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“The eyes of all future generations are upon you” — how to galvanise climate action

The Climate Change Committee (2020) estimated that at least 59% of the measures to meet UK’s Net Zero goal require behavioural and societal change. Dr Viktoria Spaiser looks at the Friday for Futures movement and discusses how these youth climate activists have triggered a change in norms that holds the potential to galvanise wider climate action.

Fridays for Future climate protest image overlaid with text saying Leeds at COP26

Climate change mitigation efforts usually focus on identifying the least costly pathways and technological innovation that ask as little as possible from people and businesses. But let’s be honest, this approach has not got us very far, exactly because the difficult question of social change is avoided. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that rapid social change is possible. But how can we make rapid and lasting social change happen in response to the climate crisis?

Multiple interlinked social systems need to undergo a rapid transition if we are to overcome the business-as-usual state we are still in and reach the decarbonised state (Otto et al. 2020). One of the key social systems is the norms and values systems that determines what is rewarded and desired in a society. Social movements have often played a crucial role in changing the norms and values systems of societies, think of the abolitionist movement or the suffragettes. And today it is the transnational climate protest movement who are leading the way.

Fridays for Future brings home the moral urgency

Particularly interesting is the Fridays for Future movement and not only because it is a truly global movement that speaks in one voice exposing the moral failure ingrained in the climate delay discourses (Lamb et al. 2020) we find ourselves entangled in. It is the intergenerational justice frame of Fridays for Future which makes the movement so successful, as it positions the present-day young generation as victim. This has reduced the psychological distance to the climate crisis (Maiella et al. 2020) for many people in the North. The victims are here, now and in close proximity, they are our children and grandchildren.

In our preliminary analysis (Spaiser & Nisbett 2021) of the normative discourse of the Fridays for Future movement we found that the movement was able to expose the moral implications of what is otherwise considered “normal”, putting inadequate climate change policies and business practices alongside crimes such as genocide. In an exemplary tweet, a Fridays for Future activists states: “The leaders of the world who deny and fail to heed the obvious signs and warnings of climate change are committing the equivalent of genocide on future generations. They must be called out, voted out and held accountable”.

More specifically, the movement identifies inadequate climate change policies as the cause for the climate crisis and hence as an act of (human rights) violation. Fridays for Future clearly establishes the “we”, victims of climate injustice, which includes beside the present-day children and youth, future generations and the people in the Global South and the “they”, those responsible for the crisis, governments, and fossil fuel companies. The movement also establishes a prescriptive norm, a moral responsibility for climate action.

Within the movement this translates into the prescription to fight for change. Outside the movement it appeals to the duty of care notion. This powerful normative discourse has the potential to affect rapid change within the norms and values system of societies, which then can translate further into, for instance, legislative change. And we can indeed see the first signs of this process. For instance, in April 2021 the German Constitutional Court ruled in a historic decision that Germany’s climate change laws violate fundamental rights of younger generations and hence need to be revised. Similarly, the Australian Federal Court ruled in May 2021 that the federal government has a duty of care to protect future generations from climate harm.

Champions help spread new norms and lead to change

But how exactly can the change in the norms and values system affect wider social change? To start with norms can become legal norms, codifying norms within international and national laws. Human rights are a clear example. But norms have also a strong but underestimated effect on people’s behaviours (see for instance the recent meta-study by Grilli and Curtis 2021).

Norms are shared expectations, they specify what is deemed acceptable within a social context (social group, nation, international community) and they require some form of sanctioning (e.g. ostracizing). Specifically, norm violations provoke contempt or indignation in observers who then react with sanctions. Norm violators on the other hand feel shame or guilt and respond by trying to undo the harm, or hide etc. (Elster 2011). However, these mechanisms only work once a norm is established as norm violators need to face contempt or indignation from the majority or at least from a socially relevant group.

Norm entrepreneurs such as Fridays for Future can trigger normative change but this change needs then to diffuse through ripple effects on social networks (Christakis and Fowler 2009). This requires norm champions or early adopters of the new norms (e.g. anti-fossil-fuel norm) who are centrally positioned within social networks. The process needs moreover reinforcement through multiple sources, i.e. it’s not enough if the norm champions are all coming from the same social cluster (Christakis and Fowler 2009). Often a new norm starts as a moral norm that motivates change in early adopters on a moral basis (Howell 2013). As the new norm spreads in form of social signals it then becomes a social norm that large sections of the population (or states) uphold and/or a legal norm that is enforced by law (e.g. ecocide law or fossil fuel non-proliferation).

What can we do to accelerate change?

Youth climate activists cannot drive rapid normative and social change on their own even though their continued persistent actions are absolutely vital. Their message and actions need to be amplified by social innovators who can be role models and by opinion leaders who are framing the debate. Political representatives, community leaders, faith leaders, journalists, people in the culture industry, educators, entrepreneurs, can all be norm champions by adopting the normative frame developed by Fridays for Future (and other climate justice activists) in their communication and publicly act accordingly.

Policy makers in particular can set the course for social change (Nyborg et al. 2016) by:

  1. endorsing and communicating new moral norms (duty of care to protect future generations from climate harm)
  2. implementing policies that shift expectations (remember, norms are shared expectations) e.g. ending all subsidies for fossil fuels
  3. implementing policies that make norm violations more visible e.g. requiring all (new) policies and planning to undergo a climate change impact assessment

What is important is consistency in communication and action, the signal needs to be clear, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, time is up for fossil fuels!

But ultimately, we are all embedded in social networks, we all have some influence, we all can contribute to the diffusion by repeatedly talking to family and friends about moral implications of delaying effective climate action (e.g. what it could mean for our children and grandchildren), by repeatedly getting in touch with our councillors and MPs, by joining local groups that fight climate change, by voting according to our duty of care, by investing our money in a liveable future.

Further information

Viktoria Spaiser and her team will be researching how the required social change for climate action can be driven forward as part of a recently awarded UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship. Please get in touch if you are interested to learn more or to collaborate: v.spaiser@leeds.ac.uk

Photo credit: Photo of climate protest by Callum Shaw on Unsplash



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