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  • Overview
  • Apr '24
    Research paper: Climate concern increases following major protests/civil disobedience
  • Dec '23
    CAAD report: A rise in violent language used online to describe protesters in 2023
  • Nov '23
    Tracker data: Who is trusted to speak honestly about climate change?
  • Tracker data: the public is split on whether climate campaigners are ‘out of touch’
  • Comment: How does the public perceive climate protesters?
  • Sep '23
    Social Change Lab: Does radical action shift the perception of more moderate activists?
  • May '23
    Public Order Act 2023 introduces harsher protest laws
  • Oct '22
    Climate Majority project seeks to take climate action ‘outside of the bubble’
  • Jul '22
    New research paper: politicians and activists ‘speak a different language’ on climate change
  • Nov '21
    Media analysis: News of protests at COP26 outstripped coverage of the conference itself
  • Sep '19
    Climate Strike: 200 protest events in UK’s biggest environmental protest to-date
  • Aug '19
    Reuters: How Greta Thunberg’s climate strikes became a global movement in a year
Topic

Climate Activism

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  • In Brief

    Climate change activism is certainly not new to the UK – NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have been campaigning since the 1980s.

    But recent years have seen a rapid rise in new climate change protest groups: campaigns like Fridays For Future, Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, and Insulate Britain have risen to dominate the activism space.

    In common with activists throughout history, climate protests face the question of what balance to strike between widespread attention, and widespread appeal. But whilst few members of the public tend to support the ‘means’ of radical, disruptive activism, their demands are often popular.

    Can even unpopular protests have long term positive impacts? Whether raising awareness, increasing political ambition, shifting the “centre” or directly reducing emissions, activism has a range of aims and goals that impact on (and are shaped by) public and political opinion.

    This thread curates opinion data around climate activism, as well as pointing to some significant campaign moments and actions to make sense of what is driving public and political opinion on climate activism.

  • Opinion Insight 8th April 2024

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

    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.

    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’.

    Policy Insight 3rd May 2023

    Public Order Act 2023 introduces harsher protest laws

    In May 2023, the government’s new Public Order Act came into force, significantly increasing the power of the police to respond to protests, and to introduce new criminal offences. The government made explicit reference to activist groups such as Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain as justifications for these measures.

    The Act received widespread criticism from activist groups and other NGOs, as well as the UN Human Rights Chief. In particular, the Act introduced the following acts as criminal offences:

    • locking-on & being equipped for locking-on
    • causing serious disruption by tunnelling / being present in a tunnel & being equipped for tunnelling
    • obstructing major transport works
    • interfering with key national infrastructure

    In addition, the Act has lowered the threshold to define “disruptive” protesting, and extended the use of stop and search powers for protests.

    There is public support for punishing activists who cause disruption. For instance, 78% of Britons surveyed felt some form of punishment was appropriate for someone who has participated in a non-violent but disruptive protest, such as blocking a road (YouGov/Uni Bristol, July 2023). However, there was stronger support for fines as punishment (37%), rather than imprisonment (29%).

    • Date: 3rd May 2023
    Policy Insight 23rd July 2022

    New research paper: politicians and activists ‘speak a different language’ on climate change

    In a new paper (open-access link) published in the journal Language and Ecology, Clare Cunningham and her colleagues at York St John University analysed the prevalence and use of climate change words and phrases by politicians and activists.

    The analysis revealed major differences. Activists use emotive language and talk about ecology, guilt, and morality. Politicians use much more technocratic language and focus on finance, trade-offs, technologies and the economy, reflecting a longstanding positioning of environmental issues among political elites as emerging from a cost-benefit analysis perspective.

    Perhaps most strikingly, ‘people’ barely feature in politicians’ discourse on climate – showing up only as ‘bill payers’. 

    The analysis is important to help understand why campaigns aimed at political or other ‘elite’ groups can sometimes fail to land with public audiences, and vice-versa. In related research, IPPR tested a range of climate change narratives and found that (despite their common usage by climate campaigners) language around ‘green jobs’ was not as compelling for the public as language around protecting the environment for future generations, or the need to reduce the risks from climate impacts.

    Climate Barometer tracker polling backs this up: the public is not very persuaded by arguments that climate policies will deliver lots of new jobs. But this is more likely to reflect a widespread lack of trust in the ability of government to deliver on its promises, than a distaste for green jobs.

    Media Insight 15th November 2021

    Media analysis: News of protests at COP26 outstripped coverage of the conference itself

    In analysis by Kantar, coverage of protests at COP26 was found to have outstripped coverage of the conference itself (in traditional media).

    On social media, Geta Thunberg was one of the biggest presences on Twitter, driving engagement with traditional coverage of COP26 protests.

    What the public ‘sees’ at climate conferences can shape wider climate beliefs – and although there was small but significant increase in public optimism during the course of COP26, the dominance of protests in traditional and social media is likely to have conveyed an overall impression of the conference as a ‘problem’ (to be protested against) rather than part of the solution.

    • Date: 15th November 2021
    Wider Context 20th September 2019

    Climate Strike: 200 protest events in UK’s biggest environmental protest to-date

    Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets on Friday 20th September 2019 in what was the biggest environmental protest in the UK to date. A rally in central London was attended by around 100,000 people.

    Wider Context 20th August 2019

    Reuters: How Greta Thunberg’s climate strikes became a global movement in a year

    From August 20th 2018 when Greta Thunberg first skipped school to protest for more action on climate change, to one of the largest movements of climate change activism across the world, the Fridays For Future movement resulted in 2019 being termed the “year of the climate strike“. Reuters present a timeline of the growth of Greta’s individual protest to global movement of activism.

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