Hot Activist Summer

With Greens expected to pay a price in next week’s European elections for voters’ ire at the high cost of EU climate policies, Europe may be in for a summer of violent and disruptive climate activism.

This Week's Trend In Brief:

  • Elections for the European Union Parliament take place June 6-9 and the Greens, who won big in the election five years ago campaigning on the Green New Deal, face a daunting prospect: losing nearly a third of their current 72 EU lawmakers.

  • Ahead of the 2019 EU elections, more than 6 million people flooded the streets of Europe hoping to force countries and companies to slash emissions and curb climate change, but that support has waned as voters’ willingness to bear the costs demanded of aggressive climate policies has dwindled.

  • At the same time, Europe has experienced growing violent and disruptive climate activism over the past year from activists who believe the EU is failing to do enough on climate and that “the best thing” is to “put direct pressure on the people who make the decisions.” 

  • Yet as European officials grapple with disruptive protestors, United Nations officials and advocacy organizations are warning against treating climate protestors too harshly, even as the disruptions range from defacing national and world treasures to shutting down airports and highways to attacks on critical oil infrastructure and even electric vehicles. 

  • With the EU elections expected to bring a wave of more right-leaning members into parliament, public affairs professionals must prepare for the backlash from climate activists who lost at the ballot box and seek less democratic ways to make their demands heard.

Digging Deeper:

The Greens, who rode a climate wave to victory five years ago, now face receding prospects in next week’s European Parliament elections as voters have begun to realize the full cost of their climate policies. Recent polling shows the Greens losing nearly a third of their current 72 EU lawmakers, which would cripple their ability to enforce the Green New Deal policies they pushed hard to enact. Green EU lawmaker Anna Cavazzini lamented, “People all loved us and the climate was the number one topic,” but “That’s a little different now” as “there is a bit of a social backlash against climate protection.” Instead of boasting more than 6 million marchers galvanized for climate action across Europe as they did five years ago, today those marchers have been replaced by farmers across Europe who organized en masse to blame green policies for rising costs while “climate marches are small and scattered.” Still, the European Greens have continued to double down on their climate ambitions even as some acknowledge that the same election strategy used in 2019 is “not working with the same fire and emotion” when it comes to their climate policies.
While the Greens deny their policies are the root cause of cost-of-life increases and other disruptions, some have pointed to those cost increases as playing a significant role in the Greens’ fall from popularity. According to University of Duesseldorf political scientist Stefan Marschall, “As soon as environmental policy is designed in concrete terms, then it becomes clear that this is something that also costs money… that leads to people turning away.” As we noted last October, “as voters’ awareness of the climate challenge grows, their willingness to bear the costs demanded of them do not,” leading “elected officials … to downplay or deny these costs,”  who then “may face difficult election prospects.” Now, the backlash against the Greens is expected to result in a major gain for right-leaning parties. Indeed, in some cases, voters’ pushback against the Greens has led to “physical attacks and vandalism on the campaign trail.”
The expected rise of a more conservative EU Parliament is likely to push climate activists towards more violent and disruptive actions.  While climate groups celebrated the Greens’ ascendancy in 2019 and activists feel “that progress has been made” with “some hard-fought wins,” they also believe “it’s not nearly enough.” In response to the prospects of a more conservative EU Parliament, groups like Extinction Rebellion say the plan “is clear: mobilise and disrupt in an attempt to put pressure on politicians.” Activists like Greenpeace Europe campaigner Silvia Pastorelli echo this sentiment, arguing “the best thing is always get involved and put direct pressure on the people who make the decisions” when “not finding a way to see the [climate] action.” Over the past year, climate activists have set up roadblocks, glued themselves to airport runways, targeted famous art galleries and museums, and launched attacks against oil refineries and even electric vehicles. While the European Greens may lose their ability to influence climate policy in the upcoming election, activists will continue to apply pressure, and some remain confident that concern about the climate will trigger new waves of climate actions.
Even as EU lawmakers and officials in member countries grapple with these unlawful and disruptive activities, they face pressure from United Nations officials and advocacy organizations to let climate protestors continue their wave of violence. U.N. Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders Michel Forst recently warned against “an increasingly severe crackdown” on climate activists across Europe, lamenting governments deeming violent activists “eco terrorists” and worrying “European media coverage often focuses exclusively on the drama around demonstrations and not on the climate crisis prompting the protests.” Similarly, “human rights experts” have warned against a crackdown on climate protestors and “draconian new laws” that label “activists as eco-terrorists.” Groups like the Human Rights Watch (HRW) have decried what they deem “increasingly harsh rhetoric and legal action” against disruptive climate activists, arguing international law “recognizes peaceful, nonviolent civil disobedience as a legitimate form of assembly.” HRW insists “disruptions of traffic blockades” are examples of peaceful civil disobedience and condemned the German government for pursuing criminal charges against activists who organized more than a dozen attacks on oil infrastructure.
In the aftermath of these pivotal elections, public affairs professionals must be prepared for a backlash on industry from the left, even as parliament shifts more to the right. While more tempered approaches to reaching a low or no-carbon future may be welcome for public affairs professionals and the companies they represent, climate activists will sound the alarm. Public affairs professionals must ensure they have a full understanding of the new policymakers and how old stakeholders will react to their shifts in policies. With the increase in disruptive and violent climate activism across Europe and climate on the ballot in the U.S., public affairs professionals must prepare for a loud debate as this portentous election year unfolds.

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