Climate Protest Movements Aren’t Going Away
A few weeks ago, on September 27, 2019, Judith Collins, a Member of Parliament from New Zealand, told a news show that she thought youth activists protesting governments’ inaction on climate change would “grow out of it” and that “every generation has its thing.” In the meantime, Extinction Rebellion, the most visible climate protest movement, marched in cities worldwide, where they snarled traffic in the UK, shut down a bridge in Montreal and threw blood on the iconic bull statue on New York’s Wall Street while enduring mass arrests everywhere, and an outright police ban in London.
To those who are expecting and hoping that climate protest movements die down, I can say this with reasonable certainty: don’t hold your breath. Climate protests are just beginning, and they will undoubtedly intensify over the coming years. Meaningful action on the climate crisis is the only way to end them.
History shows us that when large numbers of people begin framing a political, social or economic issue in primarily moral terms, expecting them to lose interest, grow out of it or “get over it” is nothing more than self-delusion. The example from history that has the most structural similarity to today’s movement against climate inaction is the abolitionist movement of the early 19th century. Abolitionism had been around long before that, but it was when abolitionist sentiment flared into a moral passion in evangelical churches, particularly in Britain and the U.S. Northeast, that the anti-slavery movement became an unstoppable force.
Indeed, when one looks at the fieriest figures of 19th century abolitionism — William Wilberforce in Britain and William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator, in the United States — one sees a precedent for the tone and language being used by modern day climate activists like Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion. “I am aware,” Garrison wrote in the first issue of the Liberator, on New Year’s Day, 1831, “that many object to the severity of my language, but is there not cause for severity? Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm… urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — and I WILL BE HEARD!”
Not unlike modern conservatives who hope and expect the momentum over climate change will die down, those threatened by the abolitionist movement implored everybody to just cool down and move on, and they became more frustrated and confused when that did not happen. On March 4, 1857, as abolitionism and the slavery issue were tearing the United States apart on the eve of the Civil War, James Buchanan was inaugurated to his disastrous single term as U.S. President. Buchanan was a “Doughface,” a Northerner with pro-Southern views, and he put the blame squarely on the abolitionist movement for the state the country was in. In his inaugural address, Buchanan said, “Most happy will it be for the country when the public mind shall be diverted from this question to others of more pressing and practical importance…Time is a great corrective. Political subjects which but a few years ago excited and exasperated the public mind have passed away and are now nearly forgotten.” He was alluding specifically to a pending Supreme Court case, Dred Scott, that he hoped would put the issue to rest for all time.
Four years later, after seven states had seceded and Buchanan fled the White House eager to turn the nation’s problems over to Abraham Lincoln, he knew just how wrong he’d been. Abolition was not a passing fad, nor something that people would “grow out of.” Neither was the protest movement against the Vietnam War, which began in earnest even before large numbers of U.S. ground troops were committed in 1965. Indeed, the final mass demonstration against the war coincided with Richard Nixon’s second inauguration on January 20, 1973 — one week before Nixon announced an end to American involvement in the conflict.
Only ending slavery ended the protest movement against slavery. Only ending the Vietnam War ended the protest movement against the Vietnam War. The genius of these movements and those who led them was that they were deliberately engineered to be insatiable except by the objective they sought, and incapable of compromising or mollifying with half-measures. That this is also true of the climate protest movement is plain, from watching the tactics of Extinction Rebellion or the harsh condemnations of Greta Thunberg.
Public involvement with climate change has experienced a seismic jump in just the past few months. Those who oppose meaningful action on climate change, like those who supported slavery and saw 19th century abolitionists as hotheaded troublemakers, desperately hope that this momentum is temporary. It isn’t. The protest movement is just getting started.
I wrote about these historical parallels to climate change, and many other issues, in my book The Warmest Tide: How Climate Change is Changing History.
Dr. Sean Munger is a historian, consultant, professional speaker, author and teacher. After practicing commercial law for many years, he earned a Ph.D. in environmental history and became an expert on the history of climate change. His book, The Warmest Tide: How Climate Change is Changing History, came out in August 2019. He is also the host of Second Decade, a historical podcast about the 1810s. He frequently speaks on climate and historical topics, and has taught students from middle school to senior citizens. His website is www.seanmunger.com.