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Column / Harder Line

The new social movement on climate change

Illustration of a globe with a fist instead of continents
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Over the last nine months, calls to address climate change have become a powerful new social movement.

Driving the news: Climate change has traditionally not spawned intense, organized and continued protest. That’s been gradually changing, and since November with the rise of the Green New Deal, youth activism and civil resistance protests, the movement has hardened into a force to reckon with whether you love or hate it.

The big picture: This social movement is one puzzle piece of our society coming to grips with climate change. Investors and companies are also taking more action.

Where it stands: Unlike earlier climate-related protests, like rallies against the Keystone XL pipeline, activists organizing today are more global, persistent and sweeping in nature. The emergence of young people, worried about an increasingly unstable world they’re growing up in, adds a clear constituency that was previously lacking.

Environmental and grassroots groups are planning for the fall a series of what they’re describing as the largest-ever climate protests.

  • On Sept. 20 and 27, what organizers say could be millions of people, led by students, are signing up to walk out of their schools and jobs to demand the world stop using fossil fuels.
  • These school walkouts have been going on around the world since November with inspiration from Swedish teenager activist Greta Thunberg. The September rallies are timed to a major United Nations climate summit in New York City.
  • Extinction Rebellion, a group responsible for causing massive disruptions across London in April and protesting on Capitol Hill last week, is organizing similar protests across several cities, including New York, for Oct. 7 and 14.

Why it matters: Influential leaders outside this social movement, from oil executives to country officials, are noticing. Elliot Diringer, a veteran of global climate talks, said the protests are a hot topic when he meets with negotiators from various countries.

  • “It enters into the political calculation of governments as they are contemplating their next steps to ramp up action,” said Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a nonprofit group. “They know they’re being closely watched by people who are prepared to go out on the street to make noise.”

What they’re saying: Groups involved, including the youth-led Sunrise Movement, Youth Climate Strike and Extinction Rebellion, all have similar demands that are light on policy but sweeping and urgent in nature. At the center is getting off oil, natural gas and coal while prioritizing broader social justice concerns.

“It’s not our job as high schoolers to come up with solutions to climate change,” said 16-year-old Sophie Anderson, national coordinator for the Extinction Rebellion Youth U.S. “We’re not the ones with the answers. We just want people to take action.”

But, but, but: While public awareness and concern for climate change has been steadily increasing in recent years, most people, including politicians, are unlikely to support all the positions and tactics these activists are pushing.

  • Experts say transitioning off fossil fuels in a decade or sooner — as many of the groups are calling for — isn't just politically difficult. It’s so technically challenging it would be enormously expensive, if not impossible, given our world’s heavy reliance on those fuels to sustain so many aspects of our lives.

Another side: Kiera O’Brien, who is set to graduate from Harvard University next year, is part of a student-led bipartisan group seeking to provide what she described as a “counterbalance” to the louder efforts.

  • The 21-year-old Republican is vice president of Students for Carbon Dividends, a nonprofit launched last year pushing a carbon tax whose revenue is returned to consumers in the form of dividend checks.
  • “Ultimately we want to provide a counterbalance to the notion that young people who care about the environment are hotheaded or unwilling to work within the existing systems,” O’Brien said.

Getting broad support for feasible policy measures isn’t the point, organizers of the other groups say.

  • Bea Ruiz, a volunteer and national team member of the U.S. chapter of Extinction Rebellion, says they need 51% of a given population to be passively supportive of their cause, with 3.5% more active, such as showing up to demonstrations.
  • Citing Gallup polling, she says they’re approaching the 51% figure but concedes they’re “not anywhere close” to the 3.5%.
“People think civil resistance is about building unity on a broad scale. Actually it’s quite the opposite. It’s doing action that creates crisis points that force people to choose sides and not ignore an issue.”
— Bea Ruiz, Extinction Rebellion

What I’m watching: Whether this social movement ends up helping to create big policy change — or actually making things worse by further polarizing an already hyper-divisive topic.