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Austria climate activist aims to take fight to Brussels

AFP
AFP - [email protected]
Austria climate activist aims to take fight to Brussels
Lena Schilling, environmental activist and top candidate of Austria's Green Alternative Party for the upcoming European Union (EU) parliamentary elections, poses for a photo at the Viennese section of the Donau-Auen National Park in Vienna, Austria on April 18, 2024.(Photo by Joe Klamar / AFP)

She cut her teeth with Greta Thunberg's Fridays For Future school protests and blocked diggers at construction sites near a national park. Now Austrian climate activist Lena Schilling has her sights set on Brussels.

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The 23-year-old hopes to be elected to the European Parliament in June as one of the first wave of young activists breaking through into the political mainstream.

Schilling said she wanted to "go where the laws are made" to try to keep the fight against climate change on the agenda as the backlash against the steps needed to save the planet grows.

"The climate crisis won't go away, even if you stop looking," Schilling told AFP in the Lobau national park on the outskirts of Vienna, which she campaigned to save, camping out in tents for more than a year there.

After Austria's longest such blockade, the road project has been put on hold. Now another victory awaits Schilling.

As the top candidate of Austria's Greens, Schilling is all but assured a parliamentary seat despite an expected upsurge in conservative votes.

'Fight for what is right' 

In Brussels, she wants to ensure the EU's Green Deal -- the ambitious plan to make the European Union carbon-neutral by 2050 -- isn't watered down.

She also wants to push for more solar panels and wind turbines, and cheaper train fares between European capitals to encourage more railway travel.

A report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) in March warned of "catastrophic" consequences if Europe failed to take urgent action to adapt to risks posed by climate change.

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"We are living through a mass extinction event... And that doesn't affect everyone the same. People with less income are hit much harder," Schilling said.

"We have to solve the problems that we have in our society from the root," she added.

Schilling -- who wrote a book called "Radical Change" -- grew up in Vienna in a family where political discussions were normal, with her mother a social worker and father a bank worker.

"Even as a child, I couldn't stand injustice at all," said the political science student and former dance teacher.

"My mom always said: 'Lena, you have to fight for what is right. You have to stand up when something isn't okay.'"

Despite being no stranger to street protests, Schilling distances herself from more recent climate actions, where activists glued themselves to roads, saying it alienates commuters on their way to work.

Lena Schilling, environmental activist and top candidate of Austria's Green Alternative Party in the upcoming European Union (EU) parliamentary elections, poses for a photo at the Viennese section of the Donau-Auen National Park in Vienna, Austria on April 18, 2024. (Photo by Joe Klamar / AFP)

Won't be intimidated 

In the election race in Austria, Schilling faces political veterans, all men and more than twice her age, with critics pointing out her political inexperience.

But Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler of the Greens -- who govern Austria as junior partners in a coalition with conservatives -- described Schilling as a "committed fighter".

Political analyst Thomas Hofer said Schilling is a "different candidate".

"She knows how to communicate, how to circumvent critical questions," Hofer told AFP.

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Schilling said she is determined not to be intimidated, even in the face of hate speech, especially online.

"The attempts to discredit you all the time because you are a woman are extremely stressful, and at the same time it makes me a bit angry and this anger gives me strength," she said.

She said she found strength in the fact that although she will be only one MEP among 705 if elected, "I am one of many who are protesting".

"We all have the opportunity to change the world a little bit," she said.

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