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Climate Activism

Research paper: Climate concern increases following major protests/civil disobedience

08 April 2024

In an open access paper published in the journal Nature Communications, a large sample of the German public (more than 24,000 people) was surveyed before and just after major climate protests/civil disobedience took place.

Following what the authors describe as ‘confrontational’ protest acts, levels of reported concern about climate change rose by just over 1% (not a huge number, but a meaningful uptick nonetheless with a sample of this size and given the high level of pre-existing concern in Germany).

Interestingly, there was no sign of political polarisation either. And although the political context in Germany differs in a range of ways to the UK, the study offers direct evidence that significant protests do ‘cut through’ in terms of national public opinion. This is not always easy to demonstrate without his form of ‘before and after’ study design.

In another new open access paper on a similar topic, researchers asked US participants in an online experiment to give their views on a range of civil disobedience tactics. They concluded:

Most Americans view climate-related NVCD as appropriate if it is non-violent and targeted towards those companies or entities which are responsible for taking actions to the detriment of the climate. This could be in the form of promoting fossil fuel use, or even accepting fossil fuel financing. Conversely, actions that are violent, or targeted at entities not seen as being responsible for exacerbating climate change are seen as inappropriate targets.

Gradually, the evidence base on how contemporary protest tactics are actually landing with members of the public is building. Studies like these are important for checking assumptions about the way in which people react to protests involving civil disobedience.

Concern levels are likely to temporarily tick upwards when protests capture the media spotlight, even if the elite commentary that gets the most bandwidth is high critical of demonstrations. But the more that protests can do to focus in on ‘valid’ or ‘legitimate’ targets, the higher the chance of bringing the wider public along.


The latest from the Climate Activism timeline:

Media Insight 14th December 2023

CAAD report: A rise in violent language used online to describe protesters in 2023

In an analysis of the language used to describe climate activists on a range of social media platforms in 2022 and 2023, Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD) identified a rise in labels such as “extremists”, “lunatics” or even “terrorists”. The analysis found that allusions to violence on social media appear to be increasing, particularly in comment sections. Key findings included:

  • On X (formerly Twitter): Over 220,000 posts included ‘loaded’ language such as “climate cult” and over 90,000 posts and replies contained ‘securitised’ language such as “eco terrorist”. While the overall volume of posts remained stable over the past two years, we found that replies containing ‘securitised’, ‘dehumanising’ or ‘othering’ language have more than doubled. Specifically, references to “climate cultists” and “eco-terrorists” feature prominently in high-traction posts about protests.
  • On Facebook and Instagram: Posts containing denigrating language were shared a cumulative 1.86 million times in the timeframe. Language like “climate lunatic”, “eco extremist”, “green zealot” or “Net Zero terrorist” features in over 68,000 posts across both platforms.
  • On TikTok: TikTok’s relatively stringent moderation has led to a culture of coded violence that uses devices like dog whistles and irony to evade detection. For example, one post with over 80,000 likes shares footage of climate protesters alongside a clip of the video game Grand Theft Auto – a game well-known for allowing players to run over pedestrians. Even ostensibly ‘neutral’ content around climate activism or protests sees violent rhetoric emerge in the comments, often receiving thousands of likes.

This kind of online discourse is troubling. And on social media platforms with large numbers of users, shares can quickly add up, so the views of an angry minority can spread quickly.

Offline, although public attitudes towards disruptive protest groups like Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil are generally not positive, opinion data shows the UK public evenly split on whether campaigners are ‘out of touch’ with the rest of the country.

So although public opinion isn’t altogether favourable towards protesters, the violent language documented by CAAD is likely to be more ‘out of touch’ with mainstream popular opinion, than the actions of the protesters themselves.


  • Author: Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD)
  • Date: 5th December 2023
Climate Barometer Tracker 29th November 2023

Tracker data: Who is trusted to speak honestly about climate change?

Climate Barometer tracker data shows that trust in climate charities, NGOs and activists to speak honestly about climate change varies for both the public and MPs. In general, naturalists such as David Attenborough and Chris Packham are trusted more than other groups, although this does not hold for Conservative MPs. 

Nature conservation charities such as WWF and RSPB, and climate charities such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace tend to be more trusted across the political spectrum than climate activists like Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate, and activist groups such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion. Notably, the latter two groups were not selected by any MPs as groups that they trusted to speak honestly about climate change.

Climate Barometer Tracker 21st November 2023

Tracker data: the public is split on whether climate campaigners are ‘out of touch’

Climate Barometer tracker data shows that just over a third of the public (34%) disagree that people who campaign on climate issues are ‘out of touch’ with the rest of the country. However, similar numbers also agree with the statement (32%), or are unsure (33%).

This division reflects the tension at the heart of climate activism: how to challenge the status quo whilst avoiding alienating the people who, ultimately, campaigners aim to ‘win over’.

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