New study: growing number of adults on climate strikes in solidarity with young people

20 January 2020

Global Week of Climate Action 2019

In one week in September 2019, millions of people united in a global climate demonstration. But who were they, and what inspired them to take part? Researchers in an international network have been studying the activists and their motives. The Swedish report is now ready.

One Monday in August 2018, Greta Thunberg sat outside the Swedish Parliament (the Riksdag) with a sign saying Skolstrejk för klimatet (“School Strike for the Climate”). The teenager’s action, aimed at pushing Sweden to fulfil its commitments under the Paris Agreement, swiftly created a stir abroad and inspired many to follow suit. The following spring, a million people in 125 countries joined the Global Strike for Future demonstrations, and 20–27 September 2019 was designated the Global Week of Climate Action. On the first day, four million people signed up to the movement.

But who were they, and what aroused their sense of commitment? In a current study, researchers in an international network have surveyed the activists and their motives. The Swedish report has now been published.

“The big novelty in the September demonstration, especially on its concluding day, was that 80 per cent of those taking part in Sweden were aged 26 and over – twice as high a proportion as in March of the same year. We’re also seeing a markedly higher share of demonstrators aged over 60 in Sweden than in the other European countries,” says Katrin Uba, a researcher at the Department of Government, Uppsala University.

Katrin Uba, Uppsala University

The Global Week of Climate Action took place on every continent and in most of the world’s nations. In Australia, it gathered 300,000 people; in Italy, a million are estimated to have taken part; and the highest number of demonstrators was reported from Germany, where 1.4 million joined in the action. Greta Thunberg herself appeared in Montreal, where she spoke to an audience numbering half a million according to the organisers’ estimates.

“Greta Thunberg is without doubt a key source of inspiration to many – especially in Sweden, where almost half of all climate strikers below the age of 26 state that she plays a very large part in their own participation. But her name crops up everywhere: in the US, a quarter of respondents says that Thunberg has had an immense influence on their choices; in Australia this proportion is a fifth, and in Germany a tenth. At the other end of the scale, there are extremely few climate strikers who haven’t heard of her,” Uba says.

Climate strikers’ faith in science

To the question of how they feel about impending climate change, a broad majority of Swedish strikers reply that they are “very or fairly angry”. Just under half say they are “very or fairly afraid”. Another common denominator is that many emphasise the importance of showing that they are engaged in an urgent public issue, rather than being there for personal gain. For several climate strikers, their involvement also represented the first occasion when they had chosen to take part in an activist context.

“Many of the adults we’ve interviewed want to show their solidarity with our society’s young people and, by joining in, help to draw attention to the climate issue and thereby put pressure on politicians and decision makers. In general, they also express great faith in science and a view that the Government should take action in response to the results of climate research.”

With a new three-year grant from the Swedish Research Council, Katrin Uba is continuing her studies of environmental activism. Her immediate plan is, from an exclusively Swedish perspective, to focus on the contexts in which environmentally related protests have succeeded in influencing decisions over the past 30 years. Jointly with colleagues at the University of Gothenburg, Stockholm University and Södertörn University, with funding from Formas, Uba will also study climate activists’ visions of a “fossil-free welfare society”.

“The past few decades have been characterised by discussions on nuclear and wind power, and on a range of other environment-related issues. All movements have their own ideals for the future but, to achieve a breakthrough, how should their solution be presented? Here, research has an outstanding opportunity to follow how groups mobilise and develop in organisational terms, and the effects they generate in the long term. Both for democracy and for society as a whole, this is tremendously important knowledge,” Katrin Uba says.

Facts

  • The project comprises collection and analysis of data on climate protests in Sweden, to increase knowledge of how the climate movement is developing while it is still active, and to observe its sustainability.
  • The project is also based on coordinated, unfunded distribution of questionnaires to participants in climate protests, in ten European countries, on 15 March 2019.

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