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.
- The People’s March for Climate, Jobs, and Justice (April 29, 2017), which was held on Trump’s 100th day in office and was led by a steering committee that commingled a host of older environmental organizations (e.g., Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council) with a number of newer ones focused on combating climate change (e.g., 350.org).
- Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice (September 8, 2018), organized by 350.org to demand a transition to a 100% renewable energy economy. While the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco served as the focal point and one of the largest marches in the U.S. happened in that city, actions linked to this event occurred in nearly 100 countries.
- Global Climate Strikes (March 15, May 24, and September 20–27, 2019). Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement and the youth organizers it inspired led the wave of climate strikes that swept the U.S. in 2019, including a September 19 rally in New York City with Thunberg as its keynote speaker. As with the Rise for Climate campaign, these were global events involving hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in countries all around the world, all demanding more aggressive action to mitigate climate change and pursue a more sustainable future.
- Youth Climate Strike (December 6, 2019), another global, student-led campaign timed to coincide with COP25, a round of United Nations–led talks in Madrid aimed at resolving disagreements over implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
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.