Social Climate Movements


In the past few years, social movements demanding climate action on a large scale have grown, establishing themselves as influential voices in the movement to address climate change. Fridays for FutureExtinction Rebellion and Ende Gelände are all well known in Germany, but there are many other movements, that have been working to raise awareness, and change the policy debate. Here are our reflections on their successes, challenges and limitations as well as an outlook into the future.


Why are climate movements so successful (now)?

The potential impact of human activity on our climate has been known for some time now. Scientists have warned that we are wasting resources, producing too much trash and heating up the earth since the 1970s. Similarly, social movements protesting linear and wasteful models of living and working are also not new. For example, the “Anti-Atomkraft Bewegung” and the “Umwelt-Bewegung” in Germany, as well as Attac, were movements that called for societal change towards sustainable and less exploitative practices. The protests by Greenpeace in the 1980s were a vanguard of civil disobedience to call for climate action. However, only recently has climate activism become almost mainstream, drawing heavily on civil disobedience approaches, yet still mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people to protest every Friday for climate action. Why the sudden shift?

Growing urgency of climate change: The spike in climate action cannot only be accounted to the new forms of movements. An important part of participants’ intrinsic motivation might stem from personal experience with changing weather patterns, reduced rainfall or summer forest fires, making it harder for people to ignore the issue. Extreme weather events have and will become more frequent, the past few years have broken global temperature records and feedback loops have been initiated. Thus, it has broken the invisibility paradox of long-term climate change.

Visibility and social media: In addition, the visibility of climate has not only become more tangible and obvious in everyone’s life through more frequent extreme weather events but also through more media reporting and opinionated commentary via Social Media. As a result, in order to demonstrate their commitment to tackling climate change, political leaders, celebrity personalities and individuals alike can and must add to the dialogue around climate action visibly online, for instance through pledging support for activists and movements demanding change. Social media has added a real time urgency to the debate and the means to spread visual content like Instagram pictures or Twitter infographics very quickly. 

Tactics that raise greater awareness: As a compliment to online awareness raising, a universal tool that recent movements are using well is civil disobedience. A large group of protesters that disturbs the daily life of ordinary citizens to raise awareness about climate change, has become a very deliberate form of action. It has created a self-enhancing spiral of generating larger participation, leading to more public attention, and vice-versa. Fridays for Future has done that through the debate over the school strikes, creating an opinionated discussion which has generated a lot of publicity. The Extinction Rebellion has created a similar amount of publicity by their tactics: creative protests (Who doesn’t like a little New Year’s Eve party in front of the Brandenburg Gate on Earth Overshoot Day?) and  very direct language, stressing the urgency of climate action. Even on a small scale, the impact of a Critical Mass demonstration in Berlin is just annoying enough for drivers to reflect on their privileged position, while they are stuck in traffic, generating attention for the climate cause.

Political instability: Another possible explanation is the changing political landscapes in many western countries may have actually helped climate movements grow in popularity. With the rise of right-wing parties and politicians as well as their platforms denying climate change, green parties all over Europe have positioned themselves as the natural antidote to right-wing populist parties and tackling one of the most urgent issues of our time. The 2019 EU election results, and in particular, the increased support for the greens, shows how much climate-sceptical politics are opposed and how important climate topics have become.


A white European rich kids’ movement? Criticism about inclusiveness

But how do we really “define” the success of climate actions? Only by their participation? Awareness is surely the first step but how successful is European climate movement, if we still emit a large share Greenhouse gases with rising numbers in flights and meat consumption?

A central criticism towards current mainstream climate movements is that they are in essence movements of privileged people’s “feel-good activism”. The participants are taking to the streets, patting themselves on the back, giving prizes to young charismatic leaders – and celebrating, as the narrative goes, themselves on Instagram, with coffee in single-use cups, an avocado-mango bowl and a vacation to South East Asia. The Global South, in the meantime, is hit hardest by extreme climate and does not benefit much from the flashy demonstrations. As a result, the movements have been criticised for not being inclusive, and for perpetuating a neo-colonial approach to climate action by prescribing how movements in economically underprivileged communities should organize.

Who can actually participate? The structure of the FFF or XR movements certainly favours participation from teenagers with Social Media accounts and the mind space to care for our environment, as well as adults who are in stable job situations where they can afford to strike with their children every Friday. Civil disobedience itself is a tool that excludes marginalized groups of people who have historically tense relationships with the state and local law enforcement, as was highlighted by a coalition of UK activists in an open letter to XR. In order to create a demand for real climate justice, the activists write, climate movements have to focus on these marginalized groups and promote their equality. After all, climate justice is very much a social question which could restructure a deeply unequal society; helping us move from society, that externalizes the environmental costs of high living standards on the most vulnerable groups, into a society that is more sustainable all together (i.e. a society that the Center for Intersectional Justice is working towards).


Where to go from here?

Strengthen collaboration with vulnerable communities: There are already a few branches of climate movements in the Global South, that aim to connect movements under one umbrella globally. However, pushing one version of climate movements from the Global North to the Global South limits the creativity, potential impact and nuances in solutions to address contextual climate change challenges. Furthermore, this approach glosses over the historical injustice of pollution and waste dumping that has driven the industrialization of the Global North to the detriment of the Global South, thus far. A better approach would be to exchange knowledge, raise awareness and tell stories about successful civil disobedience to foster regional and local climate action which demands effective measures for climate justice in all parts of the world but based on the needs and priorities of local communities.

Recognize that climate issues are social issues: It is important to acknowledge how recent climate movements have generated a large amount of pressure on political decision-makers. Climate action has become an important part of election campaigning, even parties that never really focused on climate change, are now including it in their platforms as a priority and voter issue. This is an immensely important first step in the process of generating effective action. However, it cannot be enough. If we are to transition from this paradigm on linear and wasteful practices to more inclusive, regenerative and circular approaches, movements must consider how to address the social externalities that have resulted from climate change. Right now, we are at a turning point where we can shape our future in a more sustainable way - environmentally as well as socially. Because as a community, our responsibility is not only to the planet but to each other.

Photo (c) Rob Walsh