When millions of people all around the world protested in September 2019 against our lack of action against climate change, many saw it as useless — after all, what has striking to do with climate change? But for many, it was a spark of light in what often seems like a lost battle, the first time they could let their voices be heard on climate change.
Could striking be a way to legitimately change things for the better? The science seems to suggest so.
The word “strike” was first used in the 1768, when sailors, in support of demonstrations in London, “struck” or removed the topgallant sails of merchant ships at port, thus crippling the ships. The concept, however, is much older. The workers of Pharaoh Ramses III in ancient Egypt on November 14 in 1152 BC walked off their jobs to protest against low wages — and it worked, as the Pharaoh increased their wages.
Striking became much more prevalent after the industrial revolution though. In the US, for instance, there were 4,740 strikes in 1937, with the number going down steadily ever since. But striking is, on almost all occasions, an interaction between workers and employers (or regulators).
An unusual type of strike took place in 2019. A “Climate Strike”, a series of international strikes and protests carried out over a week drew worldwide attention. Over 7 million people participated in 4,500 locations in 150 countries, demanding more decisive action against climate change.
Despite unprecedented grassroots movements in many parts of the world, the strike also received scathing criticism, particularly from those on the conservative side. Many also doubted where this type of movement can also change anything realistically. According to one study, it can.
The research, recently published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, suggests striking can promote the psychological factors most important for fighting against climate change.
“If you’re wondering what you, as an individual, can do to support action against climate change, joining a strike (and asking your friends, family and colleagues to come with you) is a very good start,” the study authors Belinda Xie and Ben Newell from University of New South Wales write in an article explaining their findings.
They started from previous research, which suggests that a range of factors affect people’s willingness to act on climate change. The idea was to see what are the most important factors and how they could be addressed, and they investigated this by surveying a large sample of Australians, asking them how willing they would be to act on climate change, support social interventions, or taking advocacy action.
“We found that the three most important variables in predicting an individual’s willingness to act were affect, mitigation response inefficacy, and social norms,” the researchers write.
The most important factor, affect, refers to how unpleasant people found climate change directly. The more unpleasant they found it, the more likely they were to be willing to act on climate change. So should we make people feel worse about climate change?
The answer isn’t straightforward. It’s good that people are aware that climate change is a real problem, and it helps that we feel some sense of urgency. But given the global nature of the problem, people are increasingly feeling helpless and anxious about it, without any solutions to work on.
This is where the second aspect comes in.: mitigation response inefficacy, or “inefficacy” for short. In other words, this is a feeling that no matter what your nation does, it’s not enough to reduce the global effects of climate change — a feeling of powerlessness.
The more powerless people feel, the less likely they are to act, so researchers emphasize promoting collective action, emphasizing the difference we can make together. For instance, there is a big difference between these two sentences, although they mean the same thing, and recent research suggests that the second is far more motivating:
- If one person for a week reduced their TV usage by 20 percent, then, in total, they would prevent 0.5kg of CO₂ being released into the environment.
- If 1,000 people for a week reduced their TV usage by 20 percent, then, in total, they would prevent 500kg of CO₂ being released into the environment.
This is where the strike part comes in. By participating in the strike, people are emphasizing collective action over individual action, which is more effective.
This also fits with the third factor highlighted by Xie and Newell: social norms.
“Social norms capture the extent to which people important to you are acting on climate change (descriptive norms) and the extent to which you think those people expect you to act on climate change (prescriptive norms),” they write. The more people participate in the strike, the more acceptable it becomes to take different action on climate change.
Critics are quick to point out that vague concepts like awareness and participation often don’t amount to anything, but research (and researchers) suggest otherwise. Grassroots awareness movements can have an impact, and can make people feel confident about tackling a seemingly unconquerable problem.
“By attending the strike, you will increase the effectiveness of the strike for you and the others around you. And by encouraging your friends and family to go with you, you will promote the social norms that support climate change action,” the researchers conclude.