Opinion: Can Climate Activism Really Make a Difference?

By Tobias Hudson

(What did placard-making actually achieve at COP26? Photograph: Tobias Hudson)

Writing for Rising Clyde has its ups and downs. The looming threat of climate change is no more present than when trawling through the basins of the internet. While it can be an eye-opening experience, it is shrouded by an existential dread about the future of our planet. Climate change has spread further than many of us realise, its tendrils affecting many communities and ways of life. And while we do our best to promote individual impact, it is undeniable that the majority of CO2 emissions are released by major conglomerates. 

The Guardian reports that since 1988, 71% of all climate emissions have been released by just 100 corporations. Even the week following COP26, China and India reportedly changed their original plans to  stop using fossil fuels completely. These disheartening facts can make it hard to know how the individual can make a dent in  the problems. 

This is especially true when those around us don’t adopt the same ethical principles. Do older generations really care about climate change? Do my friends, for that matter? I can’t help but wonder whether the shiny social morals of the general public dissipate behind closed doors. One option bandied around is to take part in “climate activism”. The mind immediately jumps to placard-waving, road-blocking and general disruption over thoughtful problem-solving. Many groups like Extinction Rebellion are also steeped in controversy, as our reporters found when they headed south to London to report on their latest march: 

(Many aren’t happy with what XR are trying to achieve. Graphic: Tobias Hudson)

I interviewed a member of XR Italy to get her thoughts on the recent controversy, and to see if she could offer a new perspective on these events.

While the most extreme actions are always the most reported on, I wanted to see whether there was more to activism than meets the eye. Our actions must be able to make a difference beyond the buzzwords so often heard in the media. I began by speaking with Micah Soriano, an engineering student who recently joined the Glasgow group of Friends of the Earth (FoES). We met in a coffee shop on a surprisingly warm afternoon. Too warm, we both thought. 

Why did you want to get involved with a climate charity?

I’ve always been aware of climate change and activism, and I wanted to learn more beyond the benefits of just reading. Doing action is a lot more productive. There are definitely things I learnt from activism I could not have learnt elsewhere due to how local the issues are that they tackle. It’s also more manageable than trying to solve climate change on a global scale, which can be daunting! 

Do you think that your choice to join a climate charity has made a difference? 

It makes way more of an impact than my own individual actions. That might include less waste or being a vegetarian, which always felt like just the minimum I could do. And a lot of these charities are really big and more globally recognised than we think, so there is action being done that is not often publicised. It can take time for big projects to come about. There is definitely time needed to see a big project through to completion. 

While I agree, what difference can we actually make as individuals? Sometimes it feels so hard to make any progress. 

There is worth in every little action, and doing something small is more worthy than doing nothing at all. It can be disheartening looking at the news, but you can see that as a form of encouragement to push against it. But I can understand why people might be a bit disheartened. You can see that from a governmental perspective, they are trying now. 

There’s also power in numbers. It makes you feel more positive about your actions. Joining a group introduces you to new mindsets under a shared goal, which can really help focus your actions. It’s a learning curve. When you become a regular, you start to notice other ways to help the planet. You might drive to the first event, but then you learn from those around you and find an alternative the next time. 

Does an echo chamber ever form? I think it’s important to educate those who aren’t into climate change as well. 

I do agree that you like hearing it if you agree with it, and sometimes you have to take a slightly further look around to find who the important target audience are. I think it’s important to try to push those who aren’t taking action. That will always be more beneficial than preaching to the choir. 

Micah told me about their new fast fashion campaign, which aims to educate a larger and younger audience than the charity regulars. I now had a more complete picture of what charity groups can offer, but I was also interested in talking to someone on the other side of the activism journey. 

(The new Glasgow FOTE fast fashion table. Photograph: Sara Barry)

I visited long-time Glasgow activist Sara Barry at her beautiful home, where we had a long chat about whether she had seen any changes over her thirty year climate career.

I visited long-time Glasgow activist Sara Barry at her beautiful home, where we had a long chat about the changes she has seen at her time with FoES Glasgow. 

What would you say you’ve learnt from your time with an environmental charity?

We have to leave fossil fuels in the ground. The individual is a consumer, and we need to learn how not to be greedy, not to need fast fashion, or a new washing machine or car if they can be fixed. Unless it is environmentally prudent to do so. It’s difficult to find the balance. I think it’s becoming clear that climate change is here, and it’s far too late. I could see that in 1971. There were people who knew, but the public and the powerful didn’t listen. 

So how would I be able to make a change that felt meaningful? 

It’s difficult to answer. I think there is power in numbers.  If you join with others and discuss and talk about the threats, you can clearly see where the problems originate. If you don’t know what the issues are, why would you think there is anything to solve? And that’s the role of the charity. Sure, you can see the effects of climate change if you turn on the news, but there are other issues that aren’t known, for instance, where the carbon flecks will travel to the Antarctic, making it darker and causing the ice to melt faster. That changes the currents in the ocean massively. 

I pushed further, and she gave me an interesting answer.

Find out the issues online. Search Google for the real problems of climate change. You can go to the websites of Greenpeace, FoES  and WWF. But the best place to start is with yourself. Be disciplined. Know that you don’t need that new pair of shoes, or you need to recycle more. Turn off lights, turn down the thermostat, shower instead of bath, eat less meat. There’s so much you can do!

I think discipline is a huge factor. Do you think the media can be a downer on your self-discipline?  

I think the media does help now. People like David Attenborough were very late to the plate. He waited until he could see the scientific proof. I criticise that because we operate by the precautionary principle. He could have seen that, and made a big push for climate activism. The BBC were criticised for insisting on balancing their interviews. The scientific community built a 97% consensus on the threat of climate change, but the BBC insisted on giving climate deniers equal time. It seems now that even the right-wing press can’t ignore it anymore.

Have you seen change as a result of your actions at Friends of the Earth? 

Definitely. Not many people realise that FoES started off as local groups, became more centralised, and affiliated to FoE Europe and FoE International and, not the other way around . Charities like ours now have a lot of fingers in different pies and are used as consultants by the government. 

We’ve also lobbied for green corridors around Glasgow, where hedgehogs and creatures can scuttle along. It’s now being done by the council which is great. We recently put in an objection to a building plan down on Blackhill Road, and we won! It just wasn’t the right place for it, and we had to object. The changes are small, and they take time to see, but they do come. As you get older, you find that placards and marches are just one tool. Of course, it has a place. We will always need young voices to carry on the baton and kick up a noise!

(The group has been making impacts over four decades. Photograph: Friends of the Earth Scotland)

It’s encouraging to hear how differences have actually been made in local areas. Discipline is an important issue that Sara mentions, something I know I struggle with, as I’m sure many do in today’s breakneck culture. As with everything, it seems a balance needs to be struck. And while the media might not always advertise the most uplifting aspects of climate change, there are gradual changes being made beneath the surface. But is it too little, too late? Only time will tell.

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