Who follows in the steps of Greta Thunberg

School strike for climate on the Town Hall square in Tartu on 15 March 2019. Image credit: Ehitaja / Wikimedia Commons CC 4.0

A year ago today, the global youth strike for climate gathered more than one million participants at 2200 events in 125 countries. It became possible after a 15-year-old Greta Thunberg sat in front of the Swedish parliament every schoolday for three weeks from 20 August 2018 to protest the lack of action on the climate crisis. She posted what she was doing on Instagram and Twitter and it soon went viral.  The movement became known as #FridaysforFuture (FFF).

An international team of researchers has recently concluded a report on the participants of the FFF climate protests. The report analyses survey data about participants in the strikes of September 2019 from 19 cities around the world and compares it to the data from an international survey conducted in 13 European cities in March 2019. Both surveys collected data following the well-established “Caught in the Act of Protest” survey methodology in order to generate representative samples.

What makes FFF new and particularly interesting is the involvement of schoolchildren and students as initiators, organizers, and participants in climate activism on a large scale. The September mobilizations differed from the March events in the explicit call for adults to join the movement. Although older age cohorts were more strongly represented in September, young people continued to make up a substantial portion of the protesters – almost one-third of demonstrators were aged 19 or under.

This, however, varied greatly by cities – while in the Swedish cities very young people formed up to 10% of respondents, in Florence, Bucharest, Copenhagen, Prague, and Warsaw at least half of the participants were under 20. A third of young participants had not taken part in any political actions before – the respective measure for those over 20 is much smaller – 9 per cent.

Age groups of participants by city in September 2019

Hence, climate strikes still bring along novices to political activism, and if we assume that those who have taken to the streets once will continue to be active in some form, the general level of political participation among young people should be on the rise.

While protest participants have often been considered to be men, there has been a high proportion of female FFF protestors. In both surveys, nearly 60% of participants identified as female – with the largest share among the youngest demonstrators. Also, as usual in the case of environmental protests, overwhelming majorities of adult participants were well educated and had a university degree. Moreover, a large proportion of young people participating in the September strikes had parents who had studied at university level.

Despite the young age of the participants, interpersonal mobilization was the predominant method of recruitment to the strikes, particularly among friends and schoolmates. However, the growth in the size and popularity of the movement also includes a growing share of people who participate alone. Around a quarter of adults fit this category, as well as an initially small but growing number of young people.

Hope and anger drive climate protesters

Emotions are crucial part of protest mobilization, and when expressing their emotions concerning climate change and global warming, the majority of protesters felt worried, frustrated, and angered, as well as anxious about the future.

Despite a general tendency of decreasing hopefulness that important environmental issues can be addressed through policies, almost half of the FFF participants are still very much or quite hopeful that policies are able to address climate change. While it is too early to say how this wave of protests will develop, the continued feelings of hope and anger – about 70% of the respondents express it – would suggest that activists will continue their actions for a while.

In answer to a series of questions concerning solutions to environmental problems, respondents were divided over whether modern science could be relied on to solve environmental problems. Agreement varied between cities and age-groups to the degree to which they thought stopping climate change could be accomplished through voluntary individual lifestyle changes. However, there was more unity in skepticism towards relying on companies and the market to solve these problems, as well as in the general support for democracy.

In general, the findings of our report suggest that the movement is becoming more established, although there are clear cross-national and cross-city variations. Future research will show how the events continue, as well as what the effects of this wave of activism will have on youth political activism in general and on policies regarding climate change in particular.

Katrin Uba is a Senior Researcher at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies at the University of Tartu and an Associate Professor of Political Sciences at Uppsala University. She is one of the authors of the cited report.

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