April 13, 2024

Who are today’s climate activists? Dispelling 3 big myths for Earth Month

As Earth Month 2024 begins, climate activists around the world are planning rallies and other events in the coming weeks to draw attention to the growing threats posed by climate change.

Many of these demonstrations will focus on what humanity can do to stop fueling harm. But as activists amplify scientists’ dire findings, we’ll likely see fossil fuel advocates attacking them on social media and on TV.

It’s easy to get caught up in the myths about climate activism, especially in today’s polarized political environment. So let’s explore the truth about three of the big myths being told about climate activism and the climate movement today.

Myth 1: Climate activists are just young people

The media tends to focus most of its attention on young people in the climate movement, including those inspired by Greta Thunberg’s school climate strikes, International Fridays for Future or the Sunrise Movement, which focuses on climate action. from the USA.

However, a substantial proportion of the climate movement active today is made up of older adults, including those called “climate grandmas” and the “rocking chair rebellion.”

Just as young people have outspoken climate leaders, many of these older activists were inspired to get involved by longtime activists like Jane Fonda and Bill McKibben and the group McKibben started specifically to mobilize older Americans: ThirdAct. As my research found, these more mature activists began working in the civil rights and anti-war movements, alongside earlier waves of the environmental movement.

Actress and longtime activist Jane Fonda speaks at a December 2022 climate rally in Washington, D.C.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Over the past 25 years, I have researched countless waves of activists who have participated in demonstrations and protests to understand who they are and what motivates them to participate in activism. My new book, “Saving Ourselves: From Climate Shocks to Climate Action,” brings these findings together to understand how the climate movement has evolved alongside the climate crisis.

When I interviewed participants in the March to End Fossil Fuels, which drew 75,000 people in New York City in September 2023, a quarter of the crowd was 53 or older. At a much smaller rally that targeted the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in April 2023, I found that the average age of activists was 52, and a quarter of them were 69 or older.

Myth 2: Climate activists mostly do things like throwing soup and disrupting events

While activists involved in civil disobedience, such as throwing soup at famous paintings or disrupting sporting events, receive most of the media attention, the climate movement includes a broad spectrum of activists concerned about the environment, using a wide range of tactics.

Activists are actively working to elect climate-conscious candidates, pressure companies to reduce their emissions, encourage schools and municipalities to transition to electric buses, and make frontline communities more resilient to climate shocks, among many other efforts to slow climate change.

A man at an outdoor stall at what appears to be a farmers market talks to a woman.
Many climate activists are involved in education, such as the Green Living Festival in Novato, California, held in 2019, and in outreach efforts, such as collecting signatures for ballot measures and lobbying government officials.
Fabrice Flori via Flickr, CC BY-SA

Many activists are involved with established organizations such as 350.org, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Citizens Climate Lobby. Their numbers – EDF alone has 3 million supporters – and financial strength can give them a powerful voice.

Others participate in less formal groups that make up the radical flank, such as Extinction Rebellion and Climate Defiance. While these factions of the movement don’t necessarily agree on the path to social change, they share the same mission: ending the climate crisis.

Myth 3: Confrontational climate activism doesn’t work

In recent months, protesters have thrown soup at the Mona Lisa, thrown pink powder at the U.S. Constitution and disrupted a Broadway show, among other events. These confrontational actions are not generally popular, but neither were the radical tactics of previous social movements.

In 1961, 61% of the US population disapproved of the Freedom Riders, who traveled on interstate buses to the South to challenge segregation. And 57% thought that protests at lunch counters and other places where black Americans were refused service harmed the Civil Rights Movement. In retrospect, the investigation has shown how essential these efforts were to the success of the Civil Rights Movement.

Nonviolent civil disobedience in the climate movement also plays an important role in keeping climate change in the media and in people’s minds.

While the radical flank of the climate movement is not particularly popular among the general public, there is no evidence that it is alienating other activists from the movement. In fact, there is reason to believe that confrontational acts can help mobilize supporters to support more moderate climate movement efforts.

When I asked participants in the 2023 March to End Fossil Fuels whether they supported climate groups that practice nonviolent civil disobedience, none of those interviewed reported disapproval of these groups and their actions.

Climate protesters explain why they threw soup at a Van Gogh painting. Washington Post.

The impact of these activists’ efforts goes far beyond media coverage. For example, when President Joe Biden announced his decision to suspend approvals for liquefied natural gas exports in January 2024, he mentioned climate activists: “We will heed the calls of young people and frontline communities who are use their voices to demand action from those with the power to act.”

Myths about climate change are often spread to try to slow down efforts to address climate change and are often funded by fossil fuel interests.

But that doesn’t stop climate activists, who, like the rest of the world, are experiencing climate change and feel a responsibility to speak out.

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