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)
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, 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
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).
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
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
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.
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