The past couple of years will be forever remembered as a period when our impact on the planet entered public consciousness on a large scale. Seen as an artefact of the 1960s, with the release of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, through the establishment of some key environmental policies, and the release of the earth rise photo from the Apollo 8 space missions, environmentalism has always had some standing in philosophical, religious, and political arenas. However, the public outcry for more effective and firmer political action has never been stronger.
Since the release of veteran naturalist David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II in 2017, there has been a steady momentum building toward reducing humankind’s impact on the planet. One episode of Blue Planet outlined the amount of plastics in our ocean and, in stark detail, the impact it’s having on our ocean ecology. From this stemmed greater concern of microplastics. Strong public outcry was felt shortly after broadcast, leading to the British government to consider banning single-use plastics, with similar commitments from other governments and large corporations.
In late August 2018, during a period of unabating heat and dry weather in Europe, Swedish school student Greta Thunberg protested Sweden’s inaction toward the Paris Agreement by not attending school until the general election in September. She protested outside the parliament in Stockholm every day with the now infamous ‘Skolstrejk för Klimatet’ placard, and every Friday thereafter until Sweden develops more ambitious strategies to combat climate change. This movement was quickly adopted by other school students overseas, with in excess of 20,000 students having held rallies across 270 cities by December of that year. That figure has now grown to 1.4 million across 2,233 cities, with student groups galvanizing to form larger protests.
Coinciding with these protests, others formed under the banner of ‘Extinction Rebellion’, a group formed in October 2018 in the UK promoting wider governmental and system change to create a fairer global society. The group initially started in the UK, but sub-groups have since been established in Australia, the United States, and India, amongst others.
On April 15th, Extinction Rebellion began a protest to raise awareness of climate change, blocking main routes in and out of London at Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge and Parliament Square, and camps established at key protest areas. Thousands of people joined the protests, with extra police officers being drafted in from across the country to control the masses. Police intervention saw nearly 1,000 being arrested over a week long period, before a pause in protests was announced on April 21st.
Protests are ultimately a form of political expression caused by a perceived injustice, distrust in a ruling class, an expectation to affect change, or a heightened emotional response. Opinions on protest and protesters is always split between those who are sympathetic to the protestors’ cause, and those whose daily lives are disrupted. Public opinion data is, unsurprisingly, seldom collected, and the rationale of the protest greatly influences how they are perceived. Studies do show, however, that peaceful protests are viewed more favorably than those that are violent in nature. Furthermore, protest action can be attributed wider policy changes.
The long-running French protest movement, les gilets jaunes, has seen a steady decline in public support. In November 2018, protestors initially sought to challenge high living costs, rising fuel costs and tax reforms, but has led to wider demands for government reform. As violence and disruption escalated across France, public support for the protests dropped from 66% to 45%.
Response from the British government to the Extinction Rebellion protests and the climate action strikes has been modest. Greta Thunberg met with politicians on April 23rd to discuss the UK’s response to climate change, though the Prime Minister, Theresa May, was noticeable by her absence. The government reiterated its commitment to decarbonizing the economy, and Parliament declared a climate emergency on May 1st. Prior to this, several councils declared a climate emergency within their own jurisdiction. Whilst there is no single definition of what a climate emergency is, and what it entails for local and national governance, it does place the issue of climate change at the forefront of local councils. Many climate emergency enactors have pledged to create a zero-carbon area many years in advance of national guidelines.
The United Kingdom benefits from having climate change mitigation enshrined in its law, with the Climate Change Act coming into force in 2008, outlining a framework for the UK to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050. This was the first long-term framework to be implemented by any country to mitigate climate change. Scandinavian countries Iceland and Norway are able to utilize their topography and geology for the majority of their energy needs, with Iceland benefitting from geothermal energy, and Norway from significant hydroelectric infrastructure. Mexico and Argentina are also taking advantage of their abundant natural resources by investing heavily in solar energy, whilst Brazil hopes to capitalize on hydroelectric power. Renewable energy is one of myriad ways in which sovereign states can transition to low-carbon economies. Consideration also needs to be given to making agriculture, transportation, manufacturing and waste disposal, amongst others, more efficient.
Environmental protection has long been a consideration of governments and organizations, though it is only in recent years that it has entered the mainstream public domain, thanks to improved scientific dissemination and greater coverage in the media. 2018 and 2019 has seen significant public participation in protests, with people wanting their governments to do more to reduce the anthropogenic impact on the planet. So far, national government response has been slow; a large part of protest success is dependent on its rationale and its behavior. Local government decision-making has been more responsive, but effective climate change policies require all levels of government to participate.