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The misguided tactics of modern climate activism

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By Bashir Dan

· 5 min read

Climate change is an urgent crisis, yet current activism is failing to spur the transformative action we desperately need. While today's climate movement has succeeded in raising awareness, too many activists have embraced attention-grabbing but counterproductive tactics that undermine their credibility and achieve little tangible impact.

Misplaced priorities

From gluing themselves to paintings to dumping manure at White House gates, many activists are obsessed with splashy stunts that grab headlines but often have questionable links to actual climate policies. These tactics aim to maximize shock value over substance, trying to force awareness through disruption. However, this outrages the public more than it mobilizes them. Even those who care about climate change find such self-indulgent antics off-putting. 

In October 2022, climate protesters threw tomato soup on Van Gogh's Sunflowers in London’s National Gallery. While they got media coverage, defacing a treasured painting turned off potential supporters. Such vandalism does nothing to curb fossil fuel use or hold corporations accountable. The same applies to disruptive tactics like blocking highways or chaining oneself to bulldozers. The inconvenience alienates everyday people just trying to go about their day. 

These activists justify such stunts as "civil disobedience," comparing themselves to past movements. However, most are not breaking unjust laws but rather wasting their efforts on meaningless spectacles. Blocking commuters and vandalizing public property does not move the needle on corporate accountability or political action. These tactics end up costing public goodwill rather than building the broad-based support needed to achieve change.

Demonizing opponents

Today's activists also tend to take a moralistic, absolutist stance that demonizes those who disagree. Climate action is framed in dogmatic, black-and-white terms, allowing little room for nuance. Those with even slightly different views are condemned as evil "deniers." But this licenses intimidation and ends up entrenching societal divides rather than bridging them.

When Joe Manchin defied the Democrats by opposing clean energy spending in late 2021, activists vilified him as a murderous, corrupt traitor. While Manchin’s stance rightly invited criticism, activists crossed a line into threats and harassment that only made compromise less likely. Such zealous demonization closes off paths to draw opponents into the fold through persuasion and political savvy.

Dismissing dissenters as ignorant or immoral may feel righteous, but it does not change minds. Converting climate bystanders requires empathy, not scorn. Even big corporations have diverse interests and constraints that activists rarely acknowledge. Without understanding divergent perspectives, activists cannot tailor appeals to resonate across divides. Their self-aggrandizing posture repels more people than it recruits.

Unrealistic demands

Today's activists also make extreme demands that lack political viability, like insisting governments immediately halt all fossil fuel use. However ambitious, such stances ignore economic realities and transition costs. Demonizing pragmatic approaches leads policymakers to dismiss activists as unreasonable radicals. 

When Democratic leaders negotiated a carbon-cutting deal with Manchin in 2022, activists slammed it as an abject failure for not eliminating fossil fuels entirely. But all-or-nothing stances make the perfect the enemy of the good. Gradual steps in the right direction can build momentum for more drastic action later. By failing to recognize political constraints, activists undermine their credibility and see their demands get sidelined.

Activists believe uncompromising stances are necessary to force change. But this backfires when their demands get ignored, fueling public frustration. Creating meaningful change requires activism paired with expert insights on crafting feasible policies. By detaching from practical strategies, activists undermine their own influence.

Feeding the bandwagon

Activism today also perpetuates groupthink and stifles critical evaluation through a bandwagon effect. Passionate advocacy attracts well-meaning followers who want to contribute to a cause. But this creates insular bubbles that reinforce extreme tactics and outlooks. Nuanced views get drowned out by purist peer pressure, escalating performative wokeness untethered to results.

When the disruptive group Extinction Rebellion launched in 2018, it attracted droves of followers galvanized by apocalyptic messaging. Its alarmist brinkmanship appeals to understandably scared citizens. But it also conditions adherents to abandon pragmatic problem-solving in favor of dramatic displays of activism. The absence of debate entrenches theatrical tactics as the only option.

This bandwagon effect lets activism become more about individual identity than collective progress. Social media fuels self-aggrandizing displays of commitment to the cause. The most radical stances draw the most followers and reactions online, incentivizing polarizing positions over persuasion. climate advocacy descends into virtue signaling in echo chambers far removed from converting skeptics.

The way forward

Passion alone cannot drive policy. Effecting real change requires difficult trade-offs, incremental wins, and broad coalitions. Activists should focus less on self-expression through disruptive stunts and more on organizing inclusive movements, articulating pragmatic solutions, and holding leaders accountable through votes, not publicity ploys. 

For example, activists could advocate for specific climate policies like implementing carbon fees, transitioning public transit to electric vehicles, and funding resiliency infrastructure. They could mobilize people to participate in public hearings, submit commentary during regulatory processes, and contact elected representatives urging support for such measures. Partnering with policy experts and impacted communities would ensure that proposed solutions are viable and reflect local priorities.

Activists should also spotlight how climate action improves lives by reducing pollution, creating jobs, and building sustainable infrastructure. They can pilot local projects like urban gardens, solar cooperatives, and eco-friendly affordable housing to show sustainability in action. Service-oriented advocacy rooted in shared values appeals to hearts and minds more than divisive rhetoric. 

Climate activism today has devolved into insular grandstanding that preaches to the choir but fails to do the hard work of changing minds. Unless activists temper their self-righteousness with political savvy, they will continue pursuing tactics more cathartic than catalytic. With time running out, the planet needs less moralizing and more strategic advocacy to spur climate action. 

Transforming societies requires slowly winning over converts through empathy and coalition-building. Activists must rediscover the art of constructive persuasion and principled compromise. Rather than pursuing purist poses, they should meet citizens where they are and pull them in the right direction through hope over fear. With creativity and wisdom, activism can still ignite the broad social awakening needed to address the climate crisis—but only if it abandons shallow tactics and takes the harder road of genuine change.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Bashir Dan is the CEO of Stack Carbon, a carbon asset developer and management company.

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