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
In October the principal of Hong Kong’s Shung Tak Catholic English College posted an open letter opposing Occupy Central protests, which was widely circulated and discussed on social media in both Hong Kong and mainland China. The letter asked, “Who will reap the greatest benefits if Hong Kong becomes chaotic? Who will reap the greatest benefits if China becomes chaotic?”1 The principal, Kung Kwong Pui, then accused the United States government for stirring up trouble and destabilizing East Asia.
This was only one episode of an intense battle between the Occupy Central movement and counter-movement over whether western money and training had put protesters on the street. On the one hand, allegations were swirling on how Occupy Central was only a U.S.-financed plot against Beijing’s authority. On the other hand, the primary movement leaders, including Chan Kin-man and Joshua Wong, firmly denied such claim and repeatedly emphasized that umbrella protests were a domestic grassroots movement. Continue reading
During the last quarter century, the Chinese state has been successful in repressing specific types of social movements; those which it considers to be serious threats to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime. Major examples of such repression include the 1999 Falun Gong persecution and the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989. Even during the period leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics the Chinese government maintained its repressive stance, despite TAN (Transnational Advocacy Network) pressures, against domestic protests in the Tibet and Xinjiang autonomous regions by conducting a crackdown and media blackout, among other measures. Continue reading