It’s the Climate Change, Stupid!

One issue has dominated environmental protest activity in the U.S. for at least the past four years, and that’s climate change.

The charts below show monthly counts of protest events raising environmental concerns, and sums of estimated participants in those events (with appropriate caveats), in the U.S. since January 2017, according to the Crowd Counting Consortium’s dataset. Measured by events or participants, just a handful of months—or days, really—produced the bulk of the environmental protest activity in the Trump era.

As the labels in the charts suggest, all of the peak days of environmental activism in the Trump era were linked to global or national campaigns demanding more aggressive action to combat climate change. While national or international environmental NGOs led the first couple of those campaigns, two things were notable about the more recent ones: they were led by youth activists, and they were transnational, involving concurrent demonstrations in many countries around the world.

A word cloud of CCC coders’ summaries of the demands or claims made by organizers and participants in those events gives essentially the same impression as the column charts of monthly activity: URGENT ACTION CLIMATE CHANGE.

Beyond affirming the focus on climate change, the word cloud also surfaces evidence of other major themes of environmental protest in the past four years, many of them connecting with climate activism and each other.

  • Fossil fuels and renewable energy
  • Jobs and the economy (‘economic’, ‘job’, ‘worker’, ‘unionize’)
  • Oil and gas pipelines, such as Dakota Access, Keystone XL, and Line 3
  • Racial and social justice (‘equity’, ‘equitable’, ‘racial’, ‘racism’, ‘community’)
  • Indigenous peoples’ rights and sovereignty (‘indigenous’, ‘native’)

Finally, if we revisit the time-series charts at the top of this post, we can also take note of the scarcity of environmental protest in the U.S. through much of 2020. After a few years with numerous massive, often transnational mobilizations, the absence of any similar peaks in 2020 really stands out.

Two things that come to mind when thinking about the opportunity space for contentious politics during 2020 are, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic and the George Floyd uprising. Superficially, at least, it looks those phenomena sharply slowed the momentum that built around climate change activism in 2018 and 2019. While the pandemic kept many people shuttered in their homes, the George Floyd uprising may have drawn the attention of many politically active young Americans toward a different (but similarly urgent) set of social-justice issues.

The slow but steady growth in environmental protest activity we’ve seen in the CCC data over the past few months suggests this quiet spell may be ending, however, with indigenous-led activism against the Line 3 pipeline project in Minnesota representing one important driver of that rebound. What we haven’t seen again yet are any of the large, coordinated campaigns for action against climate change like the ones that dominated environmental activism in the Trump era. Given the urgency of the problem, I suspect that won’t be true for long.

As always, you can find the data and R script used in this post on the Nonviolent Action Lab‘s GitHub repository.

Published by Jay Ulfelder

Jay Ulfelder has worked for more than two decades at the intersection of social science and data science, with particular interests in contentious politics, democracy, and forecasting.

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