Global concern about the climate crisis is growing, mirrored by a rise in climate change activism across the globe. However, emissions continue rising and the fossil fuel industry maintains its entrenched grip in our politics. Does this mean that activism demanding urgent climate action is not succeeding?
In this monograph authors, Dr Robyn Gulliver, Professor Kelly Fielding and Professor Winnifred Louis investigate this question. Using a large dataset of 497 Australian environmental groups and over 35,000 environmental actions, they consider what climate activism – specifically climate change civil resistance – looks like, how it is changing, and what it is achieving.
Using this extensive dataset (further details are available at activismresearchhub.org) they match findings against three theoretical frameworks and two case studies on the Stop Adani and Divestment campaigns. This work was supported by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and is available to download below.
What is included in the monograph?
In this monograph we have used the Australian climate change movement as a case study to investigate what this civil resistance looks like and what it can achieve. Our data shows that the climate change movement in Australia is grassroots in nature, diverse, growing quickly, and achieving substantial success. It is using a vibrant and evolving repertoire of civil resistance tactics designed to mobilize and create change. As such, this monograph demonstrates the great promise climate change activism holds for driving the urgent action needed to effectively address our collective climate crisis. – pg. 91
Each chapter in the monograph can be read as a standalone section.
- Chapter 1 examines how individuals around the world are coalescing into groups and engaging in civil resistance in their local communities. The chapter also maps empirical data against three theoretical frameworks to track the progression of social movements for social justice, democracy, and sustainability in order to inform strategic pathways forward for activists. The three frameworks considered are Joanne Macy’s The Great Turning, Jeremy Breacher’s Climate Insurgency, and the Political Process Model.
- Chapter 2 provides a detailed analysis of tactics promoted by environmental and climate change groups in Australia. The majority of these tactics use conventional methods, with the most popular action being information sharing activities, such as film screenings and candidates forums. This chapter also considers organisational models, including Directed Network Campaigns and the important role that grassroots organizations play and whether their tactics differ from professional environmental organizations due to their freedom to operate outside legal constraints imposed by governments. Finally, outcomes of 193 Australian climate change campaigns are presented to show whether the climate movement is achieving its goals.
- Chapter 3 analyses two well-known Australian climate campaigns targeting business interests currently underway in Australia: the Stop Adani coal mine campaign and the Divestment campaign. Each case studies demonstrates the use of civil resistance tactics by activists and their groups in these campaigns, and the degree to which these campaigns are achieving success.
- Chapter 4 presents an analysis of the dataset on civil resistance tactics and state responses over the period 2017–2019, mapped onto key moments of relevant federal and state legislative and political change. In Australia, activists have faced increased push back by all tiers of government in their use of civil resistance. The chapters uses data to show the peaks of civil resistance by climate activists, and the mechanisms used by government to restrict this activism.
- Chapter 5 maps the key findings from the data presented in Chapters 1–4 onto the three-movement frameworks. It then considers insights each framework may provide for the design and implementation of future climate activism and civil resistance.
- Chapter 6 concludes with a list of recommendations for activists, scholars and supporters.
What were the conclusions?
Our analysis finds that the Australian climate change movement is capitalizing on opportunities to create change by rapidly creating a multitude of flexible, grassroots groups which collectively engage in a multiplicity of diverse tactics and campaigns. These tactics include sharing information about climate change, building localized alternative social and economic structures, and obtaining climate change action commitments from organizations, as well as sustained, targeted civil resistance.
Diverse organisational structures help sustain increased climate activism
The monograph found that while civil resistance strategies and tactics are extremely diverse, these tactics are utilised by a very small minority of organisations and by groups with diverse organisational structures. In particular, directed network campaigns and groups with no formal organisational structure appeared to be able to use a greater range of civil resistance tactics.
This diversity is beneficial for a movement as a whole and aligns with both Macy’s Great Turning framework and opportunities available within Australia’s challenging political environment. The growth of local groups focused on sustainability and alternative systems (such as Transition Towns and alternative economy groups) are also positive signs. However, this diversity may hinder the development of mass organisation and civil disobedience that Brecher argues to be necessary to force the rapid change needed to address climate change.
Climate change campaigns are achieving success but the challenges remain stark
Data indicates that climate change campaigns are achieving high levels of success. Most campaigns target government entities, however those which target businesses have the highest proportion of successful outcomes. While some campaigns were successful, campaigns targeting powerholders who determine climate policy – those critical for driving responses to climate change – remain difficult to influence.
In addition, while the tactics used by environmental groups are frequent, nimble and powerful, the strong resistance of entrenched political and corporate power against radical reductions of greenhouse gas emissions indicates that a long fight ahead remains in the fossil free transition.
Campaigns against corporate entities foster tactical innovation that increases success
The monograph also found that directed network campaigns targeting corporate entities had very successful outcomes across the range of potential campaign targets. However, the monograph found that campaigns against multinational corporations are complex, of lengthy duration, and dependent on a wide range of tactics for achieving success. Tactical choice against multinational organisations appears to depend primarily on the organisational status of the environmental group. Illegal direct action civil resistance (e.g., blockading, trespassing) strategies were more likely utilised by groups with no independent legal status. In contrast, legal civil resistance strategies (e.g., queue-ins, marches) were likely to be used by groups registered as organisations under Australia law.
Diverse organisational models help groups overcome government repression
The analysis of responses to civil resistance tactics in Australia demonstrated both an increase in the use of these tactics and continual attempts by governments at all levels to implement legislation curbing the use of these tactics.
However, in response, there also appears to be an accelerated emergence of new environmental groups forming via distributed and extra-legal organisational structures. It was unclear whether these attempts to repress protest via new legislation had any effect on reducing the use of civil resistance tactics.
Recommendations for different groups
The final chapter of the monograph presents brief recommendations for different groups active within the climate movement space. These recommendations are expanded upon in the chapter, and summarised here:
Activists and civil society groups
- Build strong alliances between local grassroots groups
- Target opponents and their allies while using different and changing tactical approaches
- Ensure campaigns and actions clearly communicate the target and an achievable goal
Academics and Researchers
- Compile, use, and disseminate empirical datasets on characteristics of environmental activism and its outcomes
- Bring together different disciplines and levels of analysis
- Investigate links between campaign goals, outcomes, and greenhouse gas emissions reductions
External Actors: The Public and the International Community
- Direct funding and other support to centralized organizations that sustain local grassroots nonviolent activist groups
About the Authors
Dr Robyn Gulliver has been an activist for more than 15 years and served on the leadership team of numerous local and national environmental NGOs and coalitions in the Australian and New Zealand environmental movements. She is currently working as a Research Fellow investigating the predictors and consequences of pro-democracy and environmental activism. Her research focuses on how environmental organizations can design and implement successful campaigns, as well as optimize their resources to more effectively demand meaningful action to address our global environmental challenges.
Associate Professor Kelly Fielding is an interdisciplinary researcher with a focus on how to understand and promote more sustainable practices in communities. She collaborates with researchers from a range of disciplines and from government and industry to conduct research that can inform pro-environmental campaigns and programs. She has been an associate editor of Environment and Behavior and she has also served on a range of government and industry reference groups.
Professor Winnifred Louis has published over 100 scholarly articles and book chapters on topics including effective activism and identity and decision-making. She has served as an Action or Associate editor for eight international peer-reviewed journals including the Journal of Peace Psychology. Winnifred has more than 30 years’ experience as an activist, for example on the peace and environment movements.
You can also download a range of other free monographs supported by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, including:
- How Social Trust Shapes Civil Resistance: Lessons from Africa by Jacob S. Lewis
- Civil Resistance Tactics in the 21st Century by Michael Beer
- Nonviolent Movements and Material Resources in Northwest Mexico by Chris Allan and Scott DuPree
- The Role of External Support in Nonviolent Campaigns: Poisoned Chalice or Holy Grail? By: Erica Chenoweth & Maria J. Stephan
- Civil resistance
- Direct action - Non violent NVDA
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti capitalism_Corporate
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti mining - Adani (Coal mine)
- Movements_Campaigns - Climate - Action
- Movements_Campaigns - Divestment
- Movements_Campaigns - Environment_Nature