Climate activism – is there any point to it?

Most protests fail to trigger substantial change in policy. What makes the recent wave in climate activism, which many young people have passionately participated in, any different? Mattias Nilsson, a MSc Economics Graduate from University College London, explains why the current climate change movement has captured the interest of the general public, businesses and politicians in a way that previous movements haven’t

Thursday 31 October 2019 marked one year since 1,000 demonstrators occupied Parliament Square to hear Extinction Rebellion’s “declaration of rebellion”. Sparked by an open letter calling for action against climate change, signed by 94 British academics, Extinction Rebellion has spearheaded a restless campaign of civil disobedience. Their demands so far have been threefold: first, that government “tells the truth” by declaring a climate emergency; second, that government “acts now” and legislates for a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target by 2025; and finally, that we “go beyond politics” by setting up citizens’ assemblies to lead the government on climate.

Extinction Rebellion is, however, only a part of a recent wave of environmental activism that has been gaining momentum worldwide. Among the many groups, old and new, the School Strike for the Climate certainly has stood out. Disenfranchised and yet the primary stakeholders, youth from across the globe have been missing school days to protest the political inaction against global warming. They were the primary organisers behind the Global Week for Future, which with over 6 million participants across 150 countries constitutes the largest series of demonstrations against climate change.

But is it making a difference?

At this point, we might ask ourselves whether all this commotion is having any effect at all.

Campaigns of non-violent civil disobedience have brought about some of the greatest system changes in history. Just thirty years ago, the Iron Curtain, which divided Europe for decades, crumbled under the weight of the masses pouring out in the streets of Eastern Bloc states. While such examples are not rare, they are also not the rule.

Most protests have little lasting impact. In February 2003, in what would become the largest global protest recorded, up to 30 million people marched through over 600 cities in opposition to the imminent US-led invasion of Iraq. In London alone, the crowd swelled up over 750 000. Nonetheless, the voice of the crowds quickly faded under the rumbling of the war machines as the invasion went ahead a mere month later.

Unfortunately, environmental activism has often fallen under the latter category. In his graduate thesis, Leo Barasi (the author of The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism, 2017) found that in the period of 2009 to 2014 environmental protests led to no significant increase in media coverage, public concern, or parliamentary debates regarding climate change.

However, things appear somewhat different this time around. There appears to have been a surge in talk about global warming. According to a tweet by journalist Leo Hickman, April 2019 saw the most mentions of “climate change” in UK media over the past five years. The world also saw a record-breaking number of Google searches in April and subsequently September. Both occasions coincided with particularly intense periods of climate activism.

Considering the controversy of certain tactics employed by climate activists, not all coverage will have been favourable. Even so, it appears to have increased support for the cause. According to a YouGov poll in May, 26% of British citizens report climate change among their top three concerns facing the county – a striking 10 percentage-point increase from polls taken before protests in mid-April.


The world of politics seems to be responding too. In a symbolic victory, the government yielded to Extinction Rebellion’s first demand by declaring a climate emergency in May. Soon thereafter, the UK became the first major economy to legislate for a net-zero emissions target, set for 2050.

According to James Murray, Founder and Editor-in-chief of BusinessGreen, today’s protests are coinciding with other market trends that make green business increasingly viable. Deep decarbonisation is now technologically feasible and increasingly affordable, while years of experimenting have developed the environmental policy toolkit. All this implies that politicians can afford to support “green” policy without fearing kickbacks from, for example, people who don’t want to see their energy bills spike upwards – which might explain some recent victories for environmentalists.

Regardless, more needs to be done. Alone, the recent successes won’t go far in curbing climate change. Forecasts suggest that the UK is set to miss 2025 emissions targets without concrete and drastic policy changes. Nonetheless, current environmental activism has enabled powerful conversations on what it means to be a human today.

These conversations are cutting deep into our collective consciousness – and, occurring at a time where a green economy is becoming rapidly more realistic, these conversations have the power to transform our society.

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