Expansion, Evolution, and Impact of the Global Climate Change Movement

Series Introduction by Jennifer Hadden (guest editor)

Global climate change may seem like a difficult issue on which to mobilize. The causes of climate change are deeply engrained in our systems of production and consumption; the impact of climate change requires complex scientific models to understand; the most severe consequences of climate change are expected to take place on a global level in a seemingly distant future.

Yet recent events such as the People’s Climate March suggest that the global climate movement can overcome these obstacles and mobilize large, diverse constituencies. What explains recent developments in the global climate movement? What challenges lie ahead? For Mobilizing Ideas’ May Essay Dialogue, I’ve convened a group of scholars to reflect on these timely questions in light of their own research.

The contributors to this Essay Dialogue address a number of common themes. One question regards the kind of issue framing that the movement employs. Why do organizations within the global climate movement frame and (re)frame the issue in certain ways? What are the consequences, for example, of adopting an apocalyptic framing of the climate issue?   Why might climate organizations choose to reorient themselves towards a climate justice issue framing?

Another theme regards the growth and diversity of the global climate movement. Why has the movement been able to expand its mobilization in recent years? How has the movement successfully attracted new groups, reaching beyond the usual suspects in the environmental movement?  What are the consequences of “organizational bandwagoning” on the climate issue?

Our authors also consider the political and ecological consequences of global climate activism. How does the movement interact with the formal institutional politics of global climate governance? How might the movement create change in other arenas? Is the academy failing to provide tools for understanding and addressing the climate crisis?

I’d like to offer particular thanks to our distinguished contributors for their thought-provoking reflections on these and other topics:

Jen Iris Allan, University of British Columbia (essay)
Carl Cassegard, Gothenburg University, Sweden (essay)
Jennifer Hadden, University of Maryland (essay)
Shannon K. Orr, Bowling Green State University (essay)
Jackie Smith, University of Pittsburgh (essay)

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Bandwagoning to the Climate Cause

By Jen Iris Allan

To a growing class of activists, climate change is not an environmental issue. Instead, climate change is a gender, trade, justice, employment, development, health, and rights issue (to name a few). The recent increase in the number and influence of social movements and NGOs working on climate change is significant, fragmenting the civil society voice on climate issues. My work explores why activists working on social issues started participating in climate change governance around the same time, from 2007-2009, and why, despite multilateral failure, these activists stayed. As a result of this influx of newcomers, civil society can no longer show unity on climate issues and instead advances very different ideas of the climate problem and its solutions. Continue reading

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Looking Behind the Label and Reforming Global Industry

The recent essay series organized by Jennifer Hadden on climate change mobilization raises larger questions mobilization scholars should be asking: How can we collectively address complex global social problems, such as climate change, which are embedded in our systems of production and everyday habits? How can we build coalitions among movements, organizations, the state, and other players, to create effective reform programs?

Next we need to ask the even more challenging question of how do we successfully implement and regulate reform programs on the ground?

According to Looking behind the Label: Global Industries and the Conscientious Consumer, a new book out this week by Tim Bartley and his colleagues, reforming our system of production is possible, but incredibly complex and difficult to implement in a consistent, cohesive manner. Using a combination of survey data on ethical or politically motived “conscientious” consumption and case studies of certification and regulation programs for different products (timber, food, clothing, and electronics), they examine the effects of certification programs on how individuals shop and on global commodity chain production.

How much does buying fair trade or other certified products matter? Can we really change the world by voting with our dollars? What are limitations to individualistic tactics such as boycotting (avoiding consumption of certain products for political or ethical reasons), or buycotting products (deliberately buying products for political or ethical reasons)? How much can a combination of certification programs and conscientious consumerism do to address the social and environmental costs of mass consumption and production via global supply chains? They answer all these questions in the course of the book.

Their results first suggest location matters a great deal in one’s odds of being a conscientious consumer. Scandanavians, for example, were more likely to buycott (about 50%) or boycott (about 30%) a product at least once in the past year, than Americans (at about 25% and 20% respectively). Bartley and his colleagues argue people are more likely to buy certified products if they live near economic opportunity structures which enable them to easily to do so. Living in an affluent country or having access to ethical products through large supermarkets and other high volume chain stores, makes one more likely to buy ethical products.

In the second part of the book, drawing on their own ethnographic data, the authors walk the reader through four case studies examining how ethical certified products really are. What do we learn from these cases? We learn that even in the best of circumstances where certification and auditing systems exist to monitor production processes, they often fall terribly short.

These case studies of the lumber, clothing, food, and electronics industries showcase how complex production is, and how many structural and contextual factors need to be taken into account to understand how global production can be improved. The case of lumber certification reveals, for example, that even in the best of circumstances, such as when various state, private, and non-profit organizations collaborate to form a certification program to create a more sustainable lumber industry, underlying problems may remain. Even with a fairly successful lumber certification program, with certified lumber at stores such as Home Depot and Lowes, deforestation of old wood forests continues to occur at an accelerated rate – due to other industries which cut down trees, such as the cattle and soy industries in South American and palm oil plantations in Indonesia.

Bartley et al. additionally show how when prominent members of an industry, such as the electronics industry, choose to institute self-auditing programs, they often fail to enforce regulations. Thus they gain the ability to market their attempts at ethical production without being held accountable to actual results. Ultimately the electronics industry case shows how due to the underlying structure of the industry itself – in which tech companies undergo rapid cycles of innovation, production, and sales – it is unlikely that human rights issues and labor abuses, such as overwork and lacking job security, will be addressed any time soon. Companies fear slowing down production will hamper their ability to compete and turn the most profit possible on goods with short life cycles.

Despite these problems, buying some certified products certainly should be part of the solution.  However, it is incredibly difficult and time-consuming to investigate which products are worth it.  The authors’ case studies provide us with some hints toward what certified products might be worth buying.  For example, they suggest that buying fair trade products from farm cooperatives can be beneficial.  Buying fair trade products can support small-scale farmers in collectively organizing to counteract corporate agricultural blocs. It also helps produce funds for the cooperatives to help their farmers develop and modernize production.

In conclusion, the authors suggest that although conspicuous consumption and the emergence of certification and auditing programs are important avenues to addressing human rights and environmental problems in our production systems, they are far from a sufficient solution. Given the companies’ lack of commitment to enacting deep structural change, the complex structure of global commodity chains, and the relatively weak role of many developing countries in protecting their workers, to even have a chance to truly reform production systems, a combination of social movements to raise awareness of human rights violations and environmental problems endemic in our global system of production and a collective commitment to deep structural change (e.g. increased governmental regulation, reforming structures of production) will be needed.

I used the book in my global social problems course this past semester and the students found it very insightful. Ultimately, the book moves readers away from individualistic stances on saving the world through buying “socially responsible” products, to a much more critical sociological perspective by forcing us to look at how our political and economic structures can be the deepest source of international human rights violations and environmental degradation.  The book helped the students understand at a much deeper level how challenging it is to enact collective change at a global level. It showed them how many factors one needs to take into account in addressing global production problems — such as varying global supply chain structures in different industries, local and national economic structures, state regulation, movement and NGO mobilization, and collaborations between the many interested players. Yet, even if a certification program and production reform are successfully implemented in a single industry, other industries can still exacerbate underlying social problems.  This complexity was eye-opening to them and provided many important lessons to take away.

I think the book would also work well in a social movement course. It adds a useful perspective on how movements need to work with powerful institutions such as businesses and the state, yet also warns of the limitations of mobilization for social change within business and the broader capitalist system without outside movements or organizations to maintain accountability to improved outcomes.

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Sociology’s Nero Syndrome?

By Jackie Smith

Social movement scholarship has failed to help us understand and address the most urgent crisis of our time.

We are currently watching the unfolding of a climate emergency. Despite the high degree of scientific consensus about the causes and consequences of global warming,[1] governments have failed—over more than 20 years of negotiations—to take any meaningful steps to limit global warming or mitigate its impacts. In fact, as the scientific evidence about climate change has become more certain and substantial, governments remain polarized and paralyzed, failing to even curtail the growth of—much less reduce—greenhouse gas emissions. Intergovernmental negotiations resemble a re-arranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic, as governments remain deadlocked in debates over market-based mechanisms to limit emissions and mitigate impacts of warming, refusing to acknowledge that the market system itself drives climate change.

But social movement scholarship has little to add to what we know about why we’ve seen little change in regard to global climate policy. Why is this? I suggest that there are three reasons. Continue reading

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How the Climate Movement Interacts with Formal Politics

By Shannon K. Orr

My research on climate change has spanned more than a decade, focusing primarily on NGOs within the climate movement. I have surveyed thousands of civil society participants at UN negotiations, and many of them have expressed frustration with the challenges of having a meaningful impact at the negotiations. NGOs participating in negotiations do so under very strict limitations and constraints. Whether it is controlling access to plenary session via tickets or shutting down protest events in the hallways, civil society is strictly controlled by the United Nations and must fit themselves them into existing institutional structures. Government delegates are increasingly sequestered behind closed doors for negotiations, limiting the degree of interaction with those from civil society (Orr 2006).

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Towards a Post-apocalyptic Environmentalism?

By Carl Cassegård

The environmental movement has traditionally relied on apocalyptic imagery. As the sociologist Håkan Thörn points out, it stands out compared to most other movements through its “future-oriented pessimism”: Utopia has been less important to it as a mobilizing tool than the fear of a coming catastrophe or collapse (Thörn 1997: 322, 372). Recent developments, however, suggest that this may be changing, reflecting new struggles more focused on current catastrophes.

While apocalyptic imagery still dominates much of environmentalism, an increasing number of environmental campaigns seem to be driven more by outrage at ongoing catastrophes than by fear of future ones. Take three recent well-known waves of protest that have infused fresh anti-institutional energy in the environmental movement: Continue reading

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From Science to Justice: What Explains Framing Shifts in Climate Activism?

By Jennifer Hadden

Climate activism seems to be everywhere: from the wheat fields of Nebraska, to the halls of the United Nations, to university campuses all over the world. The massive People’s Climate March in November, 2014 brought more than 300,000 people to the streets of New York. Big events are also being planned for the next UN climate meeting in Paris, along with continued pressure in capitals, universities, cities, and corporations all over the world.

Hadden post, photo1

Source: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque Available at: http://www.thenation.com/article/178242/occupy-climate-justice#

 

In my recent book on international climate activism, I argue that one of the big developments in climate activism has been a shift in the way that activists are framing the climate issue. Continue reading

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