By strategically using both radical forms of civil disobedience and more mainstream public actions, such as lobbying and state-sanctioned demonstrations, activists can grab the public’s attention while making less aggressive tactics seem much more acceptable.
I study the role of disruptive politics and social movements in global climate policy and have chronicled the ebb, flow and dynamism of climate activism over time. With today’s political institutions largely focused on short-term desires over long-term planetary health, and global climate negotiations moving far too slowly to meet the challenge, climate activists have been reconsidering their tactics – and radically rethinking how to make their activism most effective.
In meetings with global activists in recent weeks, my colleagues and I have noticed a shifting emphasis to local climate battles – in the streets, political arenas and courtrooms. The lines between reformists and radicals, and between global and grassroots mobilizers, are blurring, and a new sense of strategic engagement is taking root.
When global institutions fail the public
Activist groups have long relied on a strategy known as the boomerang effect – using international networks and global institutions such as the United Nations’ climate talks to influence national governments’ policy choices.
In response to the weakness of global climate negotiations and failing climate policy, my colleagues and I are seeing signs of activists turning more to their local roots. Notably, we are seeing a ramp-up in sophisticated legal battles over climate change.
Over 2,000 new climate change cases have been filed in the past five years. Most seek to compel governments and corporations to reduce their emissions or keep fossil fuels in the ground, and the majority are in the United States. Over half of the cases decided between June 2022 and May 2023 had a favorable outcome for the climate, though most still face appeals.
In 2023, a judge in Montana recognized the state’s constitutional duty to protect residents from climate change. In another case, a court in The Netherlands in 2021 set a precedent by ordering the oil company Shell to reduce its emissions by 45% by 2030 in official compliance with the international Paris climate agreement.
How radical spectacles create space for progress
When radical activism takes place at the same time as formal institutional challenges, studies show the combination can help increase support for more moderate activism.
Politicians under pressure from climate protesters are shifting course in the U.S. as well. President Joe Biden made climate change a focus of his first campaign, but activists aren’t getting anywhere close to everything they want and have made Biden a recent target of climate protests and even hecklers.
While it is hard to get into the mind of judges and juries, research shows that in cases such as workers’ and women’s rights struggles, radical and anti-government protests can have an impact on them. While court decisions rarely produce radical societal change, they are frequently followed by legislative changes that meet more moderate demands.
The real aim
Criticism of extreme activism often misses a crucial point: The public’s reaction isn’t necessarily the activists’ end goal. Often, their ultimate aim is to influence government and business decision-makers. And while decision-makers are rarely, if ever, going to attribute their actions to activist pressure, the passing of the climate-focused Inflation Reduction Act in a gridlocked U.S. Congress in 2022 and declarations of a climate emergency across the globe suggest climate activists’ concerns are getting through.
When looking at climate activism, pundits should be cautioned in their criticism of what they see as a “disjointed movement.” The perceived madness is indeed method.
USC graduate student Abhay Manchala contributed to this article.
Shannon Gibson is affiliated with the Gibson Climate Justice Lab and Global Justice Ecology Project.