Climate strikes are a common practice for people wanting to make their voices heard and change our current path to ecological catastrophe. A new wave of young climate activists, such as Greta Thunberg and Luisa Neubauer, has strengthened the movement in the last few years. All around the world people are protesting in concert against policies and practices that are causing the destruction of ecosystems and warming our planet. The question is, however, “is striking an effective mechanism for fighting climate change?”
The climate movement has gained a fresh coat of paint and renewed strength in the last couple of years with the rise of Greta Thunberg and the Fridays For Future movement. Greta started school striking every Friday since August 2018, and was a major player in the mass global climate strike in March 2019, gathering more than one million strikers in 125 countries. Soon after that, in September of the same year, an event called “Global Week for Future” organized a series of 4500 strikes across 150 countries and mobilized up to 6 million people. These were likely to have been the largest climate strikes in world history.
With the rise of the climate movement, people’s climate awareness has also risen. What Fridays For Future has demonstrated is that today people are more concerned about the impact our current economic model and lifestyles have on the planet. Young people are seemingly the drivers of this process as they will be the ones bearing the brunt of global warming.
This new vitality is justifiable by the urgency of the matter. According to a 2018 IPCC report, our carbon budget of 420 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 – the maximum amount of CO2 the earth’s atmosphere can absorb in order to restrain global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – will expire in approximately nine years. Yet little is being done, at the governmental and production level, to reduce global greenhouse emissions.
At its most basic level, a strike occurs when workers refuse to come to work as a form of protest in response to some sort of employee grievances. They gather outside the factory or company (or at another strategic location) and make their demands heard. These demands could be for labor rights or policy change, as the embodiment of class struggle. Without workers, the company can not function and therefore faces losses, with bosses being forced to engage in dialog with the strikers.
Climate strikes are a little different. So far students have been the protagonists driving this movement forward. In this case, they protest by not going to school and, united, demand action against climate change and its consequences for their future. Their demands are objective, ambitious, and carry an enormous sense of urgency.
Broadly speaking, they are calling for:
a global divestment from fossil fuels;
governments and local institutions to declare a climate emergency and prioritize sustainability policies;
ecocide to be considered a crime before the International Criminal Court; and
more transparency and accountability in regards to greenhouse emissions. Additionally, these young activists seem to recognize that the climate movement is part of a wider struggle for social, gender, and racial equality and justice; and that it is important to demand climate policies that include the protection of workers and the most vulnerable, and the reduction of all forms of inequality.
Contributions of climate strikes
This holistic approach to climate striking realizes how interconnected all social issues are and, as a form of nonviolent civil disobedience, is proving to be very effective in turning the spotlight to the climate crisis. Furthermore, striking, as a way of collective action, makes people feel empowered and more hopeful. This promotes awareness at the micro level and greater media attention at the macro level. In addition, it increases public pressure on elected officials and creates a fertile ground for discussing new strategies for halting global warming.
A 2019 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology suggests that striking can promote the most important psychological factors for fighting climate change. This is because of the sense of empowerment that collective action can create on people. Whilst you may not feel like your voice is being heard by carrying a sign alone (though this is precisely what Greta Thunberg did), this very action becomes much more powerful when carried out together with tens of thousands of people pressing for the same demands.
Striking implies collective action, which is all the more encouraging than isolated efforts, inasmuch as humans are social animals. The feeling of hopelessness and despair that inevitably emerges as we face the facts can be overpowered by a sense of community and solidarity. Obviously, this is not to dismiss individual environmental efforts, such as recycling, ethical consumerism, and veganism; these actions go hand in hand with striking. In fact, these two spheres – individualism and collectivism – are intertwined in the ever-evolving understanding of self and one’s place within the natural and social worlds. The socially constructed notion of individualism is simply not enough of a force to face the biggest crisis of our times. With this in mind, strikes are places where ideas emerge, disinformation is demystified and strategies can be discussed. It is the moment when people see their concerns being shared by many and their hopes being multiplied.
A typical practice for displaying one’s active involvement in the strikes and the general climate movement is the use of hashtags on social media. It is a simple yet clever way to share with one’s circle of friends and family their concerns and participation, and to call attention to which actions are being planned. Some of the most popular hashtags circulating on social media are (in order of popularity): #climatestrike, #climatechange, #fridaysforfuture, #climate, #climatecrisis, #globalwarming, #gretathunberg, #climateaction, #savetheplanet and #climatejustice.
The uproar caused by the press is also a major contribution brought about by the strikes. The more people participate, the louder the “buzz” and, consequently, the bigger the interest of the media in the cause. The dissemination of the ideals of the movement is important to raise awareness amongst the population, and having allies in the media is extremely important for this. Major news outlets, such as the Guardian in the UK and the New York Times in the US, regularly publish articles and op-eds about the climate strikes. For instance, during the last climate week of action, in September of this year, the Guardian reported extensively on the protests, covering in detail what was taking place around the globe, the numbers, their demands, and rationale.
Striking can have a great effect on policy-making. That is, politicians tend to listen to what is being demanded from the masses, after all, they are the electorate. The bigger the strike, the more of a chance of gaining space in political agendas. Eventually, there will be an election right down the road, which is why politicians take these actions seriously.
An example of this is England, where campaigners managed to pressure their government into banning various single-use plastic items, like straws, stirrers, and cotton buds, earlier this year. In Europe, the European Parliament passed a law banning disposable plastic, which will take effect next year, and in the US eight states have already banned it, with the prospect of more states following suit.
Moreover, an increasing number of countries are pledging to become carbon neutral in the next few years, ranging from 2030 to 2050. This is much owed to the efforts of climate activists, who use collective action as their weapon for policy-change. As this recent empirical research concluded, climate activism indeed leads to a legislation change in favor of the environment.
If you want to participate in climate strikes, the best way to go forward is to keep an eye out for organizations such as Fridays For Future, Global Climate Strike, Extinction Rebellion, amongst others. These groups are in the vanguard of the new climate movement and they are global, having branches in many of the major world cities who meet regularly to debate strategies for action. They also organize and publish actions via social media groups, guiding participants on what to take, how to act, and what to do in the strikes. Their approaches differ slightly, with Fridays For Future being a more young-led movement whilst Extinction Rebellion amounting to a slightly older crowd. Both advocate non-violence and non-proprietary destruction in their strikes.
The actions that occur in strikes are varied but, usually, performative. Some people may dress in flamboyant clothes, with costumes related to their cause, and hold signs with impact messages, dancing, singing, and interpreting altogether. This is not mandatory but is a good strategy used to call media and public attention to their movement. In a sense, the more attention is drawn to the strike the better.
The location, route, and meeting place are also strategically important. Fridays for Future, for example, has an interactive map with the location of each strike around the world, which remains the same every Friday. On the other hand, Extinction Rebellion changes the location according to the event's theme, making it possible to be in places such as public institutions, corporate headquarters, or tourist transit locations. Each of these actions is organized collectively and informed to the participants, so it is important to be informed before going on strike.
There are, of course, other tools for manifesting discontent and building a movement.
Signing and creating petitions is a great way to gather support for the climate cause, which is almost effortless. A petition should not replace striking however, but they can complement each other as they possess particular virtues. For instance, an online petition can go viral worldwide, gathering thousands of signatures (and even millions in some extreme cases) in support of the cause, which works brilliantly to raise awareness and build momentum for the next strike. It is also a great way to create a connection with people and educate them about the climate, as well as making the demands more clear and accessible to the public. A good example of this is a petition against oil drilling in the Arctic, which at the time of writing of this article had gathered over a million signatures and was still live, so you can sign it.
Another tool in the climate activist’s toolbox is the boycott of companies, political parties, and any institution judged to be unlawful, immoral, and/or environmentally-unfriendly. Boycotting has proven to be very effective; two examples: in 2018 The Body Shop had to declare itself animal cruelty-free after a massive boycott campaign, and in 2010 Nestlé was forced to commit to a zero deforestation policy in its palm oil supply chain after only eight weeks of an intense boycott campaign. Boycotts get the attention of big companies because they hit them where it hurts: their market share and reputation. The website ethicalconsumer.org provides a comprehensible list of corporations to be boycotted, the reasons for it, and who is calling for the boycott.
Perhaps one of the biggest victories for the boycott movement was the end of Apartheid in South Africa. As an active movement throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, it was instrumental in ending the Apartheid regime of racial segregation. In the case of South Africa, the boycott movement operated at first as a consumer and academic boycott of products and services. Then, governments under pressure felt inclined to apply economic sanctions, and in 1970 South Africa was even expelled from the Olympics. Though unrelated to climate change, this illustrates how boycotting can work effectively to achieve extremely ambitious goals.
Just like politicians, private companies also tend to take stock of their consumers’ behavior. Thus, if a substantial amount of people boycott companies that are known to disregard the new normative climate concerns, chances are that this company will revise their modus operandi hastily. Boycotting and petitioning are excellent companions to striking, the former two as passive forms of collective actions, and the latter as an active way to engage in civil disobedience and make climate demands heard.
The aforementioned climate strikes of 2019, with the huge number of people that were mobilized, illustrate how effective strikes really are. Whilst the greatest victory for the climate movement is still to come, one that will set in motion a radical environmental reform, we can look at the general societal turn towards sustainability and renewables as a sign of the progress that has been made in recent years. As a process that is fed back to itself, strikes are both advancing this turn and also a consequence of it.
In the electoral arena, for instance, there is a clear indication that political parties have realized the importance of sustainability policies in their agendas. This can be illustrated by the electoral success of Greens parties in last year’s European Parliament elections. In Germany, for instance, the Greens took 20.5% of the national vote, almost doubling their 10.7% share from 2014. Perhaps more significant still, was the exceptionally high turnout in Germany – 61.4% –, demonstrating that people care about both politics and the climate.
In the corporate sphere, many companies actively support the strikes. Some, like Ben & Jerry's, Patagonia, and Burton have closed their factories and all their online and physical stores, and encouraged their workers to participate in the protests. Here in Germany, 2400 companies have joined under the banner of "Entrepreneurs for Future". And even Swedish bus manufacturer Scania has dedicated Friday to employee training on sustainability, which may seem somewhat paradoxical to the critical reader since Scania’s industrial sector is very polluting in nature. Nonetheless, whether they honestly do it for the climate or to gain advertisement, the point is that they are doing it because people are doing it.
In short, striking, as a form of peaceful civil disobedience, is an efficient way to protest and build a movement. It is something that everyone can participate in regularly and feel empowered by the scale and intensity of collective action. What makes striking the perfect vehicle for a mass movement, is the fact that it places collective action as the protagonist, as opposed to individual acts. Moreover, it is the perfect environment for the exchange of ideas and experiences. A powerful mechanism in the uphill struggle to transform our carbon-emitting society into a sustainable, egalitarian, and just one; we should all participate in climate strikes. The bigger the strike, the more powerful and transformative it is – and we do not have much time.