Radical actions across the climate movement are gaining popularity. From Just Stop Oil in the U.K. to Save Old Growth in Canada to Letzte Generation in Germany, there is a wave of activists employing increasingly disruptive tactics to demand climate action. These tactics include throwing soup at a Van Gogh painting, going on a hunger strike and blocking motorways during rush hour.
Why are people resorting to these tactics? The common view among activists is that conventional methods have failed to bring about any meaningful change on climate issues. Report after report outlines how we’re on track to overshoot globally agreed targets of 1.5 degrees Celsius, and will quite likely go above 2.5 C. This means catastrophic consequences for millions of people around the world, like we’re already seeing with floods in Pakistan or extreme heatwaves in India. Given how bad things could get for those in the Global South — with the least resources available for adaptation — it’s not surprising that activists are turning to increasingly more radical approaches in an attempt to save lives.
Despite the noble goals, the public doesn’t tend to like these protests. Activists often hear the words “I support your cause, but not how you’re going about this.” That is quite understandable — most people don’t enjoy having their lives disrupted. However, even with a high level of public disapproval, activists are convinced that these radical tactics are necessary and effective.
To understand why they think this, we’ll have to look at some previous cases of successful social change, as well as some relevant academic evidence.
First, we need to understand the theory of change being employed by radical activists. Is it that they’re trying to raise awareness about an issue, inspire people to join the movement, influence public opinion, build support for policies or something else altogether? In short, I think it’s a mix of all of the above. However, there is one thing that activists usually don’t care about — how much people like the protests or the protesters themselves.
Why don’t activists care about being liked? Well, because it doesn’t seem to affect whether or not people support your cause. Social Change Lab, the non-profit research organization I run, commissioned some public opinion polling for Just Stop Oil’s disruptive campaign in April 2022. We found that over 60 percent of the U.K. public heard of the campaign, and support for Just Stop Oil as an organization fell across our three surveys, leading to only 18.1 percent of respondents saying they supported the Just Stop Oil protests. Despite this, we found no reduction in support for climate policies backed by Just Stop Oil, or any reduction in the belief that climate change is a global emergency.
This makes sense — would disliking a group of climate protesters really lead you to support climate policies less? Probably not, as that would be quite the self-defeating move, given climate change is likely to affect all of us in some way.
Other experiments have also shown that there seems to be no obvious “backfire” effect, whereby support for climate policies decreases as a result of radical nonviolent protest. This might be different for tactics that verge on violence, where the loss of public support has been found more often. Putting violence aside, there seems to be little evidence that suggests radical nonviolent tactics could actually have negative consequences for the overall movement.
Instead of measuring things that don’t really matter for movement success, such as whether the public agrees with a particular protest or tactic, we can examine more important variables, such as support for certain policies and willingness to engage in the wider movement. I explore more pressing negative consequences at the end of this article, but first, it might be helpful to examine the potential benefits associated with more radical tactics:
1. More attention for your issue
This one seems obvious, but it’s worth repeating. Radical tactics, which by definition are actions that are somewhat abnormal, receive much more attention than moderate actions. Small protests with a few placards and people shouting are commonplace, but how often do you see two people climb a 450-foot-tall bridge mast to block a key oil route? The latter is far more newsworthy. It’s not often that climate protests go viral internationally, but throwing soup at a Van Gogh painting did, garnering almost 50 million views on Twitter alone. Even if most media articles focus on your tactic (e.g. soup throwing), and not your issue (climate change), attention on climate issues is likely much higher than it would have been with a traditional protest. If you believe in the attention theory of change, coined by cognitive psychology professor Colin Davis, increased attention to an issue can lead to higher public support.
Increased attention has other positive impacts as well, such as agenda-seeding. Omar Wasow, a political science professor, finds that nonviolent activism during the 1960-1972 civil rights movement positively influenced public opinion, media coverage and congressional discussion of civil rights. Wasow’s analysis shows that civil rights protests led to a sharp rise in the percentage of the U.S. public who thought that civil rights was an important problem, as well as media headlines that refer to civil rights.
Another research paper goes even further, finding a direct causal link between protest size and legislation, when looking at 20 years of protest and legislation in Belgium, across 25 different issues. In brief, the authors show that large protests can increase the likelihood of legislation being passed, and protest frequency had a causal impact on government decisions (e.g. policy).
That’s not to say that any attention is necessarily good attention. Extinction Rebellion U.K. once disrupted a train station in a primarily working-class area at rush hour, with some ugly videos of activists getting dragged off trains and lashing out at the public. This was likely bad for their goals, and maybe even the U.K. climate movement overall, by painting climate activists as privileged middle-class folk (even though this is not necessarily true).
2. Increased support for moderate groups
Another more subtle way that radical tactics can support the goals of an overall movement is by a mechanism called the radical flank effect. This refers to when radical tactics, such as those employed by Just Stop Oil or Last Generation, can increase support for the moderate factions of the climate movement, such as Friends of the Earth or 350.org. The mechanism for this is fairly intuitive: When the public is exposed to a group that seems particularly extreme, supporting more moderate groups seems quite reasonable in comparison.
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This theory is fairly well demonstrated in history. Herbert Haines, the sociology professor who coined the term radical flank effect, found this demonstrated in the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s. In a study of donations towards the seven major civil rights organizations from 1952-1970, he finds during the peak of civil rights radical action in the early 1960s (e.g. the Freedom Rides in 1961) financial support for the civil rights movement increased almost five to seven times their initial size — mostly from elite white groups. Not only that, but he finds that as a proportion of total movement funds, the moderate groups, such as the NAACP, received more of these new donations than the radical groups, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He argues that this evidence partially contradicts suggestions of a “white backlash” where the civil rights movement lost support from white people due to Black militancy. There have been similar arguments made for the radical actions of the suffragettes, creating support for the suffragists (a more moderate faction of the women’s right to vote movement).
Recent experimental research also backs up the radical flank effect theory. Brent Simpson, professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina, conducted a study which found that radical tactics employed by those in the environmental and animal rights movement can increase support for more moderate factions. However, these findings have so far only been found for nonviolent radical flanks, rather than violent radical flanks. Unlike nonviolent radical flanks, there is some evidence that violent radical flanks, which cause harm to humans and not just property, can damage support for an issue.
3. Positively influencing public attitudes
Extinction Rebellion is often used as the poster child for disruptive climate action, getting famous worldwide for blocking Central London for 10 days in a row (including with the use of a pink boat). Independent YouGov polling found that the percentage of people who thought the environment was the most important issue facing the U.K. went up dramatically in this two-week period of disruption, from roughly 18-28 percent. Separate polling by Dr. Ben Kenward, a lecturer in psychology at Oxford Brookes University, found very similar results.
4. Greater willingness to take part in certain forms of activism
Our April 2022 survey for Just Stop Oil, which found no negative effects on support for climate policies or climate change as an issue, also found some promising results. We saw a small increase of 1.7 percentage points in the number of people saying they were willing to take various forms of climate action, which corresponded with an increase of 2.3 million people in the U.K. Specifically, people said they were more likely to talk to friends and family about climate change, lobby their local elected officials and attend a legal climate protest.
However, there is still a lot we don’t know. This is an extremely nascent area of research, and many questions remain unanswered for now. One such question is the negative consequences that radical actions could have, such as increased government repression, both on individuals and the wider movement.
For impacts on a wider movement, we can look at how disruptive protests by Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain led to a new policing bill in the U.K. that cracks down on protest, with higher potential punishments for nonviolent protesters. Similar anti-protest legislation also passed due to the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty campaign against an animal testing lab in the U.K. in the early 2000s. When thinking about individuals, we see that participation in the 2011 protests in Egypt led to the prolonged imprisonment of Egyptian democracy activist Alla Abdel Fattah. This repression can deter activists from getting involved in a movement, potentially leading to decreased size and engagement, a worrying consequence for people-powered campaigns.
Additionally, there are potential cases of radical nonviolent actions causing harm to the public support for an overall movement (think Extinction Rebellion at Canning Town) — yet what is it that makes a nonviolent action too “extreme”? Is it based on who they disrupt, like working-class people trying to go to work, or the fact that there is little action logic, whereby the protest isn’t at all related to the issue they’re fighting for? Do the recent spate of actions targeting high-profile art fall into this harmful category, or are they useful?
But we do know some things. During their times, radical protesters are often hated and ridiculed. Peter Tatchell, a prominent U.K. gay rights activist was once labelled “the most hated man in Britain.” The suffragettes were ridiculed and used as an argument to deny women the vote. Over 60 percent of Americans had unfavorable opinions of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1966, during the height of the civil rights movement. But, in all of these cases, these brave activists were vindicated — with society now looking back on them as moral heroes, leading the charge towards a more just and fair world. The question then becomes — will radical climate activists be vindicated in the same way?
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