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The climate movement has been a failure to date in ushering legislators down a more ambitious and urgent path of climate mitigation and adaptation. 2018 greenhouse gas emissions reached an all-time high and if we continue on this rising trajectory the earth will experience up to 5 degrees of warming by the end of the century – which scientists repeatedly tell us will be catastrophic. Recent IPCC and IPBES reports call for urgent and landscape-wide action. Current national pledges are incompatible with the Paris target of 1.5-2 degrees, a ‘safe’ level of global warming, yet environmental indicators remain in the red and 1 million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction. Such biodiversity loss will have significant ramifications for the well-being and survival of humanity. With so much at stake, the science firmly accepted and a deceptively simple direction to take (significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions), then, why has it taken a Swedish teenager to skip school and protest outside Parliament for the climate movement to resemble any sort of purpose and hope since the 1990s?
The international school strike for climate movement began with 16-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, spending a Friday in August 2018 protesting climate inaction outside Parliament alone, instead of being in school. Nine months later, on 24 May 2019, Thunberg was joined by almost 2 million others, students, parents, grandparents, workers, neighbours, across all continents in over 125 countries to urge greater action from politicians and business. Thunberg has galvanized demand for greater action on climate change, riding on the coat tails of the successful plastic movement, to offer much-needed leadership, determination and hope to the climate movement.
In a Guardian editorial, Thunberg wrote: “We don’t feel like we have a choice: it’s been years of talking, countless negotiations, empty deals on climate change and fossil fuel companies being given free rides to drill beneath our soils and burn away our futures for their profit.” Banners at strikes around the world read: “love and protect our beautiful earth,” “help!” “it must be bad if I’m here,” “don’t be a fossil fool,” and “don’t wait until it’s too late”.
As these school strikes are ongoing, there is also another climate movement capturing media attention: Extinction Rebellion and its more radical non-violent acts of civil disobedience. In London, activists have disrupted business as usual by occupying bridges and gluing themselves to trains. While tactically different to the school strike for climate movement and appealing to a relatively small section of society willing to be arrested for the cause, Extinction Rebellion is increasing engagement and concern in climate change despite the deafening tones of Brexit and a Conservative Party leadership contest.
What we are seeing unfold is arguably the biggest turning point in climate politics since the birth of the modern environmental movement in the 1960s. Following the moderation of school strikes and radicalism of Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, there has been a notable shift in narrative. We can speak of a Thunberg effect. She has brought much-needed vigour as well as a renewed sense of emotion, urgency, and hope, which has been increasing engagement. The issue is reaching more people at a deeper level. The UK and Ireland, along with dozens of local governments, have officially declared a climate emergency, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel cited school strikes in her decision to support an EU target of net-zero emissions by 2050. However, sufficient substance to avert climate catastrophe is yet to appear. There remains an implementation gap between the Paris goal of 1.5-2-degree warming and current domestic pledges. Are non-violent climate protests going to save the planet?
Big shifts to state, economy and society rarely happen without mass citizen participation. The People Power in the Philippines led to the fall of the Marcos regime; Eduard Shevardnadze was ousted in 2003 following a revolution in which citizens stormed the parliament building holding flowers instead of guns. The Singing Revolution in Estonia, the Gentle Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and the Arab Spring further underscored the power of ordinary citizens. More recently, sustained peaceful protests pressured long-standing presidents in Algeria and Sudan to step aside. These social uprisings all share one thing in common – they were non-violent. Non-violent protests have proven powerful in history and the renewed energy the climate movement is now seeing is reason to believe that such action can achieve meaningful action on climate change without bloodshed.
Aside from the obvious ethical arguments for peaceful expressions of dissatisfaction, non-violent protests are twice as likely to succeed as armed conflicts in triggering political change according to Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University. In her study, co-authored with Maria Stephan and published in 2011, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Chenoweth found that between 1900 and 2006 non-violent campaigns led to political change 53 percent of the time, while violent protests worked 26 percent of the time.
Non-violent demonstrations source success from their relatively placid nature harbouring inclusivity and galvanizing mass participation from a diverse demographic spanning all sections of civil society, which imbues the climate movement with legitimacy and delivers its message as something wanted by civil society and not just a minority. This is certainly the effect the school strike for climate movement is having; while less so for the more required radical taste of Extinction Rebellion. Together, the two movements have reinvigorated the climate movement which is now strongly poised for influencing more ambitious pledges from countries who will be updating their Paris targets next year. Hopefully these will be emblematic of a crescendo proportional to the urgency and importance of limiting global warming to under 2 degrees, and not another ‘what if’ moment to rue in the future.
In the absence of climate leadership from the United States, inspirational Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has spear-headed a turning point in climate change politics. It is too early to evaluate her impact on climate policy, but the initial signs are ones of hope. Non-violent resistance offers great potential for achieving the policy action necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change, ecological collapse, biodiversity loss, and extinction. Most importantly, the challenge of finding a determined and unwavering leader has been more than fulfilled by Thunberg. She is planning to take a gap year from education in order to dedicate herself to the movement she started. Let’s hope our legislators show the same commitment and direct us onto a 2-degree compatible policy pathway.