Where Activism Fails

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

This weekend, 10 000 young people converged in Washington, D.C. and protested the American government’s inaction on climate change. Students stood in front of government buildings wearing green hard hats, holding signs saying “Make Polluters Pay, Not the EPA”. Students stormed the House of Representatives and sang a song about climate change, to the tune of the American national anthem. Fifteen minutes with President Obama, who agreed with their concerns but said “I can’t do this alone”, was PowerShift 2011’s biggest accomplishment.

This isn’t working.

The climate change mitigation lobby is currently a fringe group, at least in North America. It’s mostly made up of university students who mimic the campus protests of the 1960s, creating images that scream “socialism” to baby boomers who witnessed the original events. Governments, which are mostly made up of said baby boomers, largely ignore such fringe groups. Elected officials say what they think people want to hear, and most people don’t seem to care about climate change.

So what should we do instead? We don’t have a lot of money or connections to wealthy businesses. Youth don’t even vote in large enough numbers for governments to care what they want. What we do have, however, are facts on our side. We have the weight of the entire scientific community, agreeing that humans are causing a potentially catastrophic climate change which will only be stopped by major international action.

Instead of attempting to communicate with elected officials by marching around in front of their offices with our faces painted, I think we should focus our efforts on the public. If governments think people don’t care about climate change, we have to reverse that trend.

I believe that anyone who truly understands this issue will care about it and want to fix it. Who could honestly examine the overwhelming evidence for anthropogenic climate change and still have reasonable doubts about its existence? Who wouldn’t want to prevent future wars, famines, extinctions, and waves of environmental refugees? Of course, there are the crazies who will scream about “climate scientists in Al Gore’s pocket” and “the world needs more CO2” no matter what we tell them, but we shouldn’t bother engaging with these people. Instead, we should engage with those who are constantly exposed to the crazies, and who are at risk of dismissing climate change because they think people are still debating its existence.

We need public education to create a social movement, but not like the “Green Movement” in 2007 when magazines everywhere advertised “10 easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint”. We need people to understand the severity of climate change, and to see that planting a tree and buying organic lettuce will not solve the problem. We need people to understand that meaningful action, such as putting a price on carbon, is necessary to solve the problem.

Climate change education will spread most easily through the media, whether it is mass media or new media. People need to be aware of the level of scientific support surrounding this issue, and the reality that climate scientists are not ignorant or fraudulent. Researchers know that correlation does not equal causation, and they know that the climate has changed in the past. Many people still take these arguments seriously, though, because they are thrown around and not challenged. We need to challenge the media outlets that have spread dangerous, libelous misinformation regarding climate change for years. We need to challenge them on the level of lawsuits, not on the level of writing letters to the editor.

It is vital to engage with the apathetic and show them why they should care. Apathetic youth are particularly problematic. Why should the government care about the needs of the next generation when most of its members don’t even vote? We have to make the youth vote strong enough that political parties will compete for its support, just like they do with the ethnic vote and the women’s vote. As Canadian comedian and political analyst Rick Mercer said, “If you are between the ages of 18 and 25, and want to scare the hell out of the people who run this country – this time around, do the unexpected: vote.”

When faced with a depressing reality, many will turn away and ignore the problem. However, the only way to prevent the scary stuff from happening is to suck it up and face it. Just because we wasted 20 years of potential action and got ourselves into a bad situation doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and give up. It’s never too late to act, because this bad situation can always get worse if we let it.


8 thoughts on “Where Activism Fails

  1. Thanks for this preface to action.

    We are in a political/economic squabble with each other, when out challenge is how to meet the science of climate change.

    No matter what we do, climate will unfold according to rigid rules that ignore politics.

    The very least we can do is demand attention to the truth. It is shameful that all big business refuses to face the reality ahead. The dollar bill is just as powerful as the ballot. Every single business transaction should be respectful of our future. Instead we pour dollars into support of carbon capitalism. What a pity – from computers, to cars, to sodas – until all the big companies get behind change – nothing will happen.

    Nothing will change unless there is money to be made or if money can be lost. By denying and preventing change, business assures the eventual changes will be even more tumultuous and disruptive. Because instead of change based on aspiration – it will be based on survival.

    We have not even begun to see the change. Governments have failed to regulate business, and business has completely plundered their market – but the biggest failure is in ourselves, that we allowed it to happen.

    Minimal task now is to not permit denial of the danger ahead. Deliberate ignorance is criminal. It is sabotage of or our future.

  2. For grass-roots protest methods, Nicholas Kristof wrote a really fine article on “The Power of Mockery” for causing social change. It highlights one of the most effective ways for grass-roots movements to speak truth to power. He also features Tina Rosenberg’s new book Join the Club: “How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World”.

    Kristoff offers examples of the techniques in action, including how kids took on Big Tobacco and reduced teen smoking in Florida, the Egyptian revolution, Serbia, etc.

    See the links to the article and book, just below the picture of protesters in Albany, NY, at:


  3. [citations needed – lots of scientists disagree about what causes climate change; the error in climate measurements is greater than the observed trend]

  4. I was going to post Rick Mercer’s rant but I see it made its way in near the end. I have to admit I’m not a big voter myself (half a dozen of one, six of the other), but this time round I’m voting. I’ve been contacting my MP, going to debates, grilling representatives.

    Winnipegman–go to skepticalscience.com, and do some searches before you post something. That way, you won’t waste time posting something long debunked, not true, and based on some obvious lie or misinterpretation or selective cherry-pick.

  5. We need to challenge the media outlets that have spread dangerous, libelous misinformation regarding climate change for years. We need to challenge them on the level of lawsuits, not on the level of writing letters to the editor.


    To me the most promising development to date is that Climate Progress will reportedly soon be doing some investigative journalism of its own. About time…


  6. I agree–the government is lax on this issue because there’s insufficient political will to act meaningfully, and the reason for that is public indifference.

    Part of the problem is the fact that we have trouble conceptualizing global problems. Studies in behavioural psychology suggest that we’re much more likely to be moved by the plight of an individual than that of thousands, millions or even billions. As well, people find results attractive, and when one makes a change to become more sustainable, there is no tangible result–no positive reinforcement to continue.

    You’re right, we do have the majority of climate scientists on our side, and we need to convey that daunting reality to as many as possible. Truly, the enormity of our overlapping crises should inspire fearful paralysis, not the general apathy that it does. Perhaps this is partly blessing.

    The world desperately needs sweeping policy change, and for that the public must be roused, much like the Canadian public recently was by big telecom price gouging. Perhaps our strategy should involve spreading the stories of individuals currently being affected by climate change. The closer to home, the better (consider the wildfires currently raging throughout Texas). And perhaps we should work harder to highlight the financial incentives for going green–personally, and societally.

    Sorry this took ages to appear – it was caught in spam. -Kate

  7. Kate:

    If you will excuse me, for I am of that booming generation and I will talk about action as of yore.

    “So what should we do instead?”

    “We don’t have a lot of money or connections to wealthy businesses.”

    That should not be a problem, if you have enthusiasm, energy and time to spare.

    “Youth don’t even vote in large enough numbers for governments to care what they want.”

    Consider whether your natural community is so small or so youthful, or just silent and inactive.

    “What we do have, however, are facts on our side.”

    Sadly, in a straight fight facts are not as maneuverable as lies.

    “We have the weight of the entire scientific community, agreeing that humans are causing a potentially catastrophic climate change which will only be stopped by major international action.”

    Here I do think you have a problem. You are addressing the distant enemy, the one you cannot reach.

    Climate Internationism has failed. Act closer to home. Your home, your college, your university, your town. Act on those who agree but don’t act.

    Do you have the backing of your own science faculty? Would they support campus initiatives in mitigation even if that causes some inconvenience?

    Consider your enemy to be the apathy of precisely those who do believe. Speak to those who can change not to those that can’t.

    Have Fun!


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