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Thursday, 23 January 2020 16:38

How civil disobedience is changing the conversation around the climate change emergency

Written by

Georgia Watson and Sharon Robinson,  

Global Challenges Program, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, NSW, Australia


The Wold Meteorological Organisation (WMO) have just reported that 2019 capped off an exceptionally hot decade, with global temperatures 1.1˚C  above pre-industrial levels last year. The Bureau of Meteorology’s annual climate statement for 2019shows that last year was Australia's warmest year on record, with the lowest annual rainfall on record, and will rank amongst the most severe drought years ever recorded. The consequences of this hotter, drier climate are evident. The 2019-2020 bushfire season has seen the greatest area of Australia burnt with at least 10.7 million hectares (as of 8 Jan 2020, across all states and territories excluding NT). Australia has already warmed 1.52˚C above average, surpassing the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels, and we are already seeing the devastating effects of our new climate on humans and wildlife


As scientists, we are often told we aren't doing enough to publicise the consequences of climate inaction - as though the reason for a lack of action is because we have not been compelling enough. But our job as scientists is the examine the evidence and provide factual accounts of what is happening, and while science communication is an essential skill, not all scientists are trained communicators. Governments have been aware of scientist’s predictions regarding the consequences of climate inaction for decades. Yet not enough is being done to protect everyday Australians from these consequences, whether they be the physical effects of bushfire smoke, or the psychological effects of 'eco-anxiety'. 


Climate researchers, whilst resilient, are not exempt from feelings of despair about the climate crisis. As editors from the key international journal Global Change Biology, we have been publishing and reviewing research on climate change and how it affects life on the planet for 25 years. Much of that research is then communicated to the media. The science and its consequences have been clear to us. It has really been a question of how to translate that knowledge into action. For decades, that has been a political, social and economic issue, and the inaction was often unfathomable. Meeting during the week of the September Climate Strikes, we wondered how these civil actions, like school strikes, were advancing knowledge and awareness of climate change. Being scientists, we decided  to compare how much media attention climate change receives from global protests versus major scientific reports.


Civil disobedience and activism has changed the discussion around the climate change emergency, bringing it to the forefront of public debate through global school strike events, disruptive acts of non-violent direct action (NVDA) and a common message: listen to the scientists . Our study found a spike in Google search terms such as "climate action" and "climate emergency" accompanying major global protests, such as the first and second Global School Strike for Climate events and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) London protests. A distinctive feature of movements such as the school strikes and XR is that they are led by young people, a group that is informed about and accept the science, and also the generation who have the most to lose from climate inaction. 


To address the significant challenges facing society, we need the very best scientists, teachers and communicators capable of translating that science to motivate and inspire wider audiences, including the public and policy makers. "Science without activism is powerless to enact change, but activism without science cannot direct change where it is needed. Both science and activism are needed to achieve effective societal change." 

The climate protests are giving us hope, that this wave of public opinion, grounded in science, will finally be enough to produce the change we need.

Read 2142 times Last modified on Sunday, 09 August 2020 15:17
Sharon Robinson

Senior Professor at University of Wollongong