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Climate campaigners take to Sydney’s streets in 2009. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

Out of step: marching for climate justice versus taking action

This weekend, tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of people in cities around the world will take to the streets to protest against governments’ inaction on climate change.

Past experience suggests media coverage will be largely sympathetic, if cursory, and (many) politicians will say that they hope the Paris climate summit that begins immediately afterwards represents a turning point. We have been here before. Quite often.

There have been demonstrations at international climate meetings since at least 1990.

However, “sympathy” marches in places far removed from the climate talks – such as those planned this weekend – are less frequent. So, can they make a difference?

London, 2001

Given the United Kingdom’s role as birthplace of the industrial revolution, and London’s position as a financial centre, it’s perhaps apt that the first such marches were held in that city. The Campaign Against Climate Change march was set up by campaigner Phil Thornhill in 2001 in response to George Bush’s decision to reject the Kyoto Protocol.

By 2004 CACC’s march included a spoof bloc of climate deniers, and in 2006 the event was adopted by a short-lived umbrella coalition of British NGOs called “Stop Climate Chaos”, with an estimated 22,500 people converging on Trafalgar Square from three points, including the symbolically important US embassy.

Attendance peaked in 2009, after Stop Climate Chaos spent pretty much all of that year encouraging people to take part in “the Wave”, a march ahead of the Copenhagen climate talks.

Only 50,000 to 60,000 people attended (the UK’s population is 60 million), and the BBC, which had been getting better on climate, confronted MEP Caroline Lucas with denialist talking points from the “climategate” email hack. After the failure of Copenhagen, attendance tapered off dramatically (marching in snow and sleet doesn’t help sell the message of climate after all).

Climate change hasn’t, sadly, gone away, and marches have started taking off again. On Sunday September 21 2014 somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000 people marched in New York City, coinciding with a UN summit.

However, earlier this year a London-based climate march was told by UK police to fund its own stewarding, which would have been impossible. Under public pressure, the police relented. Attendance was low however, around 20,000.

Marching Down Under

In 2006 the Howard government’s previously successful attempts to resist action on climate change began to break down, under pressure of the drought, Al Gore’s climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth, British economist Nick Stern’s report on the costs of not doing anything, and business voices raised in support of carbon trading.

One symptom of public concern was the November 4 2006 “Walk against Warming”, with a reported 100,000 people reportedly turning up in 28 locations around Australia.

The marches remained large in coming years (matching the UK experience), with an estimated 90,000 attending in the lead up to the Copenhagen climate talks.

Melbournites were out in force in 2009 as the world geared up for the Copenhagen climate summit. AAP Image/Steve Lillebuen

The same deflation occurred after Copenhagen however, with the Sydney Morning Herald estimating that just 10,000 marched in Sydney for the 2010 event.

In June 2011 “Say Yes” rallies took place to build support for a carbon price. In his 2014 book Power Failure Monash University Academic Philip Chubb observed that after the passage of carbon pricing legislation:

Say Yes folded its tent and took off home… Their work was done. Environmental groups did not know how to support a piece of government policy. By nature they were essentially oppositional.

Numbers aren’t all that matters

You’ll notice it’s hard to give an exact figure on attendance. It is notoriously difficult to get an accepted estimate. One handy rule of thumb is to halve the organisers’ estimate and double that of the police, usually resulting in a narrow band.

More seriously though, does mobilising people to go on a march help build social movements, or does it actually work against it? There is remarkably little literature on how people join and are retained by social movement organisations. (One notable example is Kathleen Blee’s Democracy in the Making).

Marches are attractive to organisers, because they are low risk and easily organised. And best of all, a large march shows diversity of support for the issue. Support cannot be so easily be dismissed as coming from ferals and hippies when pensioners are trudging alongside them. They are also ways of maintaining momentum and morale, which are important qualities for a social movement.

However, there are dangers.

The flip side of easy is stale, with media becoming less interested in repeated marches. There is the perception (right or wrong) that they don’t work (especially since Britain’s pre-Iraq war protests failed to stop the war). Marches inevitably make for a blunt message, rather than a nuanced debate, and could detract from other possible projects.

Meanwhile, some attendees – given a simple way of participating – will feel that they’ve done their bit and then not get involved further, especially if they are unable or unwilling to attend interminable meetings.

Some critics dismiss meetings as appealing only to the converted, and actively alienating onlookers - as satirised by the Onion on gay pride marches - and ensuring a pattern of repeated cathartic release, so-called “emotathons”.

Finally, political and economic elites seem have learned how to ride out the wave of concern, and how to mouth pieties without actually taking serious action.

On Monday, after the marchers have marched, there will be crude assessments of success or failure, based on attendance. But after 10 years of climate marching, perhaps it’s time for a new idea of success. Getting people out for a day or two each year is one thing; keeping them and their skills and passion for the “long march through the institutions” (to quote German activist Rudi Dutschke) is a more difficult proposition.

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