A German Climate Activist Won’t End His Hunger Strike, Even With the Risk of Death Looming

Eighty-five days into a hunger strike, German environmental engineer and climate activist Wolfgang Metzeler-Kick had lost more than 61 pounds, his face and body were gaunt and his blood sugar was critically low. 

The physicians overseeing the health of the four remaining hunger strikers in Berlin, Germany have ceded responsibility and advised him to give up his fast, warning he could collapse any day, and that he is at high risk of falling into a coma or going into sudden cardiac arrest.

At a press conference on Wednesday, activist Marlen Stolze described Metzeler-Kick’s condition through tears. Having run out of fats and carbohydrates to process, his body is effectively eating his muscle tissues from the inside, using its own protein as fuel, she explained.

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But Metzeler-Kick has said he won’t eat until he gets a statement from the German chancellor acknowledging the severity of the climate crisis.

“Unless you accept the truth, you have no chance to have the cure,” Metzeler-Kick said on Thursday evening. “[I am] risking my life in a battle for a better world.”

Metzeler-Kick and the other strikers are demanding German Chancellor Olaf Scholz issue a government statement asserting that the climate crisis is an extreme danger to human civilization, reiterating the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s target of holding warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and acknowledging that the world has already exceeded the emissions limits required to stay on the path to that goal. To end his hunger strike, he also wants Scholz to advocate for the German government to “radically change course now” to mitigate the impacts of global warming. Thus far, Scholz has not made such a statement.

The hunger strikers hold a press conference from their tent in Berlin on Friday. Credit: Stefan Müller/CC BY 2.0 Deed

The hunger strikers hold a press conference from their tent in Berlin on Friday. Credit: Stefan Müller/CC BY 2.0 Deed

On a WhatsApp video call late Thursday evening from within the hunger strikers’ tent in Berlin’s Invaliden Park, Metzeler-Kick spoke with calm determination of his demands for the chancellor, but paused frequently, sometimes closing his eyes and struggling to find his words.

“Sorry, my blood sugar is low,” he said, pausing for a sip of water from a silver cup.

It’s dark in the tent, and the other strikers are already asleep. The 49-year-old environmental engineer is wearing a winter hat and a coat zipped up to his neck. It’s about 60 degrees Fahrenheit in Berlin, but a body running on nothing but water feels much colder.

“I am weaker and more exhausted every day,” Metzeler-Kick said. “This is no surprise, but it’s hard.”

Still, Metzeler-Kick is unwavering in his demands. Seven days ago, he escalated his strike, ceasing to consume the few juices and sugars that were sustaining him. Now he is only taking water, salt and vitamins. The next step, he said, would be to cut out water altogether. 

Metzeler-Kick said government inaction to address climate change despite public pressure motivated his fast. He has participated in many climate actions with Last Generation, but said he feels that political progress is not matching the scale or speed of the crisis.

Doctors Urge Ending the Fast, But Understand Its Desperation

Dr. Susanne Koch, one of the physicians monitoring the hunger strikers’ health, said that she understands Metzeler-Kick’s commitment, though it is difficult to watch his condition deteriorate. He could collapse at any moment, she said. She and two other physicians advised him six weeks ago and then again last week that his fasting was not safe and he absolutely needed to end it, she said.

“I feel much sorrow to see this,” she said. “On the other hand, I really accept his decision.”

Koch said that Metzeler-Kick is deeply, desperately frustrated, and doesn’t feel any hope that Germany will shift its politics enough to address the climate crisis. Koch, who is also a member of Scientists Rebellion, feels a similar desperation.

“If we can have a good climate politics, we will save so many lives,” she said. “But it’s hard to see that Wolfgang takes this responsibility, and to be so near to him and watch this.”

Called hungern bis ihr ehrlich seid” or “starving until you are honest,” the strike was organized by Scientists Rebellion, an international organization that uses nonviolent resistance to advocate for swift climate action, and the German chapter of Last Generation, a direct action collective known for road blockades. Five other activists have also fasted for the strike—two have ended their hunger strikes, which lasted 23 and 31 days, and three others are continuing, having gone 15, 24 and 67 days without eating. 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz departs from his visit to the German Catholic Church Congress on Friday in Erfurt, Germany. Credit: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz departs from his visit to the German Catholic Church Congress on Friday in Erfurt, Germany. Credit: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

In response to a request for comment on the strike, Scholz’ office sent a clip posted on Instagram of Scholz responding to a question about the strike at a public meeting. In German, Scholz said that the German government is committed to addressing climate change, but that the tactic of a hunger strike is a mistake. He added that although the government should look to science to influence policy, it shouldn’t necessarily make the kind of statement on science that the strikers demand.

“It’s just a lie,” said Koch in response to Scholz’ words about Germany’s climate commitment. “They just downgrade the climate obligations they have.”

Germany has set relatively ambitious emissions reduction targets, but is reportedly not on track to meet its 2045 net-zero goal. The country has also faced lawsuits from environmental groups that resulted in multiple court decisions, including, most recently, a ruling this month determining that current federal emission reduction measures will fall short of the country’s legally binding targets. 

Activists supporting Metzeler-Kick and the other strikers are intensely fearful watching his condition deteriorate.

Swiss climate activist Guillermo Fernandez, who completed a 39 day hunger strike in 2021 that pressured the Swiss parliament to meet with climate scientists, has been in touch with Metzeler-Kick during his fast and fears that even if he survives, he may suffer lasting physical damage.

Fernandez finds Scholz’ refusal to engage with the strikers “horrifying,” exhibiting “a total lack of humanity,” in the face of Metzeler-Kick’s declining health.  

“[Scholz] is not engaging in any way with a demand [that] is not totally unreasonable, which is simply to state publicly the science we know about at the moment regarding climate and the commitments his government has currently to tackle it,” Fernandez said. “That’s a demand you can engage with and not let people die.” 

When Fernandez did his own hunger strike, he said the hardest part was the anguish it caused to his loved ones. Metzeler-Kick has a son and a partner, Claudia, who has been by his side through the strike although she has said that she originally tried to discourage him from taking the action.

Fellow hunger striker Titus Feldmann drills a new hole in Wolfgang Metzeler-Kick's belt at their camp in Berlin. Credit: Stefan Müller/CC BY 2.0 Deed

Fellow hunger striker Titus Feldmann drills a new hole in Wolfgang Metzeler-Kick’s belt at their camp in Berlin. Credit: Stefan Müller/CC BY 2.0 Deed

Resistance Movements’ Last Resort

Hunger strikes have been used in nonviolent resistance movements globally, with protesters from California labor rights leader Cesar Chavez to Indian freedom activist Mohandas Gandhi engaging in fasts as extreme, last-ditch efforts to build public pressure and highlight the importance of their demands. 

In recent years, climate activists have increasingly utilized the tactic. In 2021, the same year that Fernandez fasted in Switzerland, five young people from the Sunrise Movement demanding bolder climate provisions from the Biden administration completed a hunger strike outside of the White House for nearly two weeks that resulted in multiple hospitalizations. 

On March 6—one day before Metzeler-Kick began his strike—Indian activist Sonam Wangchuk began a hunger strike in his country’s northern territory of Ladakh to draw attention to threats posed by militarization and industrialization to Ladakh’s critical ecology, call for legal protections to the area’s ecosystems and advocate for local autonomy in the region. Wangchuk’s fast, which he ended after 21 days when it threatened his health, drew thousands of supporters and he promised to return to strike again. 

Hunger strikes are “a tactic of last resort,” said molecular biologist and Extinction Rebellion activist Martha Krumpeck, who completed a 44-day climate protest fast in Vienna.

As of Friday, Metzeler-Kick was continuing to fast, and Scholz showed no sign of acquiescing to his demands.

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Metzeler-Kick does not think he will die, although he is prepared for the possibility that he will collapse and be rushed to the hospital. He imagines his future, in 10 or 15 years, watching emissions continue to rise as billions suffer the consequences.

“I would be broken if I have really not tried everything in my mind to change this shit,” he said. “This is like a horror movie, seeing everything and being unable to prevent anything… Right now, I have a feeling I could prevent something, I could maybe have a little impact, a little change.”

For Fernandez, the big takeaway from Metzeler-Kick’s hunger strike, and from Scholz’ failure to meet his demand, is what he sees as a lack of government concern about its citizens’ safety. 

“It’s a learning for the German public,” Fernandez said. “To realize that they will let you die.”

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