The climate strikes likely need no introduction to the readers of this blog. If you haven’t participated in one yourself, you may know someone who did. Marches were organized in hundreds of cities worldwide on September 20, 2019, and by the end of the week, millions of more activists are expected to march across the world to demand climate action.
“Activists are demanding greater efforts be made at the meeting to tackle climate change”, in the words of a BBC report. This sounds inspiring, but what does that mean tangibly? Greta Thunberg, the young activist who almost single-handedly started the movement in its current shape, is reported as saying: "the empty promises are the same, the lies are the same and the inaction is the same". While the climate strikes have demanded ‘action’, it is not immediately clear what the action should be and who should be responsible for it. The scale of the climate strikes is remarkable, but the agenda appears to have little specificity or measurability. Without this specificity, what impacts can climate strikes have?
Nives Dolsak and Aseem Prakash, faculty members at the University of Washington, commented recently, that the question of impact relates to leverage. They argue that the benefits of the strikes are non-excludable, i.e. the benefits can be enjoyed by both, strikers and non-strikers alike. Currently, the costs of climate strikes are borne by schoolteachers who have to make up for lost time. Yes, climate strikes also reveal a public preference for more commitment to climate action and inculcate a climate ethic. But beyond that, their specific impact will be limited.
The question of impact can also relate to the demands made by climate strikers. In a paper published in 2014, several colleagues and I proposed a model for mobilization to create public pressure. This paper related to the context of Corbett National Park in India, but parts of it apply to the climate strikes. In our model, an issue is articulated on the basis of who is affected and to what degree. This ‘issue’ can create mobilization, that can lead to public pressure.
This public pressure can follow several scenarios:
Source: Rastogi, A., G. Hickey, R. Badola, and S. Hussain. 2014. Understanding the local socio-political processes affecting conservation management outcomes in Corbett Tiger Reserve, India. Environmental Management 53(5): 913-929.
If the mobilization is large enough and crosses a certain social threshold (which can be international pressure/ violence/ scale of participation/ venues of participation etc), management can offer a compensatory action (Figure 1, Scenario A). If mobilization doesn’t cross a certain threshold (Figure 1, Scenario B), it will slowly disintegrate without any action. If the issue is big enough and management does not take action, it will only lead to the intensification of mobilization until an action is taken (Figure 1, Scenario C). Even a perceived or partial action can sometimes pacify mobilization (Figure 1, Scenario D). But common to this action/inaction is the initiation of an issue – where a clear demand is placed before the management.
This model is quite simple and can apply to other mobilization events like those in Hong Kong, or in regard to Brexit. It may also apply to the climate strikes and can, in fact, be extended: the climate strikes are massive in scale and powerful in message, but in the absence of clear and specific (and measurable) demands, they are unlikely to lead to meaningful change. Even if they do lead to some change of their own accord (for instance, commitments to be made during the ensuing Climate Week in New York), it is possible the climate strikes will not get due credit. This is precisely the kind of specificity that the Independent Evaluation Unit’s recently concluded Forward-looking Performance Review (FPR) of the Green Climate Fund has advocated. For instance, among other key findings, the FPR found that: “The limited set of specific targets and measurable indicators (in the GCF Initial Strategic Plan) make it difficult to assess the GCF’s performance.” The climate strikes may face the same challenge that the GCF encountered in its interim replenishment period: without setting specific agendas (or targets) it is difficult to accurately measure your progress or achievement.
In conclusion, as Dolsak and Prakasha stated in their comment on the strikes, the climate strikes will give hope and agency to this generation. These are very valuable outcomes indeed! But one might argue that with more specific demands the strikes could accomplish far more.
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