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Are disruptive protests in danger of jeopardizing the climate movement?

Are disruptive protests in danger of jeopardizing the climate movement?

Scientist Rebellion protesters chain themselves together and are removed with bolt cutters by police on Glasgow's George V bridge, during Cop26.

Climate change activists are turning to civil disobedience more often to prove their point. In April, 1,000 scientists from 20 countries plan coordinated actions that include blocking roads, pickingeting infrastructure, spreading paint and pasting huge amounts of climate information. In the same month, Extinction Rebellion  a group government officials were recently considering designating an organized crime group  are planning to blockade oil facilities across the UK.

Although their tactics can bring significant benefits to their cause, such radical actions come with significant risks. Research shows that there are different levels of disruption depending on the person protesters are trying convince.

Eric Schuman, a researcher at the University of Groningen (Netherlands) who studies the psychology of collective action and protest, claims that peaceful protests and petitions complying with societal norms are more effective when attracting support from people who might be sympathetic.

He adds that if the goal of the protest is to change the policy support of people who might otherwise be ambivalent about the cause, then more disruptive demonstrations such as strikes and civil disobedience have been proven to be effective.

“[Opponents] aren’t necessarily going to ever be supportive or probably even like the protesters. Schuman stated that by causing disruption, you are basically putting pressure upon them to make changes or support change so that disruption will stop.”


Disruptive protests may lead to social and political pressure to compromise.

Policy-makers must have strong incentives to change the status of the status quo. Disruptive protests can help by reducing voter backlash and putting pressure on those in power.

Research shows that civil disobedience must have clear, positive, and constructive intentions to be effective. Otherwise, they risk being seen as rabble-rousers and nuisances to society. They must maintain a clear image and build enough pressure to get a response from policy-makers.

You have a wide range of actions available to them.

Occupying a space is at the bottom end of the scale, followed by strikes and boycotts. Blocking roads is a way to go, especially when protesters target major traffic arteries. Disrupting speakers at events is a way to go further. Hacking, throwing glitter bombs, or throwing glitter bombs are all ways to do this. Beyond this stage, protesters can take violent action like stealing property or attacking people.

At this stage, they risk triggering outrage from observers.

“Once something is perceived to have crossed some sort of moral line or boundary, this is when the disruption is much less likely to be effective, for a lot of reasons,” Schuman said. “People will have a strong motivation to condemn it and everything associated with it.”

If protesters do take a more disruptive path, they are less likely to cross that moral threshold if their actions are targeted and clearly goal-oriented, such as disrupting the infrastructure of climate-harming activities, as opposed to indiscriminate attacks.

Extinction Rebellion Scotland blockade the road and demonstrate outside the Ineos oil refinery at Grangemouth

It is less likely that disruptive protests that are clearly targeted will cause a backlash.

A broad movement

David S Meyer, professor of sociology and political science at the University of California, studies social movements and their relationship to institutional politics. He said effective protesting is made up of a broad spectrum of actions.

“When you look back at the most successful movements in history, you will see that there were many people doing many different things. A diversity of tactics can actually be a benefit because it gives authorities different people to negotiate with, make concessions, or make accommodations. It gives bystanders many things to hook into.”

He said that it is difficult to attribute the success or failure of an activist movement to a particular method of protest.

He said that Rosa Parks wouldn’t have sat down on that day if she hadn’t been organizing for the past dozen years. Martin Luther King organized the bus ban that lasted for one year. Other people filed a lawsuit along with her protest, which went to the Supreme Court.

Is violence the solution?

What about climate protesters that go against the morality of the law and resort to violence? This includes those calling for destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure. More research is needed, but there is some evidence that extreme acts of protest from a small radical flank can actually be beneficial to the cause.

“When violence occurs under the umbrella of a larger, non-violent movement it can sometimes have the effect that it causes disruption and pressure to act on the protests. Schuman said that there is a larger, nonviolent group that is seen as more moderate. “Maybe we can at least concede to some of their demands and concessions,” Schuman said.

Climate activists welcome all actions

Climate activists are open to a variety of tactics within their movement.

“The forms of action and protests within the climate movement are very diverse and wide-ranging  and that is a good thing. Jule Pehnte, an activist from Fridays for Future Germany, said that protests can range from peaceful blockades that disrupt climate-damaging infrastructure to large-scale protests that win a majority to petitions and large art actions. All protests reach different groups and complement each other.

She stated that climate change will have far more devastating effects than any protest movement, no matter how radical they might be.

“We continue to debate how radical the climate movement could become, but the main point is: How radical can the climate crisis become?” She asked.

“Instead of discussing protest forms, we should have an honest discussion about how we can reduce emissions quickly and socially and face the reality that the climate crisis is real.”

Climate fatalism is the worst strategy

The 2020 manifesto How to blow up a pipelineAndreas Malm (a Swedish lecturer who is also a climate activist) argues that climate activists should consider using violence to target the infrastructure and properties of climate-destroying activities, but not people.

He imagines a world without the required action to combat climate change, despite all the marches, strikes and petitions.

“Does one say we did everything we could and tried all the options but failed? Do we conclude that learning to die in a position propounded by others is the only way to get rid of it and slide down the side crater into three-, four, or eight degrees of heat? Or is there a different phase beyond peaceful protest?

Even he believes that any action that doesn’t accept fatalism is a difference.

“The most Gandhian climate activist and the most starry-eyed entrepreneur in renewable energy, the most compromise-prone parlamentararian, is infinitely superior to the white man from the North who claims, ‘We are doomed fall into peace.’ He writes that none of the positions on this side of climate denial are more despicable.”

Edited by Tamsin Walker

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