Climate strikes back: anatomy of protesters in six cities

This post was originally published in The Beam. The Beam is a tri-annual printed publication covering the energy transition and the race to a zero carbon economy.

In August 2018, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg started to strike from school on Fridays to protest against a lack of action on the climate crisis. Her actions made her the most famous teenager on the planet and sparked a historically large youth movement, leading to a series of school strikes across the world.

Over the course of one week in September 2019, striking school children, students and other grassroots movements such as Extinction Rebellion called for everyone to participate in a Global Climate Strike which was attended by more than 7 million people.

At the time, there was a genuine sense of a historic and decisive global shift on the issue of climate change. This momentum sadly has stalled with the arrival of COVID-19 just a few months later.

But the threat of the climate crisis has not disappeared just because it has disappeared from the front pages of newspapers. The world will need all the energy and determination of the Climate Strike movement to avert the impending global man-made catastrophe.

With colleagues at Southern Connecticut State University, University of Bergen, Imperial College London and The Foote School, I conducted the first global academic study into the global strikes to better understand the motivations of those taking part.

Conducting interviews with Climate Strike protesters in London and Brighton and Hove (UK), Montreal (Canada), New Haven and New York (USA) and Stavanger (Norway), we aimed to learn more about participants’ knowledge, emotions, motivations and actions in relation to climate change, including any lifestyle changes they have undertaken.

Our results indicate that – while protesters predominantly had negative feelings such as fear, anxiety and despair at the impacts of the climate crisis – responses to address climate change and collective action provided protesters also with hope for the future.

Interestingly strikers from North American cities were more likely to identify that they were “terrified” or felt “threatened” about the prospects of climate change, whereas British strikers were more likely to indicate that they were “hopeful” about taking action.

The lack of action from governments on the issue was a motivating factor for many climate strikers and this motivation was particularly prominent for US participants. This may indicate that the lack of policies, along with the climate denial of the Trump administration, helped grow a stronger climate activist movement in the US over the past four years.

Concern for the planet, the environment and climate was the most frequently mentioned motivation behind strikers participating. Wanting to influence public opinion and policy was the second most mentioned motivation and was especially prevalent in the UK city of Brighton and Hove, which also has a strong history of environmental and political protest.

Being part of a protest movement was important to many, while for others their motivation was less values-driven and more focused on taking part in something novel or impressing their peers.

The slight majority of respondents said that they knew quite a lot about climate change, but almost an equal number said that they only knew a little bit. In terms of information sources, the most important were the protesters’ own background or job and reports produced by scientists, indicating potentially a high level of education and access to information amongst protesters.

Respondents also mentioned newspapers and TV as information sources, but many were sceptical about the reliability of media coverage concerning climate change. Other sources of information included the social movement itself and what Greta Thunberg was saying on climate change.

Encouragingly, just under half of the protesters said it was their first form of climate action.

Equally encouragingly, our study indicated that climate strikers backed up their words with action in their own lives. Almost all of them (95%) said they were personally undertaking lifestyle changes to try and limit their own personal impact on climate change.

The most common personal responses to climate change were changes to modes of transport. These included reduced flying or giving up air travel altogether or swapping cars for bicycles or public transport. People had also changed their diets, reducing meat consumption and sometimes adopting a vegetarian or a vegan diet.

North American climate strikers were most likely to indicate an ambition to reduce personal car use or resort to public transport, despite the high reliance on private car ownership and poor public transport infrastructural investment in their countries. The fact that our interviewees lived in cities with relatively respectable public transport networks in place probably indicates this might not be a nationwide ambition. British and Norwegian respondents were most likely to have aimed to reduce their flying.

Increasing recycling and reusing, while reducing consumption in general, were also common steps. Some changes in the home, like adopting sustainable energy systems or switching to renewable energy suppliers or starting composting, also featured.

One of the most radical changes they were prepared to make was changing their working patterns, either by reducing working hours or undertaking more volunteer work. This, however, is not accessible to everyone, especially those who may be on a low income.

While many of the protesters were already taking action or were keen to make lifestyle changes, there were also many who found that structural and systemic factors were limiting their ability to bring about meaningful and major changes.

From our study, it seems clear that climate strikers are not confined to a particular type of person which might be at odds with their depiction by some in the media. Rather, there is a large spectrum in terms of how equipped people are in terms of knowledge about climate change, what emotions they feel about the climate crisis, what motivates them to take action and what types of action they have taken, are currently taking, or are considering to take.

Among the ranks of climate strikers, there is a great understanding of the enormity of the challenge, great passion to do what is right for the planet and future generations, and great commitment to take the necessary action in their own lives. All of that will be needed in even greater measures now if the movement is to regain the momentum post-2020 and convince those in power of the necessity to deliver meaningful change.

This blog is based on the article Contextualizing climate justice activism: Knowledge, emotions, motivations, and actions among climate strikers in six cities – Mari Martiskainen, Stephen Axon, Benjamin K. Sovacool, Siddharth Sareen, Dylan Furszyfer Del Rio, Kayleigh Axon, Global Environmental Change.

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