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Climate change protests: a driver of change?

In this article we'll explore the evolution of climate activism and the changing public perception of climate change protests.
Green News
2023-10-04T00:00:00.000Z
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Climate change activism has seen a transformative journey since its initial days in the late 1980s. The rise of young activists, like Greta Thunberg, in recent times has been instrumental in pushing environmental concerns to the forefront of global discussions. However, with the evolution of peaceful demonstrations into more disruptive forms of civil disobedience, some question whether we’re beginning to see a shift in public perceptions. This article dives deep into the growth of climate change protests, their influence on public opinion, and the historical significance of radical activism leading to impactful societal change. 

👉 In this article we'll explore the evolution of climate activism and the changing public perception of climate change protests.

A brief history of climate change protests

Climate change protests and activism can trace their roots back to the late 1980s when the conversation around climate change rose to the top of the international agenda. Global environmental organisations - primarily those within the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) framework - began to campaign internationally and new environmental coalitions began to form. 

However, it wasn’t until the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen that the climate change movement really took off. Not only did we witness a surge in new non-profit organisations focused on environmental issues, but it was also the first time we saw significant climate change protests taking place. It’s estimated that as many as 100,000 people took part in protests in Copenhagen during the convention, and a further 5,400 demonstrations were mobilised around the world. 

From this point onwards, climate change protests have only grown. 

Greta Thunberg’s influence 

It would be remiss to talk about climate change protests without also mentioning Greta Thunberg and the influence that she has had on the global climate change movement. 

Greta Thunberg is a world-famous climate activist who is credited with motivating a whole generation of new climate activists. A school student from Sweden, Greta began to protest for climate action at the young age of fifteen. Greta’s movement - School Strike for Climate, also referred to as Fridays for Future - quickly made international headlines and the movement grew to unprecedented heights. School students across the world would forgo Friday school lessons in order to take part in demonstrations. Climate change protests quickly escalated, reaching a peak of 4 million protesters by September 2019 - thought to be the largest climate change protest in history. 

Youth involvement in pro-climate protests marks a significant moment in the history of the climate change movement. Studies consistently show that the younger generations are more concerned by the climate challenge than older generations and that they’re more willing to take action in support of the cause.

👉 To learn more about Greta Thunberg and her rise to fame as the world’s most well-known climate activist, head over to our article.  

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Youth climate change protests

There’s no doubt that younger generations can be credited with advancing the climate change movement. Their dedication and willingness to take action have helped to keep environmental concerns at the forefront of public consciousness. 

The reasons for their increased activism are complex. Not only are younger generations paying closer attention to global events, they’re also much more aware of climate change through education and schooling. Additionally, even as children they’re witnessing (sometimes firsthand) the impacts of global warming so it’s not surprising that they’re much more attuned to the gravity of the situation. This has made younger generations much more motivated to sit up and take action - whether this is in the form of climate change protests or other forms of activism. 

Another significant difference that has no doubt facilitated their activism, is social media. Social media has increasingly been used as a tool to inspire others and to mobilise climate change protests. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, protests were able to continue online. 

The involvement of young people in climate change protests and activism has no doubt brought life to the climate change movement. From the large-scale protests we witnessed before COVID hit, to the increasingly outrageous and imaginative acts of civil disobedience we see taking place today. Yet, while the younger generations' dedication to climate activism is evident, what impact is climate activism having on broader public opinion and awareness?

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The shift from climate change protests to civil disobedience

Initially, the sheer scale of the climate change protests was enough to attract international media attention. The involvement of the younger generations - including school children - also meant that protests regularly hit international headlines. However, eventually, the novelty of this wore off. 

In recent years we’ve seen a notable rise in disruptive protests and civil disobedience - something that has been criticised for potentially alienating supporters. Yet, climate activists have argued that these disruptive tactics are sometimes necessary given the urgency of the situation and the lack of sufficient action being taken by politicians. 

Actions undertaken in the name of climate change protests include activities such as blocking traffic, marching slowly to bring disruption, throwing food and paint, and interrupting events. These ‘radical climate protests’ have allowed protestors to hit the headlines. You might remember for example the time that UK organisation Just Stop Oil made the news for gluing themselves to roads or the time activists threw soup over Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ painting at the London Gallery. 

While these tactics have allowed activists to make the headlines and gain attention, they’ve been less successful at garnering public sympathy. In fact, some believe that these actions are doing more harm than good. 

👉 To understand why the climate situation is considered to be so urgent, we’d recommend reading our article outlining the IPCC’s third report on climate change.

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Climate change protests and public support

Activist groups like ‘Extinction Rebellion’ and ‘Friday’s for Future’ have captured media attention and pushed the climate change agenda to the forefront of the public consciousness, but have they actually been successful in gaining public support? 

Research shows that the majority of the global population (around 54%) consider climate change to be a serious problem. Support for carbon neutrality is also supported by the majority of the population in many countries across the world - in the US for example 69% of respondents support the country becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

However, support for the climate change cause doesn’t necessarily equate to support for climate change protests - especially when these activities are disruptive or harmful.

Acts that harm property (such as world-famous art) are particularly controversial and have sparked debate online regarding the tactics. Studies carried out in the UK have also found that 60% of Britons think that harming art or public monuments should be made a specific offence.

There is also evidence that the police are increasingly responding with more strength to such acts. In Germany for example police raided members of a climate activism group called ‘Last Generation’ under suspicion of forming a criminal organisation, utilising a law that was initially intended to target organised crime and terrorist groups. Meanwhile, in France, authorities shut down the group ‘Les Soulevements de la Terre’, with French politicians referring to them as ‘eco-terrorists’. 

This is a far cry from the reaction to initial protests carried out by groups such as Extinction Rebellion. Protests were tolerated and allowed to continue for days and even weeks at a time - there are even anecdotes of their “jovial” atmosphere. It would therefore seem that the perception and support of police has significantly changed when it comes to climate activism - but what about the general public? 

Well, the main takeaway from studies, is that even where the public disagrees with the disruptive action of climate change protests and environmental groups, crucially, their support for climate action isn’t impacted. In fact, disruptive actions actually seem to do what it’s intended to do - i.e. create attention around the issue and gain support for the climate cause. 

A study in the US published in 2020, gives a more granular and detailed look. Participants were asked to read a news article about one of three different kinds of protest: peaceful protests, civil disobedience, and violence. The study found that peaceful protests had the most positive impact on support for the climate cause. However, crucially, none of the protests seemed to have a negative impact on support for climate action. 

👉 To find out more about the world-famous climate activist group Extinction Rebellion, why not check out our article.

Is peaceful protesting the answer to winning over public support?

Based on the study highlighted above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the answer to increasing public support for climate change action is to simply focus on peaceful protests. However, the situation is not quite so simple. 

The fact of the matter is that peaceful climate protests are no longer headline-grabbing, and civil disobedience tends to attract more public attention - take the incident of the soup being thrown over one of the world's most famous and celebrated paintings. Many people across the world didn’t agree with the act, but it sure did get people talking. And while the action probably didn’t gain any sympathy or support for the protestors themselves, studies show that the general public's views towards climate action aren’t significantly impacted. 

What’s more, is that radical activism tends to increase support for more moderate groups. By showcasing the extreme, radical protests can boost backing for more moderate factions in the movement, a phenomenon termed the "radical flank effect”. 

This has led some to assert that a combination of both peaceful climate protests and acts of civil disobedience is the most effective means for raising the climate agenda. 

And history would seem to support the argument in favour of radical action. There are numerous examples of how more disruptive methods of protesting help to advance a cause - even when such activism initially provokes public disdain or backlash. Take, for instance, the suffragette movement in the UK: at its peak, suffragettes were subjected to widespread criticism, imprisonment, and even force-feeding for their disruptive tactics, which ranged from hunger strikes to arson. 

Yet, their “daring acts” drew unprecedented attention to the women's suffrage campaign, making it an unavoidable topic of national conversation. Over time, their protests and actions brought about legal reforms and societal recognition, with many suffragettes later being celebrated as pioneering heroes of civil rights. Their legacy serves as a poignant reminder that radical activism while polarising in its time, can catalyse meaningful and lasting change.

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Round up

Radical climate activists are adopting increasingly disruptive methods of climate activism, such as damage to art pieces, hunger strikes, and roadblocks. The reason behind such extreme measures? Traditional methods seem ineffective as global temperatures continue to rise, threatening catastrophic effects. 

While these protests aren't popular among the public, activists believe their tactics are necessary and effective. We only have to look back at history to find examples that show how radical actions, regardless of public sentiment towards them, can lead to positive societal changes. The underlying theory of radical actions isn't necessarily about gaining approval but more about raising awareness, mobilising support, and pressuring for policy changes.

Studies on disruptive forms of environmental activism have found that while support for the protests dwindled, there was no decline in support for the climate policies they endorsed. This suggests that even if the public dislikes the protesters, they may still back the cause they fight for. Evidence also indicates that there's no apparent negative "backfire" effect from radical nonviolent protests on public support for climate policies.

However, challenges remain. Government repression is a significant concern. Stricter penalties for protesters and the use of criminal and terrorism-related laws to crack down on activists are being witnessed across the world. What's more is that radical actions can sometimes alienate public support, especially when they seem unrelated to the issue at hand or disrupt everyday life without a clear reason. Therefore, climate activists must tread a fine line to ensure their actions garner public support without alienating potential allies through perceived extreme tactics.

What about Greenly?

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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