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2019: A Watershed Year for Global Environmental Activism

Saif Islam 15 January 2020
15 January 2020    Saif Islam

Political Violence Special Edition

S-RM's fourth annual Political Violence Special Edition

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Incidents of mass mobilisation over environmental issues such as climate change gained significant global traction in 2019. Inspired by environmental activists such as Greta Thunberg and organisations such as Extinction Rebellion, millions of school learners, university students, activists and supporters have been organising protests and strikes across the world. The largest events occurred in Australasia, Western Europe and North America.

These protest actions not only imposed pressure on politicians but also targeted the commercial sector. For example, in London, protesters blocked roads outside the Bank of England, glued themselves to the London Stock Exchange entrance, and blockaded or damaged offices of several multinational corporations. Protesters also halted traffic in other urban centres around the world, bringing many of them into a standstill.

Activists are adamant that if governments and international organisations do not take firm action on climate change, protest activities will persist. In the coming months, mass protests are likely to continue and may even expand. 2020 will mark five years since the adoption of the Paris Agreement, when countries will assess how much greenhouse gas emissions they have managed to cut, and what more needs to be done. These negotiations are likely to be fraught and indecisive, encouraging the new generation of environmental activists to remain on the streets.

However, question marks remain whether the unprecedented level of environmental activism witnessed in 2019 can be maintained over the long term. Major environmental protests have historically been defined by short bursts of activity around important climate deadlines or summits, with momentum eventually fading. This happens for several reasons, including disillusionment with slow pace of political action, unrealistic deadlines set by activist groups, and weak organisational structures. For example, Thunberg recently said that the 2019 school strikes “achieved nothing” because greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise. This means that environmental groups will continue to advocate on these issues in the near future, but disappointment over lack of change as well as protest fatigue could make it difficult to maintain the extraordinary degree of participation witnessed in 2019. Similarly, unrealistic goals by certain groups – such as Extinction Rebellion’s demand that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced to net-zero by 2025 – could also dampen their supporters’ motivation in the long run.

 

2019 environmental protest in numbers

As at 1 December 2019, organisers say an estimated 13 million people participated in 70,000 protest events in 6,900 cities in more than 200 countries and territories.
The 20 September demonstrations – which attracted more than four million people worldwide – were reportedly the largest environmental protests in history.

 

Some highlights from September protests:

SRM Political Violence Special Edition - Protest Highlights Map

 

Major Protests and Strikes

SRM Political Violence Special Edition - Major Portest and Strikes timeline-1

Commercial and financial impact

Extinction Rebellion’s protest actions cost the UK police more than USD 50 million in 2019
In April, London’s West End businesses lost an estimated USD 16 million in sales in only two days of protests
Thousands of tech workers in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, walked out on 20 September
In the US, at least 400 businesses closed or gave workers time off on 20 September

 

Read our 2020 Political Violence Special Edition for more global security insights.

 

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Saif Islam
Saif Islam Senior Analyst, Security and Crisis Management Email Saif

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