Do climate protests shift public support for climate change action?

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Do climate protests shift public support for climate change action?

As protests against climate change inaction intensify, a recent study examines their effectiveness in shifting politically polarized public opinion.

Bugden, D. (2020). Does Climate Protest Work? Partisanship, Protest, and Sentiment Pools. Socius, 6, 2378023120925949.

In recent years, climate action movements have catapulted the issue of climate change into the global spotlight. Activist groups like “Extinction Rebellion” and “Fridays for Future” have led the charge in advocating for ambitious climate action. While they have successfully captured the attention of the media, do such protests actually increase public support for climate action? If they do, which protest tactics are most effective at motivating action? A recent study in Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World seeks to answer these questions.

In the United States, opinions on climate change are divided along political party lines.  Democrats are more supportive of climate action than Independents and Republicans. Polarized public opinion on climate change has led social scientists to suggest that presenting new climate information can have a “backfire effect”: instead of increasing support for climate action, new information can be “counterproductive” as it can further reduce support among non-receptive audiences. Dr. Dylan Bugden, author of the recent Socius study, analyzes whether climate action protests can similarly cause a backfire effect among Independents and Republicans.

Bugden’s study tests the impact of three types of climate action protests: peaceful marches, civil disobedience, and violent protests. He uses a vignette experiment design to test these effects on Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. In this experimental design, respondents answer a questionnaire about their climate beliefs before and after reading a short fictitious news story about a climate protest. The differences in their responses before and after reading the story reveal the impact of the protest on their opinions.

The study results reveal that climate protests are effective at shifting public opinion in favor of climate action. Contrary to the possibility of a “backfire effect”, Bugden finds that climate protests have no effect on the level of support among Republican audiences. This directly contradicts claims that protests are self-defeating. Among Democrats and Independents, Bugden finds that protests tend to increase support levels. The positive effect of protests on Independents, in particular, contradicts the idea that protests only reinforce support among already sympathetic audiences.

Perhaps most notably, the study indicates that the type of protest influences these shifts in public opinion. Bugden finds that while violent protests have no effect on public support for climate action, both peaceful marches and civil disobedience are effective at raising public support. Peaceful marches have a stronger positive effect than civil disobedience. Bugden notes, however, that the greater positive effect of peaceful marches could potentially be balanced out by the greater media attention garnered by civil disobedience. This greater attention could allow acts of civil disobedience (such as blocking roads) to reach a broader audience. Based on these findings, Bugden concludes that civil disobedience and peaceful marches complement each other as both effective methods of raising public support for climate action.

Bugden’s study suggests that disruptive civil disobedience and peaceful marches are effective protest tactics that are not likely to trigger “backfire effects”. This means that instead of further alienating both bystanders and opponents of climate action, these tactics can be highly effective at shifting public opinion, even among previously unsupportive audiences like Independents. Using these tactics to successfully mobilize previously unsupportive audiences will be an important strategy for activists as they continue to build public and political will for climate action.

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