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Do Climate Marches Encourage Others to Take Action?

When it comes to changing people's perceptions, a study suggests that the climate movement may be different from other causes.
Young Spanish climate activists take part in a demonstration in Barcelona, Spain, on May 24th, 2019, as part of global protests demanding action against global warming.

Young Spanish climate activists take part in a demonstration in Barcelona, Spain, on May 24th, 2019, as part of global protests demanding action against global warming.

There has already been an unprecedented wave of climate activism in 2019, from the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations in the United Kingdom to the Youth Climate Strikes that mobilized young climate activists across the world. Strikes, protests, and marches have become a primary way for citizens to express concerns over alarming climate trends—and government inaction.

Are the marches effective? Maybe: A study published earlier this year in the journal Frontiers in Communication found that climate marches have some positive effects: High-profile marches have the potential to increase positive perceptions of demonstrators and strengthen beliefs in the power of collective climate action. The researchers found, however, that marches don't tend to encourage observers to take action themselves.

In order to deepen their understanding of the psychological drivers of collective action (including beliefs about collaborative climate action, perceptions of others' climate change activism and concerns, impressions of marchers, and participants' willingness to take action themselves), a team of researchers surveyed nearly 600 "bystanders" the day before the March for Science and several days after the People's Climate March (the two marches took place roughly one week apart in 2017). The researchers defined bystanders as individuals who didn't attend the marches but heard about them through the media.

Participants were asked to respond to a number of questions, including if (and how much) they knew about the marches, their perceptions of the marches' participants, and whether they believed in collective efficacy—which, in the context of climate change, refers to the idea that, by working together, people can collectively address the climate crisis. The researchers also collected data on the political leanings of respondents' news consumption, to examine if and how the media influenced different beliefs (or psychological motivators) that impact an individual's willingness to take part in collective climate action.

Impressions of Collective Efficacy

The study found that participants were more optimistic about collective climate change action after the marches. And unsurprisingly, the type of media consumed by the survey participants influenced the way that climate marches affected their perception of collective action. What did come as a surprise to the researchers, however, was that consumers of conservative media showed the largest increase in favorable beliefs about collective efficacy.

The reason for this, the researchers explain, may be that conservative news media had less coverage leading up to the marches, but news coverage after the marches was more or less equal among news organizations across the political spectrum. As a result, consumers of conservative news had a greater possibility of increasing their belief in collaborative efforts to tackle climate change because they had less favorable opinions about collective action to begin with.

But this doesn't mean there will be a surge in climate activism among conservatives: Heightened beliefs in the ability of collective action to create meaningful change don't necessarily translate into an individual feeling called to participate in collective action.

Impressions of Marchers

Previous research has concluded that certain types of activism lead to bystanders perceiving activists (and, by extension, their work) as extreme, militant, and alienating. The climate movement, the researchers suggest, may be different.

People across the political spectrum saw the protesters as "less arrogant, less whiny, and less eccentric," after being bystanders of a climate march, Janet Swim, an author of the study and a professor of psychology at Penn State University, told Grist.

Again, these perceptions varied depending on what media the respondents consumed. The researchers found that participants who consumed more conservative media had more negative impressions of marchers in general. The researchers posit that this is probably because conservative news sources are more likely than liberal news sites to portray such protesters negatively.

Collective Action Intentions

Despite their potential to change people's perceptions, the study found that the marches were limited in their ability to promote tangible climate engagement: Few respondents were willing to engage in collective action either before or after the marches.

However, those who followed conservative media were actually more likely to experience a heightened intention to participate in collective climate action, such as a climate march.