Cécile Pomarede reflects on a recent LSE Government event which explored the use of direct action in climate protests.
In a universal echo that, ‘The time for change is now’, more than 100,000 people marched in Glasgow on 6th November 2021 in honour of the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice. It became the largest protest in the city since the anti-Iraq war demonstration in 2003. An additional 100 marches and 300 protests took place elsewhere in the country, gathering up to 20,000 like-minded individuals in London with a total number of participants anticipated to be over two million across the UK. Ecology scientists, vegan activists, trade unionists, socialists and many more vented their outrage by chanting against politicians’ failure to address the climate emergency with the required urgency.
Yet, how effective are disruptive protest tactics when advocating for changes to environmental policies? Several events took place on the LSE campus in response to the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), and the Department of Government’s event on 29th October, ‘Advocating for climate change policies: The promise and peril of using disruptive protest tactics’, brought together three high-calibre panellists alongside chair Michael Lerner to begin to answer this question by offering their valuable insight on the promise and peril of using disruptive protest tactics. The main line of thought was that civil disobedience has undeniable revelatory power, but it easily suffers from a nebulous message and biased media attention.
At the event, Tom Burke, the founder of E3G and former Executive Director of Friends of the Earth, was quick to point out that the growing size and frequency of protests in all parts of the world serve as a reminder that climate change is a large-scale issue and imposes the need for quick action. While protests rightfully accuse those in charge, we also need to elevate the narrative from this Manichean view of the ‘villains’ and the ‘victims’. Because we now all need to actively cooperate.
Bouncing on that point Professor Kathryn Hochstetler, an expert in Climate Policy and Global Environmental Politics, claimed that a black and white vision can also obscure novel forms of oppression and injustice found in new ‘green solutions’. This resonates with the Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate’s message in A bigger picture that a tree-planting campaign in the form of land grabbing from indigenous people is not climate justice, electric vehicle manufacturers exploiting children and women is not climate justice, and neither is climate finance in the form of loans to local communities climate justice.
This led Temi Ogunye, a Research Fellow at Nuffield College, to ponder: ‘who should be at the frontline of these protests, in charge of that climate and social justice?’ To him, the climate activism movement should be aware that wealthy individuals are perhaps the most effective at remedying the injustice. Their duty to engage is a moral imperative. Privileged people, more than anyone, possess the leverage to make the fight for equality drastically more impactful. Change is costly, and we cannot expect those oppressed and in precarious conditions to always be the ones fighting for justice. Nevertheless, an effective climate movement is a diverse and plural one, with people from cross-cutting, wide-ranging backgrounds. The key then becomes to change the law and make a deep cultural shift in the popular perception of what a good life and success look like. Tom Burke reminded us of when, back in 2011, the anti-globalist Occupy Wall Street movement was remarkably effective for that reason. The success of this single act was rooted in women and minorities moving to the frontline and being given the space to be vocal and legitimized on the topic of income and wealth inequalities.
The discussion then shifted to the curse of civil disobedience for grassroots movements. Naturally, the importance of context was highlighted. The same disruptive behaviour in a different location can have very different consequences for the livelihood of the activists. Professor Hochstetler described how common it is to observe contestations in Brazil around energy projects that animate disruptive engagement. Yet, the Extinction Rebellion types of protests are not to be found there. The stakes are too high, it is a matter of life and death. So, where there is a right to disrupt, there is more legitimacy to do so. And as Tom Burke pointed out, we must not forget that our first ability to disrupt, here, in Western liberal democracies, lies in the power of one’s vote.
Activists in the UK therefore have the privilege to determine where to sit at the intersection between purpose and strategy. One strategy to gain attention is through the use of violence, a tactic famously used by the suffragette movement. However, this need for ‘epistemic disruption’ – creating drama for attention – makes it difficult for a specific movement to provide an actual voice with a clear message. The media inevitably focus on acts of violent protest, even if they’re only carried out by a tiny fraction of activists, and the danger is that the intentions of the peaceful majority and the overall message of the movement can be lost in the sensationalism.
Technology and social media could be the key, but then again, their effectiveness is easily diluted in the masses of content and the rise of competing information. Temi Ogunye specifically reminded us of previous successful movements that were built on institutions, such as the role of the Black Church in the US Civil Rights Movement, that would sustain the people’s interest over time. As such, the global environmental community might be lacking some form of central authority.
Environmental activists have a menu of actions to choose from, and the use of disruptive tactics is one of them. Other ways of making effective change and revising our cultural model are also to be found in the power of art, creativity, storytelling – that, among others, the talented founders of the Earth Rise Studio have proved to harness – as well as innovation, for which the work of entrepreneur Gunter Pauli, founder of Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives, has inspired many. Taken together, disruptive tactics are effective as long as voices are united and coherent. This is the greatest challenge activists face and is to be tackled with willpower in a drive to denounce the Earth’s mass destruction and the human rights violations.
Note: this article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.