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14 December 2021

“It was my moral duty”: why a Swiss father went on hunger strike for the climate

Guillermo Fernandez was no climate activist – but his protest outside the Swiss parliament has helped mobilise his country to act.

By Philippa Nuttall

After 39 days on hunger strike during which he lost 20 kilograms, Guillermo Fernandez learned last Thursday morning (9 December) that he had won his case. The Swiss parliament agreed to his demand for scientists to address MPs directly and explain to them the seriousness of climate change and biodiversity loss. The married father-of-three said he was willing to die if his calls were ignored.

What pushed him to take such drastic action?

On 9 August 2021 Fernandez’s youngest daughter celebrated her 13th birthday. On the same day, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was published. “I already had a good intellectual understanding of climate change,” Fernandez told me when we spoke on the phone on Friday 10 December, but the graphs in the report showed “we have a decade to avoid climate suicide”. The dire warnings contained in the document and its implications for his children’s lives triggered a mental “short circuit”.

“At 2°C of warming we enter hell, the end of the world,” he said. “I was filled with despair, I burst into tears, I was broken in two. As any dad would, I wanted to take steps, to do everything I could to protect my kids.” 

For 47-year-old Fernandez, a hunger strike seemed the only course of action that was commensurate with the issue at hand. He said he turned from “terror stricken” to “project manager”, and started by writing to the government. At work as an IT programmer, he talked to his colleagues about climate change and his fears for his children’s future. “They were also petrified,” he said. “We had worked together for two years, yet this was the first time we had discussed climate change.”

News that Fernandez planned to go on hunger strike got out, and slowly a group of people came forward to help him. Someone found a flat in Bern for him to retire to after his days sitting outside parliament. Someone else became his communications adviser.

On the first day of his hunger strike he turned up in a “suit and tie”. He wanted to make a good impression. “It was the most difficult thing to sit down in the square and ignore all my inhibitions,” said Fernandez. “But very quickly people understood what I was doing and showed kindness and empathy, bringing flowers and blankets.” As the local press showed up and his support network grew, his story spread. A team started posting videos on Instagram and other social media platforms. Thousands of people bombarded parliament with letters. But what really made the difference was a letter from 26 climate scientists based in Switzerland, including IPCC authors, “coming out of the woodwork” as he put it, to support his action. “I owe them at least half of my life,” he said.

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Fernandez said he was determined to stay in the square until parliament accepted his demand. Going on hunger strike became his “moral and constitutional duty”; he wanted politicians to face the same imperative. “Many parliamentarians do not seem to be aware of this terrifying and urgent reality,” he said. “Now we will know that they know. Whoever knows and does not act to save our children is not legitimate in deciding our future and especially not that of our children.” On 2 May 2022 all Swiss MPs will be invited to attend a scientific training on climate change.

Fernandez was not previously a climate activist or involved in politics. He describes himself as “an ordinary citizen, quite conformist”. The son of immigrants, whose father fled to Switzerland from Franco’s Spain, Fernandez worked as an IT project manager and consultant.

From “everyday guy” to hunger striker might seem like a shocking transformation. However, Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist from the University of Bath and the co-author of an analysis showing the impact of eco-anxiety on young people, believes his reaction is normal and proportionate.

“There is a wake-up moment for most people,” said Hickman. “People describe it as like having lived in a dream world. They are intellectually aware of climate change, but adopt an adult defence of rationality. Most people say ‘this is worrying, but what are we going to do for Christmas.’” These people are not in denial, but in a state of disavowal, she said. “From the moment they wake up, they can no longer see the world as they did before. Something has gone through their defence.”  

From this point on, as Fernandez observed, action becomes a “moral duty”. “You have to do something and can’t bear not to do it,” Hickman said. In this sense, Fernandez’s decision to go on hunger strike is a “very sane” reaction, she said: “It matches the extremeness of the situation because of the speed and scale of change needed, and because the majority of people have not woken up.

“Eco-anxiety is not because of continuing environmental destruction, but because of the failure by others, especially politicians, to act.”

Having quit his job to go on hunger strike, Fernandez says he will now focus his energies on encouraging people to act on climate change. “The average Swiss and European person has become a capricious spoilt child,” he said. “We have to get people to wake up.” He is proud that his hunger strike “mobilised people who it was not possible to mobilise before, parents and grandparents. People in suits and ties came out to protest with the hippies.” 

But he warns against others following his chosen course of action.“[Hunger striking] is extremely dangerous and its success rate is very low,” said Fernandez. “I succeeded because I am old, a manager and the father of a family. A student would likely have been left to die in the square.” 

[see also: The double-edged sword of catastrophe climate reporting]

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