonstrations.

Read more about Cameron’s background, the idea behind the book and its implication for future policymaking in Germany and the United States in this interview.

Tell us a bit about yourself, your work and your professional background.

I’m deputy editor at Foreign Policy, though that title offers only a vague sense of what exactly I do. Our mission at FP is to help readers understand the world; based in Berlin, my focus is on Germany and Europe. My work consists of developing story ideas and then finding, and collaborating with, the writers who can best make those ideas a reality. (Sometimes it turns out the best writer is me.) I also co-host our weekly economics podcast with Adam Tooze, called Ones and Tooze, which is devoted to international economics in a very broad sense.

FP was my first professional home—and, as often with one’s true home, I returned to the magazine after several years away working at other outlets, including the New Republic and Foreign Affairs. I initially entered the world of journalism while studying philosophy on scholarship at the Free University of Berlin. I quickly realized freelance journalism was a convenient way to supplement the stipend!

You are currently finalizing your book “Climate Radicals” to be published in the fall by Columbia Global Reports, can you share with our readers why you have embarked on this project?

The idea for this book emerged from the same process that produces most of the ideas I publish in FP: the original inspiration, as usual, was a tremendous amount of reading, in this case about the process of climate change. It dawned on me that climate change was a unique political issue in its combination of apocalyptic rhetoric and scientific urgency.  This was an issue that our normal democratic political system—which is based fundamentally on principles of compromise and premised on long time horizons—seemed to have difficulty dealing with in the manner demanded by the scientific facts. Something would have to give—and it seemed unlikely to be the facts about global warming. That left the political system as the side of the equation that would necessarily change as a result, and that’s what I resolved to observe and analyze.

Looking at the recent activities by the “Last Generation”; do you see that these protests have impacted climate policy, if so, how do you evaluate this influence on policy makers?

The “Last Generation” is one of the most recent climate activist groups to emerge in Germany, and it’s impossible to doubt its commitment to the issue of stopping climate change. But like the other activist groups that came before it, its theory of change strikes me as underdeveloped, to put it generously. The group’s political strategy focuses on disruption—on forcing political change by rendering impossible the operations of normal social life. The disruptions have most notably taken the form of street blockades: unannounced protests, in which activists set out to stop traffic for an indefinite period of time by sitting down across—and often supergluing themselves to—busy thoroughfares in major cities across Germany. As disruptions, the protests have been effective. But in terms of climate policy, the effect has been negative. The actions have allowed German politicians to portray climate activists as fanatical and their goals as impossible to satisfy without imposing harm on other citizens. It seems not entirely a coincidence that, as the Last Generation protests began to increase in frequency, German climate policy began taking several significant steps backwards.

In 2022, President Biden approved the American Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), a step into greener energy for the US. How would you describe the status quo of climate policy in the US and Germany, respectively. What can we learn from each other?

The United States is among the few countries in the world where the issue of climate change is fundamentally polarizing, with one of the country’s two major parties essentially in denial about the scientific facts themselves. And yet, despite that fundamental divide, the United States has passed more ambitious climate legislation than any other western democracy. One of the keys to the political success of the IRA has been its “all carrots, no sticks” approach—offering billions of dollars’ worth of inducements to pursue decarbonization, while minimizing penalties on any climate violators. This may not be sufficient to prevent continued climate catastrophes, and it will almost certainly mean that the country’s commitments under the Paris Agreement will not be met.

But it does offer an example that Germany could learn from. For now, Germany has achieved a political consensus about climate policy in the abstract, but concrete proposals for realizing that consensus quickly become rendered politically impossible. That’s because, according both to the preferences of the country’s climate advocates and the country’s existing budgetary framework, climate policy has become inseparable from the imposition of disincentives—of sticks, rather than carrots.

Thank you, Cameron, for the interview.

Pre-order the book, e.g. on Amazon Germany or Amazon US.