Sep 8, 2023

How not to protest climate change

How not to protest climate change
Photo by Li-An Lim / Unsplash

Recent examples are of climate change protest are counterproductive and discouraging.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 8 minutes.

Warning: Today's edition of Tangle contains explicit language.

There are ways to protest that win people over and there are ways to protest that push people away. More often than not these days, I feel like I'm seeing the kinds of protests that turn people away. About a week ago, I came across this video (warning: profanity) showing a prime example of what I believe is a highly ineffective protest.

The scene is familiar: A group of climate change protesters are sitting cross-legged on a major highway, wearing yellow vests and holding signs about the dangers of a warming planet. A bunch of infuriated drivers are standing in front of them screaming, with a line of increasingly impatient cars behind them, pleading with them to move out of the road. One person smacks a sign out of one of the protesters' hands. Another tries to reason the protesters out of the way. The whole thing is about three minutes long and has nearly two million views on Twitter — it's the kind of video I've seen dozens of times now.

What struck me about this particular video, though, was some of the things the frustrated drivers were saying, and just how potently they showed the counterproductiveness of this kind of protest.

"I want to go to work!" one man yells.

"Y'all couldn't find a better way to protest?" someone asks calmly.

"You're not going to get people joining you like this," one man offers.

"I've got kids to feed!" another woman screams.

And that same woman said the thing that really stuck with me:

"You don't give a fuck about my kids!" she said. "You don't think we know the earth is fucking melting? You're not doing shit! Nothing except fucking up people's work days!"

This line pops out because it communicates a few things: First, the woman is telling them I know the problem exists. Second, she's saying that if you were concerned about my kids, you'd let me go make a living. Third, she's making plain that what they are doing isn't working: You are not changing anything except ruining our day.

And I think she's right.

The protest was organized by a group called "Declare Emergency," which makes a habit out of these kinds of tactics. They boasted about the incident on their Twitter account, sharing the same video I’m criticizing, with the caption, "This was a great way to honor the legacy of Dr. King and to carry on his tradition of disruptive, nonviolent civil disobedience!"

And I imagine if we were to ask them, they'd say this very piece — tangentially about climate change, and directly giving them attention — is precisely why they make these kinds of protests. The old media axiom that “all publicity is good publicity” comes to mind.

And if their goal is to just “get attention,” maybe they are accomplishing it. But this kind of attention couldn’t be more counterproductive to achieving their objective. I think, actually, there is such a thing as bad press, and I think the climate change movement is getting a lot of it lately. Comparing yourself to a civil rights icon definitely doesn’t help. Although, yes, Dr. King had pretty miserable approval ratings at the end of his life, he also worked hard to win over people in power — and the people who weren't necessarily on his side. And if climate change activists want to compare themselves to Martin Luther King Jr., they should reconsider their tactics.

A protest is an expression of power, and an act of confronting institutionalized power. By nature, it's going to be disruptive, and usually combative. When we cover issues in Tangle, we always try to promote discussion and thought. However, there are times when power becomes so unbalanced that discussion is ineffectual and confrontation is necessary — even in modern democracies. People also disagree over when that threshold is crossed and over what issues should be protested. As a journalist, it’s not generally my role or even my personality to engage in protest. And as much as I don’t want to give the impression in this piece that I’m against fighting to prevent climate change, I also don’t want to give the impression that I’m against protesting. In fact, I find some of the ways the governments across the world are combatting protesters more concerning than the protests themselves. 

I also think great protests have to be disruptive in order to work — the classic examples are Rosa Parks or the 1963 March on Washington. Or more recently, protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline or the Canadian trucker protests or the protests against Covid lockdowns in China. Similarly, the Women's March and the annual March for Life in Washington D.C. are great examples of effective protests from the left and right — protests that brought people together peacefully, received a huge amount of coverage, educated people about their causes, and changed the story on what was happening in Washington D.C.