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Finding Middle Ground between Two Models of Climate Change Activism

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 80s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” These words set the grim tone of Paul Elrich’s infamous book The Population Bomb in the 1970s, which sent many panicking about their “impending” doom. Yet, almost 50 years after the book was published and at double the population, his prediction that population growth would seal humanity’s fate has yet to come true. Although Elrich wrongly predicted the “battle” to be over in his prediction, the battle is far from over to conquer another great challenge threatening humanity: climate change.

While many groups claim this battle as theirs, I’d like to focus on the very different strategies of two. While one, Extinction Rebellion (XR), takes to the streets with the goal of getting arrested for practicing civil disobedience publicly, the other, Fridays For Future (FFF), takes to the schools, practicing civil disobedience in the form of school strikes with hope of driving change from the youth up. Both groups clearly have combating climate change in their sights, but their methods of civil disobedience differ, which affects the effectiveness of their organizations. While XR may be loud and attention-grabbing, the extremity of their actions can reflect negatively on the climate movement as a whole. Conversely, FFF can draw immense numbers of youth organized in protest but can come short when it comes to consistent protest, which weakens its voice.

Although XR’s decisive actions may draw attention, it isn’t always positive attention, causing the movement to stall in terms of support. XR affirms that we are “in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction (The Anthropocene Extinction),” primarily due to “biodiversity loss and climate change.” With their negative framing, they have three main demands:

  1. “Tell the truth” in the form of the government declaring climate change as a national emergency;

  2. “Act now” by reducing emissions to net zero by 2025; and

  3. “Go beyond politics” by implementing a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice.

While a climate emergency and a citizens’ counsel are good suggestions to combat climate change, XR’s goal of net zero by 2025 is far from feasible. Most nations have goals of 2050 for net zero at least, which would still require substantial changes to lifestyles. Because of this, Thinktank Onwards calls XR’s goal “practically impossible” for at least the UK (where XR’s primary support is) since its costs would be 9% of all the UK’s GDP in a short period. Moreover, this estimate was made in 2019, giving 6 years to reach net zero; we are now halfway through 2023, giving one and a half years to reach net zero.

In addition to their overambitious goals, XR’s actions are also disruptive. Like most peaceful civil disobedience campaigns, XR’s work for some involves intentionally getting arrested. Take XR’s latest protest in NYC, where protesters camped outside major banks. While many were just demonstrating, a few decided to paint the glass windows of many banks in red paint, criticizing their funding of oil-based products. XR proceeded to post the pictures of these few on Instagram. While these posts were clearly to grab attention, which they are effective at doing, they are also wrongly characterizing the rest of the climate movement as condoning these more extreme actions. Their extremism compared to most is reflected in XR’s support in the UK since 2020, which has stayed constant at around 16%. While they do have some support, this data shows that XR has a problem with gaining new supporters, which is a significant challenge to achieving their goals. Public support is the difference needed to get lawmakers to pass climate legislation.

This isn’t to say that XR isn’t at all effective. In fact, XR was successfully able to push lawmakers to declare a climate emergency just one day after meeting with them in the UK. In addition, a net zero by 2050 goal was passed just a few weeks later, with XR playing a role in the policy change.

Conversely, FFF’s large-scale actions draw attention and mobilize many, but have a lack of consistency that makes it harder for them to put pressure on lawmakers. The group first gained prominence because of the Swedish teen Greta Thunberg and her protests outside the Swedish Parliament. Since then, the movement has gone national, and then international, with yearly protests. The pinnacle of these, the 2019 Climate March, was the most participated climate protest in history, with an estimated six million people participating in 179 nations. Conversely, XR only has an estimated 250,000 participants in 75 nations. Beyond these large-scale protests, FFF focuses on youth-based school strikes that are sometimes organized with schools. Consequently, FFF is composed mostly of younger demographics compared to XR, which has a larger diversity in the age of its members.

In addition to the demographic differences, FFF’s actions, other than the 2019 March, don’t have a consistent group of members or participants showing up. While XR features a consistent calendar of events coming up, various articles, and social media posts almost daily featured on their website, FFF’s calendar has not been updated since 2021, showcases no media, and displays a post from April 2022 as their latest one. The only constant for FFF has been Greta Thunberg, whose stature has even had a scientific phenomenon named after her. The “Greta” effect describes youth’s greater likelihood to participate in activism because of their familiarity with Thunberg. On top of this, Thunberg has been featured as Time Person of the Year, making her a global political figure. Despite Thunberg’s popularity, FFF has come short in most of their goals for policy. FFF primarily pushes to hold warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius but some groups also advocate for a net zero goal in 2035. However, none of these goals have had much traction, which has frustrated Thunberg after countless youth climate summits, describing the summits as politicians inviting “cherry picked young people [..] to pretend they are listening to us.”

Overall, both groups do give their all to help combat climate change, but they have different ways of going about it. Their converse methods may bring benefits like FFF’s larger numbers and XR’s media attention, but they also have their faults in FFF’s lack of consistency and XR’s low public opinion. While many may have opinions about which is more effective, in the end they are both less effective than they could be. To truly maximize action, finding a middle ground between these groups is best. Each disadvantage on one side is matched by an advantage on the other. By combining their methods into a large, consistent, diverse, and loud (yet respectful) group, the public opinion and pressure will be enough to make change and turn this climate battle into a victory.


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