Mass Mobilization for Climate, with Dana Fisher

A group of warmly-clad youth rally behind a horizontal banner that reads, “March for.”

Organized rallies and marches, like this one sponsored by Fridays for Future in Germany, can lead to more visibility for climate justice issues. Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash.

Script by: Megan Chan   |  Audio by: Jericho Rajninger  |  Blurb by: Ashley Carter

Mass mobilization in climate activism

By the mid 2000s, the climate justice movement was beginning to gain momentum across the world. Through organized rallies and marches, the public has begun to see an increased recognition of climate justice issues amidst various other social movements. The existential threat of the climate crisis has given rise to an increased potential for transformational movements to ignite change. Mass mobilization thus provides a tactic of community organizing and civic engagement that can unite people across the globe – or create the possibility of a backlash. As climate activism becomes more prevalent, it is plausible that climate mobilizations will rise in urgency and frequency. 

How mass mobilization can spark change

Mass mobilization is a way for people and organizations to rally together in order to promote  widespread changes in a society. Social movements can accelerate action on climate change by providing windows of opportunity for transformative climate action. When people perceive a risk, such as climate change, to be extremely critical they may respond to the growing threat through various strategies of mobilization. Perceived risk can drive social change; if the risk appears to be strong enough, people may change their behaviors and push social actors to respond. 

Why mass mobilization is advantageous

On an individual level, it is hard to achieve large-scale changes given the immensity of the climate crisis. Community mobilization is thus a tool that can be harnessed in the fight to increase awareness of climate change. Mass strikes and protesting can re-emphasize social norms and the effectiveness of collective civic engagement. Collective action provides a collective voice that is more likely to be heard than solo protest. By encouraging friends and family to also engage in climate action, a movement can gain momentum and promote social norms that will support and normalize climate action. Beyond non-disruptive demonstrations and legally permitted marches, there are also more confrontational methods such as boycotts, sit-ins, and direct action that target political leaders and policymakers. 

What are the drawbacks of mass mobilization? 

The Internet and online social media are two factors that have contributed to the ease of coordinating widespread large-scale mobilizations of groups of people. However, one potential concern is that if we solely rely on the use of social media, we may forget the potential benefits of in-person action. Furthermore, it is sometimes difficult to continue activism efforts after a protest, rally, or march to foster long-lasting effects. In the Fridays for Future (FFF) youth climate protests led by Greta Thunberg, some have questioned whether those participating have held themselves personally accountable for their own carbon footprint outside of the movement. While strikes and protests can create solidarity, they also are susceptible to collective action problems as many individuals may hope to benefit from actions resulting from the protests without actually participating. Additionally, youth-climate strikes likely pose little direct threat to polluters, whereas those direct actions or strikes in particular polluting industries  may have a stronger impact on the decisions of fossil fuel firms. Although FFF has led to conversations on the need to address climate change, the broader social and political implications are uncertain, raising questions about the efficacy of mass mobilization. Large-scale mobilization efforts can also lead to significant political backlash, thereby complicating the landscape for collective action. Not everyone responds similarly to mass mobilization efforts, leaving debate on the potential efficacy of such actions.

About our guest

Dana R. Fisher is the Director of the Center for Environment, Community, and Equity and Professor at American University. Her seventh book, Saving ourselves: From Climate Shocks to Climate Action, presents mass mobilization as a realistic path forward for climate action in response to the growing severity of disastrous events. Fisher explores further the various types of activism, and which are most applicable to the climate crisis. 

Further Reading


Transcript

Ethan: I’m Ethan Elkind and you’re listening to Climate Break. Climate solutions in a hurry. Today’s proposal: using mass mobilization to achieve meaningful climate action. Dr. Dana R. Fisher is a professor at American University and author of the new book, Saving Ourselves. She describes how mass mobilization, defined as gathering people together under a shared goal, can inspire climate action. 

Dr. Fisher: The most likely way to get to the other side of the climate crisis is through a mass mobilization, so civil society and social movements mobilizing and the mobilization being driven by this experience of risk. In my book, I break into those groups that are what I call the shockers, who are using civil disobedience to gain media attention. And then there are the groups that I call disruptors, and those are groups that are integrating civil disobedience into a broader repertoire or campaign. 

Ethan: Dr. Fisher explains that people are motivated to participate in mass mobilization when they experience risk.

Dr. Fisher: Risk here would be, risk of being exposed to and personally harmed by a climate shock. 

Ethan: She believes that achieving climate action will ultimately require the persistence and collective efforts of the entire community.

Dr. Fisher: Addressing the climate crisis is going to take all of us doing all types of activism and engagement. So that will mean people who work on TikTok, versus those who are working within communities and really building capacity and resilience and reciprocity. I suggest that you look for groups that are working in your communities so that you can help to build not just capacity to fight the climate crisis, but also capacity to withstand the climate crisis, which is something communities need to do.

Ethan: To learn more about Professor Fisher’s work and opportunities for climate mobilization, visit climatebreak.org.

Mass Mobilization for Climate, with Dana Fisher