Fifteen Eighty Four

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Climate Activism at Glasgow: Does the rise of digitally distributed activism challenge traditional climate NGOs?

Nina Hall

The climate movement has long been divided over how to campaign, and who to target, in their activism. This is because climate change is a diffuse, and complex problem that involves all levels of governance: city, local, national, regional and international as well as business. Nevertheless, the UNFCCC has traditionally given climate activists a common focus. The regular rhythm of summits, and the media spotlight on negotiators, offers activists a platform to shame governments (e.g. the fossil of the day awards) and push for stronger climate action. Although climate activists in attendance at Glasgow will differ widely in their tactics and their issue focus, thousands are expected to travel to the host city as they see the UNFCCC as an important strategic target.

Yet, there are well-established drawbacks of focusing too much activist energy on the UNFCCC. Firstly, most states decide their positions and budgets long before the summit. Secondly, the conference has not always delivered what activists wanted. At the Copenhagen Summit in 2009, for example, states failed to reach a binding agreement to reduce global greenhouse emissions, which activists had called for. In the aftermath, many climate advocates questioned whether they were putting too much energy into the UNFCCC at the expense of domestic activism. They looked for new models of organizing, and sought to create “alternative globalities” outside the UNFCCC.

As I detail in my forthcoming book, Transnational Advocacy in the Digital Era, 350.org was a disruptive newcomer at Copenhagen that pioneered new, low-cost, and effective methods of digitally-distributed mass mobilization. Digitally distributed tactics give autonomy to loosely connected local activists to determine their own targets and framing for a campaign, and are coordinated through on-line platforms. In contrast, traditional NGO tactics tend to rely on: insider lobbying, where professional staff exchange their expertise for access to international negotiations; or outsider mobilising, where professional staff set the messaging and determine the targets for a campaign and ask members to attend. However this style of mobilizing cannot match either the scale, or the low cost, of digitally distributed tactics.

In the lead-up to the 2009 summit, 350.org led a global day of action which CNN described as ‘the most widespread day of political action in our planet’s history’. Despite a small, mostly volunteer, staff and a tiny budget, 350.org was able to organize thousands of demonstrations worldwide. These protests enabled people to participate wherever they were, and to pressure their own governments however they saw best. They were ‘distributed’ because local members and chapters had autonomy to define their own messaging, while the central team provided resources, logistical and financial assistance. 350.org chapters then organized local demonstrations from Ukraine to New Zealand, urging their national leaders to take action. These global protests were ‘digitally’ distributed because 350.org used an events map to register and advertise their protests in disparate towns and cities around the world.

Subsequently, some NGOs sought to emulate the success of 350.org. As Willem van Rijn, Greenpeace’s Chief Operating Officer from 2009 to 2012 explained: “The advent of these digital-first groups made us realise that relying on a business model with an institutional brand as the major voice behind the action was no longer viable”. Greenpeace saw 350.org as a more “cost-efficient and effective way to mobilise massive numbers of people around social and political issues.” Greenpeace decentralised power away from their headquarters in Amsterdam, hired digital campaigners, and launched MobLab a team dedicated to digital mobilizations.

Digitally distributed organizing has also been championed by the newest, and arguably, most successful climate activist group: Fridays for Future. Spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, Fridays For Future organized the world’s largest climate march in September 2019, when over 7 million students and adults around the globe protested for stronger action on climate change. Anyone, anywhere, could be part of the climate strike by registering their event on an on-line map of actions. Despite the pandemic, Fridays for Future have continued to mobilise millions around the world. On 24 September 2021 there were protests in 80 countries and over half a million took to the streets in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel has even credited Fridays for Future with ‘driving an acceleration’ of the German government’s actions on climate change.

So, what does the rise of Fridays for Future and digitally-distributed campaigning mean for traditional climate NGOs at Glasgow? Many traditional NGOs groups will continue to pursue reform-oriented and insider lobbying approaches to advocacy. However, these new digitally-distributed tactics and groups challenge their legitimacy. Firstly, because newer climate activists are better at organizing mass-mobilizations at low costs. Secondly, many of the “Greta” generation do not see traditional political parties, or professionalised climate NGOs as effective champions of change. NGOs will need to find ways to engage and support younger climate activists without stealing the limelight. Many climate NGOs have committed to support the youth strikers by giving them resources, and disseminating their message, but without taking over with their own branding. Meanwhile, some activists are seeking to emulate the success of Fridays for Future with other demographic groups. Writer and cofounder of 350.org, Bill McKibben recently launched Third Act, which mobilises the baby-boomer generation in local chapters, as a part of a global climate movement. Regardless of what strategy NGOs choose, all climate activists will need to tackle racism in their ranks, otherwise it will undermine their actions and they will miss opportunities for a wider mobilisation. They’ll also need to connect advocacy at the UNFCCC in Glasgow with action back home.

About The Author

Nina Hall

Nina Hall is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Her core areas of expertise are: international organizatio...

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