Hunger strikers take climate change message to parliament

Extinction Rebellion protesters say they need the government to take concrete steps to cut Finland's carbon emissions by 20% each year - and become carbon neutral a decade earlier than currently planned.

File picture of Extinction Rebellion hunger strikers including Till Sawala (C) and Elina Kauppila (R), Helsinki 12th August 2020 / Credit: News Now Finland

A group of protesters is hoping their peaceful but jarring hunger strike action sends a clear message to the Finnish government that more action needs to be taken to slow climate change.

With its tents, colourful banners, potted plants and pop-up concerts the Extinction Rebellion site feels more like a festival venue than a serious political statement. But for the three hunger strikers on their fifth day of refusing food, the efforts to prompt change come with a blunt message.

“We have one demand to the government, which is to commit to cutting carbon emissions by 20% by the end of 2021, and then by a further 20% every year so that Finland is carbon neutral, or net neutral, by the end of 2025” explains Till Sawala, one of the hunger strikers.

Hunger strike for climate change sign, Kansalaistori Helsinki, August 12th 2020 / Credit: News Now Finland

The group wants the government not just to commit to this accelerated timetable – the current target is for Finland to become carbon neutral by 2035 – but to set out concrete steps on how exactly they’ll make this happen.

The government hasn’t responded yet to the demands, although environment minister Krista Mikkonen (Green) did visit the protest site earlier this week to show her support for their campaign.

“What we’ve seen now is a goal, but no action. Since this government has been in office, it’s more than a year now, they’ve continued to allow the burning of peat which is a big issue of carbon emissions in Finland” Sawala tells News Now Finland.

He points also to Fortum, a state-owned enterprise, which has recently opened opened a new coal power station in Germany, and is refusing to align its business practices with the 1.5°C global warming limit.

Extinction Rebellion also points to hundreds of millions of euros in coronavirus-related state funding for Finnair – which unlike in other EU countries, came with no extra strings on reducing carbon emissions, or scrapping short-haul flights.

“We feel like the government is just not taking their responsibilities seriously” says Sawala, a physicist at the University of Helsinki.

“Finland has to take a lead and be a role model in tackling the climate crisis, but they only have this long term target and right now they are taking decisions that you wouldn’t know this is a government that is committed to tackling climate change.”

Extinction Rebellion hunger strike for climate change, Kansalaistori Helsinki, 12th August 2020 / Credit: News Now Finland

Starting a hunger strike 

Going on hunger strike to make a political point about the environment might seem like an extreme move to many people, but for the Extinction Rebellion activists this was a non-violent, legal way to get their message across which becomes a talking point for other people.

“I think it’s one of the really positive sides to this, that there’s an ongoing dialogue with people passing by and coming here just spontaneously to talk and to ask what’s going on” says Elina Kauppila, an entrepreneur and author who is one of the three hunger strikers.

She says that people who pass the protest site in Kansalaistori between parliament and Oodi Central Library often pause to look at the signs, or read the chalk messages on the pavement, or offer a few words of support.

“Most people have had really positive reactions, saying they give full support and that they’re really sorry  we have to do this really uncomfortable stuff to get the message across” she says.

The strikers are drinking water and tea, and taking salt tablets, and campaigners with medical experience are keeping an eye on them to make sure their health doesn’t deteriorate.

“I think physically this hasn’t been challenging so far. I’ve been kind of tired but that’s fine. I have kids, I know what it’s like to be tired! But also mentally I’ve been surprised how uplifting the support has been from people passing by but also within the environmental movement” Elina Kauppila adds.

Previous Extinction Rebellion protests have included joining Fridays for Future rallies on the steps of the parliament building, a die-in at Kamppi shopping mall, and protesting cruise ship pollution in kayaks at Länsiterminaali.

“We have have done protests that disrupt, that physically get in the way of people, but with a hunger strike we’re not doing that, and we’re getting even more reactions” says Till Sawala.

“We are not breaking any laws, but we are breaking norms, we are interfering with peoples’ mental state of apathy, of complacency.”

Musician Jaska Isola performs a concert at the Extinction Rebellion hunger strike site in Helsinki, 13th August 2020 / Credit: Till Sawala