When the United Nations climate talks (COP26) begin in Glasgow, Scotland this week, President Biden and fellow world leaders will be joined by over 25,000 government, media and civil society representatives. How will Greta Thunberg and other climate activists use this moment to protest against climate inaction? It’s too soon to say, but new evidence from the U.S. offers some important lessons on how a broader climate movement may also lead to more impact.
First, the climate crisis has never been so prominent in our collective consciousness. Even as parts of the world continue to grapple with the effects of COVID-19, hundreds of thousands of young activists joined the recent global climate school strike on September 24th and thousands more have participated in more recent protests all around the world, including a week of civil disobedience in Washington, DC. Activists are mobilizing in response to the recent extreme weather events being supercharged by climate change, like hurricanes, droughts, floods, heatwaves, and wildfires.
The convergence of movements isn’t a new phenomenon: coalitions have always formed among activists working on aligned issues.
As the crisis worsens and scientists’ warnings get more dire, climate activism is changing. The U.S. has experienced a racial reckoning along with the trauma of COVID-19 — but rather than drown out the climate crisis, recent events seem to have amplified the growing movement to stop climate change. Over 20 years of observations, surveys, and interviews with activists working on the issue document the links between climate, economic, racial, and gender movements have never been stronger. In other words, the mainstream climate movement has joined forces with many of the central components of the progressive movement in the US.
During the pandemic, climate activists in the U.S. and across the world have campaigned in solidarity with other movements, participating in activism against systemic racism and helping people of color gain better access to COVID-19 vaccines. This new spirit is summed up perfectly by Adriana Calderon, a young Mexican climate activist: “The same unfair system causing the climate crisis is also the same system causing vaccine inequality. It’s really the same struggle.”
But now, the roots of various movements are entwining more than ever before around climate.
The BLM movement has grown in strength in part because other groups — including many in the climate movement — have worked in solidarity with their efforts. Green groups called out the disparity between the way police treated white-led climate protests compared to BLM protests and focused on equity broadly defined. A great example is the Green New Deal Network, a coalition of groups working together to achieve climate, racial and economic justice. At the Glasgow climate summit, a large-scale demonstration is scheduled for November 6th that will focus specifically on climate justice and include blocs focused specifically on migrant justice and anti-racism, indigenous and frontline communities, along with workers and trade unions, and many others.
Activists working on other progressive issues are also increasingly concerned about climate change as well as systemic racism. In an analysis of data collected through a census of members of the Indivisible network (one of the largest “Resistance groups” in the US), I found that members’ top priorities were democratic reform, with second and third place tied between racial justice and climate change. Although the group’s membership is predominantly older white Americans, concern for racial justice increased from 48% in my 2020 census to 61% in 2021. At the same time, activists engaged in the Movement 4 Black Lives have also focused their attention on the issue of climate change.
Fringe tactics used by youth activists today are likely to be the bread and butter of tomorrow’s mainstream campaigns.
Other evidence suggests that as the climate movement grows broader roots, some conservatives may be beginning to take it more seriously. Even in the U.S., where support for climate action is seen as a partisan political issue, two-thirds of the population think the government should do more to address the climate crisis. While Republicans in general are far less likely to say that human behavior has caused climate change, Republicans under 40 are around twice as likely as their elders to accept the impact of human behavior on climate.
The convergence of movements isn’t a new phenomenon: coalitions have always formed among activists working on aligned issues. In the UK, the labor and liberation movements worked together in the 1980s when an alliance, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, began years of mutual support between LGBTQ groups and mine-workers unions. In the US, the anti-Trump Resistance movement was comprised of the merging of activists and organizations from across the political Left, including the Women’s and Environmental Movements.
We can also expect the climate movement to have a bigger and more diverse supporter base.
But now, the roots of various movements are entwining more than ever before. In the past, the U.S. anti-war, civil rights, and women’s rights movements did work together, but mobilization was inconsistent and messages remained distinct. This time, campaigners are creating concepts and vehicles to capture their common ground — like the message of the Green New Deal, which integrates issues about environmental, economic and racial equity into a single powerful package.
What does all this mean for COP26, and for our long-term efforts to stop climate change? First, it means we should expect new kinds of resistance — because fringe tactics used by youth activists today are likely to be the bread and butter of tomorrow’s mainstream campaigns. School strikes were just the beginning: now, young climate activists are working to help elect progressive climate candidates and are planning to field their own climate candidates in upcoming elections in the U.S. too.
Next, we should expect new digital campaign tactics. Young people are running “stan accounts” — superfan profiles that passionately support a public figure — to organize around progressive, climate-friendly politicians like Ed Markey and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. New TikTok subcultures focus on plant biodiversity. The global Fridays For Future movement, which grew out of school strikes, has taken on UK-based Standard Chartered Bank for their fossil fuel financing over the last months and held a fake press conference to put pressure on the bank to shift its policies.
In 2020, youth climate activists launched a range of litigation cases: in Australia, eight students teamed up with a Catholic nun to organize a class action suit to stop a coal mine. In Mexico, 15 young people are suing the government to demand clearer climate policies. More are likely on their way.
We can also expect the climate movement to have a bigger and more diverse supporter base. My data show climate change has become a mainstream issue for progressive activists and Democratic voters across the board, meaning a wider range of left-leaning people are willing to take up the cause. That’s a major shift from a decade ago, when climate was a less mainstream concern and mobilized a narrow range of activists. Broader support for climate action means we can expect more left-leaning candidates pushing strong climate messages and policies, driven by public pressure and savvy electoral campaigns.
I’ve studied the climate movement for more than twenty years — observing activists in the field at protests, conducting waves of interviews with leaders, and witnessing firsthand their commitment and energy. This movement is undergoing a major change that is likely to lead to social change because diverse coalitions of social movements are far more likely to succeed in achieving positive change. For the climate movement, there’s strength in numbers.
— Dana R. Fisher is a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland and a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Governance Program at the Brookings Institution. Her most recent book is American Resistance (Columbia University Press 2019).