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date: 27 June 2022

Social Movements and Climate Change: “Climatizing” Society From Withinfree

Social Movements and Climate Change: “Climatizing” Society From Withinfree

  • James GoodmanJames GoodmanUniveristy of Technology Sydney


Climate change brings profound challenges for social movements. The persistent failure to address climate challenges has driven a rapid “climatization” of politics. Spurred by the climate justice movement, social movements across a broad spectrum have become directly engaged with climate issues. Social movements are defined as groupings of people who act intentionally through an organization or via a network or even as a loose affiliation. They must have a collective identification and capacity for sustained action and participation. Their purpose often is to transform the conditions for social change as key agents in creating a “movement society” of mass political involvement. In doing so, social movements engage in a “metapolitics” of creating power and recreating society. Climate movements are increasingly being shown to have this effect. Recent research demonstrates that with climate change, there is a growing realignment in the social movement field to simultaneously address both climate concerns and social agendas. New forms of social agency are emerging under climate change, posing a new kind of climatized “movement society.” Arguably, as demonstrated by the limited efforts at developing international climate policy, mass mobilization on climate issues is a necessary element of any strategy to secure climate stability. Three broad fields of action are evident – politicising the impacts of climate change, contesting the causes, and advancing solutions. In each there is a widening field of agendas as climate concerns overwhelm existing social relations. Distinctive strategies emerge. First, there is growing collective identification among people affected by the impacts of climate change, now or anticipated, with a marked shift from climate advocacy to climate organizing, of acting “with,” not “for” those affected. Second, actions to challenge the legitimacy of the fossil fuel sector have escalated, materializing the causes of climate change in the fossil fuel cycle. With this, there is a move from abstract demands for emissions reduction to much more concrete demands for fossil fuel phase-out. Finally, in terms of solutions, there is a move from a focus on emission-reduction programs to wider policy agendas designed to transform social relations. Emissions reduction is no longer seen as a burden to be shared, but as part of wider social transformation, of benefit to all.


  • Psychology and Sociology


Climate change poses profound questions for political agency. Its historical depth and global scale demand far-reaching action, with unprecedented urgency. To what extent is it possible for societies to take up this challenge and to act on climate change? Can “purposeful” climate agency, as Hulme called it (2010), come from our existing sociopolitical systems? And if not, what kinds of institutions and initiatives are needed to address this imperative? Social movements, as historical actors, have taken up systemic challenges in the past (Arrighi et al., 1989). The changes wrought by anticolonial movements are a case in point—facing the seeming inevitability of colonial rule, they made the world anew, decolonizing across the globe and in the process transforming political institutions and the way political power was exercised. Climate change and the requirement for decarbonization likewise bring the imperative for new political arrangements, for new institutions and sources of power to take societies beyond the fossil fuel era.

This article surveys recent research into these issues. It aims at a constructive analysis and advances specific thematic propositions about the direction and logic of social movements as they increasingly come to address climate concerns. It casts a wide net, seeking research insights into the way that social movements are responding to the challenges of climate change. This encompasses what has come to be called the climate movement, but it also extends well beyond this to include research into how other social movements have become articulated with climate-related issues. The focus is on political and institutional challenges posed by climate change, and on research that investigates how challenges are being recognized and addressed. Climate change poses a societal threat of unprecedented force and reach, and it arguably engages all social movement aspirations. This article outlines key debates in the politics of social movements in “climate society” and develops a three-part typology, distinguishing social movements that are centered on politicizing climate change impacts from those contesting the causes of climate change and those seeking to advance solutions to climate instability. It highlights three key shifts: a move from advocacy to movement organizing, a new material focus on “unburnable carbon,” and a move to advancing the social benefits of decarbonization.

The Centrality of Climate Politics

It is widely acknowledged that the key barriers to effective climate action are as much social and political as they are technical or scientific. As Renn (2011) has argued, “A better understanding of the human drivers for initiating, promoting or hindering change … is as crucial to effective decision-making as are the findings of the natural and climate sciences” (p. 154). While climate science has delivered a deep understanding of the causes of the climate crisis, the renewable sector and its multiple offshoots in energy development have delivered wide-ranging sociotechnical solutions. These are now positioned not only as necessary for climate stability but as a fundamental requirement for economic development and continued capitalist accumulation (McCarthy, 2015). Energy transition is no longer presented as a painful medicine but, rather, as a necessity for future prosperity (IRENA, 2016). The shift threatens to tip the balance against the fossil fuel sector, which continues to mobilize its extensive political resources to advance its interests (Influence Map, 2019). Reflecting widespread acceptance of the necessity for climate action, the defense of fossil fuels is centered on the claim that transition is something for the future, not for the present. This “yes, but not yet” position entrenches an expanding trajectory for fossil fuel extraction and burning (Carroll et al., 2018; Goodman et al., 2020). The resulting confrontation over energy transition magnifies the public drama of the climate crisis. The polarization over this last-ditch effort to dig and drill before the window closes on fossil fuels is most perversely exemplified in the advent of governments explicitly committed to fossil fuel advocacy, from populist conservatives such as Donald Trump to social democrats such as Justin Trudeau (Kraushaar-Friesen & Busch, 2020).

The growing political antagonism over energy transition reflects a deep-seated dependence of the existing global economy on fossil fuels. In 2015, the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, estimated that one third of global assets were bound into the future of fossil fuels (2015). Unraveling that dependence poses a profound challenge, and one that is conditional upon overcoming the continued political influence exercised by the fossil fuel sector (Carroll, 2020). That task—of decoupling fossil fuels from the political system—is arguably impossible without large-scale systemic change. The political systems we live with today have emerged from 300 years of social and political development based on fossil fuels (Freese, 2003). Early democratization was closely linked to urbanization and factory production, unthinkable without fossil fuels. Democratic societies grew out of fossil fuel–based society: as Mitchell (2009) argued, they are “carbon democracies,” driven by the constituencies (not least coal miners) created by fossil fuel–based industrial change. As Malm (2016) argued, overcoming the power of “fossil capital” is hence fundamentally a political question.

Arguably, the capacity to act on climate change has already become central to government legitimacy. Climate concerns have acquired a dramatically wider scope and urgency as climate instability gathers pace. Where once climate change was understood to be an “environmental” matter, placed under the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) since 1992 it has increasingly become also an economic issue, a social and cultural issue, and an issue for public administration and state security. In 2009, the sociologist Anthony Giddens (2009) stated that climate concerns were society-wide and had to escape from confinement in the environmental field. The pursuit of environmental goals and values can become separated from everyday social contexts, as expressed in the “jobs versus the environment” polarity, for instance. Defining climate change as centrally a question of social justice between generations, for instance, overcomes this problem. It also directly brings people into the equation as social protagonists, enabling wider possibilities for movement building.

In large part, Giddens’ recommendation has been realized, partly through the sheer logic of climate change impacts, partly through changing technology for decarbonization, but also through the pressure that has been brought to bear on governments by a wide range of advocacy groups and social movements, to produce a more effective response. Aykut et al. (2017) analyzed this process at the international level, where a range of policy fields, from energy to migration, development, and even security, have been “climatized” by the imperatives of climate change. In this, social movements have played a key agenda-setting role. Climate concerns have become widely articulated with other priorities, as meta-concerns patterning other fields. Social movement goals depend upon effective climate action, and not surprisingly climate concerns have been increasingly integrated with social aspirations. The process is not a seamless one, rather, there are intense dialogues and disputes between contending ways of addressing the crisis, and between the contrasting values they express.

Social Movements in “Climate Society”

Social movements typically emerge in the context of deep societal contradictions (Arrighi et al., 1989). They produce and express a clash of social forces, forcing a process of mass public engagement and normative deliberation, and are highly dynamic, moving in cycles over history. Movements typically emerge through antagonism over elite power and political institutions, or forms of social stratification and cultural domination, or conflicts over resources and environments. They forge new constituencies and aspirations, and often become embedded within state institutions, policy regimes, and social norms. Social movement theorist Sidney Tarrow (1994) defines movements as forms of intentional collective action, guided by common purpose. They may be organized or take the form of loose networks, but they must be sustained over time. They often articulate aspirations beyond existing agendas, forcing systemic political change, generating new political institutions.

Multiple sites of climate contestation have emerged as movements correlate their demands to climate concerns. In this respect, movements reflect the extent to which wider society is being subsumed by the climate crisis, as a crisis produced by dominant forms of production and livelihood. This is a vitally important process: as capitalist society remakes climate, it is forced, dialectically, to remake itself (Moore, 2017). The transformation of society by its own ecological effects, and its expression in social movements, is the precondition for meaningful climate agency. There is an important parallel here with labor relations, where the subsumption of labor by capital opened up new sources of leverage for labor in overcoming exploitation, or at least in ameliorating it (Smith, 2007). Likewise for climate movements, the widening “cascades” of climate impacts dialectically offer new foundations for social movement mobilization—they create the capacity and agency to act back on the causes and advance solutions (Bellamy-Foster, 2019). In the process we may anticipate a growing transformation and redefinition of social relations as more explicitly “socioecological” relations, transforming the meaning of society itself. Sidney Tarrow spoke of a “movement society” where mass social movements set and advance the agendas for social change (Tarrow, 1994). We can anticipate a similar phenomenon under advancing climate change, perhaps as a shift to a climatized “movement society,” centered on repairing social-ecological relations.

The climatization process is broadly similar but very uneven. There is unevenness across different types of movements, with some more directly affected by climate change and climate policy than others. There is also spatial unevenness, as some movements are closer to climate impacts or where people are more aware of climate issues and responsibilities. The unevenness is important as an expression of the injustices of climate change and changes as the climate crisis spills out over multiplying social fields and places (Derman, 2020; Doherty & Doyle, 2013). The resulting dialogues across movements and spatial contexts, as part of a transnational upsurge in climate agency, are vitally important for the unfolding process.

In some fields of policy, social goals are immersed in climate contexts: energy policy is an example of this, especially in high-income countries. In contrast, agricultural livelihood and health policy may be much more affected in low-income climate vulnerable countries (Chaudhuri, 2021). The shared context for these developments is equally important: climate change has a universalizing “global” dimension to it, offering a powerful foundation for mutual recognition, ideological resonance, and provocation to action (Tokar & Gilbertson, 2020). Climate change cannot be contained within national or other spatial contexts, and vice versa, no spatial unit can wholly insulate itself from its effects. This is self-evident in its biophysical logic, as a global phenomenon, but also in the sense of the uneven responsibilities that flow from this, where emissions in one part of the world are linked with impacts in another more vulnerable part of the world (Delina, 2018). Reflecting this, climate action can gain transnational symbolic resonance far beyond immediate contexts, the “Fridays for Future” youth mobilization being a case in point.

This double move, a global process with vastly uneven outcomes, drives agendas for climate justice. The shared subsumption into a global climate crisis that is riven by fossil capital creates new lines of connection and solidarity, expressing deep inequalities between peoples. These social asymmetries are central to the capacity to mobilize. In this sense, the capacity to politicize social justice claims around climate issues is at the core of climate justice. This is not new: interstate climate justice has been at the center of the international climate regime since its inception (Klinsky et al., 2016). Yet, the process is accelerating. With the advent of “comprehensive” climate policy since the 2015 Paris Agreement, the asymmetries of climate change have been widely domesticated. Across many countries the national-level emissions reduction commitments that were entered into at Paris have become a clear target for climate action campaigning. New mobilized constituencies have been politicizing climate issues locally as well as internationally, forcing new transformations in the agendas and process of democracy. Mobilization was concentrated in the high-income countries that were held primarily responsible for historical emissions, and which had committed to emissions reduction under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The growing impacts of climate change in low-income countries and the growth of emissions, especially in newly industrializing countries such as China and India, along with the emergence of the “comprehensive” model for emissions reduction, has seen mobilization becoming more widely disseminated. Research into social movements and climate change reflects these developments: most studies are centered on high-income countries, but this is changing as social movements address climate change more directly in the lower-income contexts.

Existing Research on Social Movements and Climate Change

The social sciences and humanities have come relatively late to questions of climate change and climate agency (Lipshutz & McKendry, 2011). Until recently advances have been mainly in governance and policy debates, and in the economics of climate policy, rather than in questions of social and political advocacy. When climate movements were addressed in the sociology and politics journals, they were generally treated as a subset of environmental movements, and rarely addressed in their own right. This changed with the emergence of more proactive and direct social mobilizations for climate action in the mid-2000s. There was a relative surge of academic research in the field, addressing climate advocacy in its own right, with a range of monographs and edited collections (Abate & Warner, 2013; Anshelm & Hultman, 2015; Bond, 2012; Doherty & Doyle, 2013; Hadden, 2015; Hampton, 2015; Kent, 2015; Machin, 2013; Noorgard, 2011; Nulman, 2015; Princen et al., 2015; Rosewarne et al., 2013). In 2014 there was a substantial handbook on climate movements, which itself noted growing interest in the topic since 2005 (Dietz & Garrelts, 2014, p. 8); a second handbook followed in 2018, on climate justice (Jafry, 2019). The most recent literature has developed a strong focus on the organizational dimensions of climate advocacy (Delina, 2018; Derman, 2020; Heijden et al., 2019), including through the “Green New Deal” (Hathaway, 2020), “Fridays for Future” (de Moor et al., 2020), “student strikes” (Martiskainen et al., 2020), and “Extinction Rebellion” (Berglund & Schmidt, 2020; Doherty et al., 2020). Research centers on the process of contesting climate policy and takes a qualitative approach, drawing on aspects of ethnography and policy studies.

Some key issues and developments have emerged. There is contention over the cause of the crisis, as an anthropogenic product of humanity in general (Chakrabarty, 2008), or as a product of the dominant social system, of the “capitalocene” (Moore, 2015). There is a debate about whether capitalist formations must be reformed, transformed, or superseded to address the crisis (Malm, 2016). There is contention over the role of climate science in legitimizing the advocacy agenda, with an intense debate over the place of justice claims in climate advocacy (Cabello & Gilbertson, 2015). The climate justice perspective itself emerged as an alternative to the largely Northern “climate action” movement, producing a “frame shift” to justice issues from the early 2000s (Jamison, 2010), generating debate about the new foundations for climate movements that this offers (Doherty & Doyle, 2013). In parallel there have been debates about domesticating climate advocacy, to become more embedded in concrete social concerns (Rootes et al, 2012). Domestication occurs for instance where climate action movements target domestic sources of emissions (rather than international negotiations). Since the mid-2000s there has been a strong emphasis on halting fossil fuels “at source,” which has mobilized a wide range of indigenous, peasant, and farmer groups concerned about the loss of lands and livelihood (Princen et al., 2015). Industry bodies have been recruited to advocate for low-cost renewable energy transition, and trade unions have sought to advance “just transition” for the low-carbon economy (Hoff & Gausset, 2016). The finance sector and ethical investors were also targeted, to divest from “unburnable” fossil fuels (Alexander et al., 2014).

These policy fields, and many others, have seen the emergence of new constituencies for climate action. With evident unevenness, and different levels of intensity, the diversity of responses shares the common purpose of popularizing climate concerns and delegitimizing fossil fuels (Goodman et al., 2020). Intensifying climate disruption has been critical, driving a policy dynamic away from consensual pragmatic goals. The debate has radicalized, but also entered the mainstream with the growing acceptance and availability of renewable energy, for instance. There are now important debates about climate policy as not just scientifically necessary but economically and socially desirable, as exemplified in the “Green New Deal” (Aronoff et al., 2019).

Not surprisingly, there are contrasting values and approaches articulated by social movements to address climate concerns. Researchers have developed various typologies to interpret these approaches. Tokar and Gilbertson (2020) found a confluence of three forces: mobilizations against fossil fuel extractivism, environmental justice organizing, and global justice framings. Their approach highlights the situated origins of these aspects, across North and South, to advance justice claims under neoliberalism. More widely, there is a distinction drawn between reformers and challengers: Dietz and Garrelts, for instance, identified a two-part divide between climate modernizers and climate justice advocates (Dietz & Garrelts, 2014, p. 2). Jamison developed a three-part distinction between “old” forms often expressed in party-political formations, “new” environmental movements institutionalized into environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs), and the emergent climate justice orientation (Jamison, 2010). Reitan and Gibson also suggested a three-part climate advocacy framework, centered on ideological divides between reformist ENGOs, Marxists, and anarchists (Reitan & Gibson, 2012).

The approach taken here is more pragmatic: rather than focusing on the ideological dynamics within the climate movement, this article aims to map the engagement with climate concerns across a range of social movements, spanning spatial contexts and social issues. Most studies of climate advocacy center on the “climate movement” and conduct research into its spread across the globe. This article focuses more on the deepening of the agenda as climate concerns are taken up by a wide range of other social movement organizations. There is a growing domestication and “materialization” of climate advocacy, with a range of organizations seeking to advance climate policy in particular social and economic sectors, from farming, to finance, to healthcare, to energy and transport. New constituencies are being created and new sites of leverage have been produced. As argued, this process of “climatization” is creating new political horizons for climate advocacy, and for addressing climate change.

A Cascade of Climate Agendas?

The growing impact of climate change, paired with extensive policy failure, is producing a cascade of climate-related campaigns and mobilizations. The spread of “climatization” reflects the growing politicization of the carbon cycle. Growing greenhouse gas emissions, and failed efforts at emissions reduction, are revealing the historically ingrained injustices of climate change. Until the 1980s, the extraction and burning of fossil fuels had been normalized and celebrated as a marker of industrial progress and prosperity (Freese, 2003). With climate change, the destructive impact of the fossil fuel cycle was made visible: the social-industrial complex that produces fossil capital became highly contested as a gross injustice to those affected by climate change now and into the future (Bond, 2012). Reflecting this, climate mobilization directly followed the “supply-side” logic of the fossil fuel cycle from extraction, to global warming, to climate change impacts (see Jacobsen, 2018; Piggot, 2018). The central logic of climate change channels social agency and contestation in the discernible “stages” of climate destabilization across the fossil fuel cycle.

Three such “stages” are extrapolated for this article, and are detailed for the purposes of analysis. They allow a rough heuristic to help understand the process of politicizing climate change, along the carbon cycle. The logical starting point is with the impact of climate change. Here it was the failure to develop effective climate policy from the late 1980s and the anticipated future impact of climate change that drove the first social movement mobilizations for climate action in the 1990s. Anticipated injustice resulting from policy failure, for instance, for inundated low-lying countries, was the driver for mobilization. With advancing present-day impacts of climate change, the sense of injustice, both within and between countries, has escalated and proliferated across the multiplying sites. The second key “stage” in the politicization of the fossil fuel cycle comes with a focus on causes rather than impacts of climate change. From the 2000s, the focus has increasingly been on the “carbon majors” as the key culprits and source of the problem. Here, the policy debates about carbon pricing and carbon sinks were superseded with the creation of new sites of mobilization to target the culprits. The third “stage” centers on the question of solutions, in terms of the mechanisms for decarbonization and emissions reduction. Campaigns centered on advancing “transitions” have emerged across multiple contexts. Increasingly these have brought together social justice and emissions-reduction efforts, framing transition as not only ecologically necessary but also socially desirable. The limited demand for energy transitions has escalated into wide-scale programs for socioecological transformation, which have gained significant traction in the post-Covid recovery. These three stages or dimensions are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1. Climate Change and Social Movements, a Three-Part Schema


Key campaigns/initiatives

Participating organizations/movements

Politicizing impacts

“Climate vulnerable” communities; Fridays for Future; antipollution/smog; workplace safety

Affected communities; environment and development NGOs; Indigenous peoples; youth climate movements; health NGOs; trade unions

Contesting causes

Campaigns against fossil fuel infrastructure: mines, oil/gas fields, pipelines, power stations; divestment; anti-offsets campaigns

Farmers/peasants; affected communities; Indigenous peoples; conservation NGOs; investment campaigners; climate solidarity groups

Advancing solutions

100% Renewables; just transitions; energy democracy; Green New Deals; degrowth; living well

Renewables NGOs; trade unions; social justice organizations; Left/socialist groups; ecofeminists; Indigenous peoples

The growing engagement of social movements across these three aspects of climate politics—impacts, causes, and solutions—are discussed each in turn. Across these aspects, there is a process of creating new constituencies and agendas for overcoming climate change injustices, defining climate action as a society-wide agenda.

(i) Politicizing Impacts—From Advocacy to Organizing

The question of climate action is posed in the first instance as a necessity to prevent climate instability (see successive IPCC reports). The anticipation of “downstream” impacts from rising emissions is critical for the mobilization of climate action as a justice concern at the international level. Justice in this context was initially understood as an interstate matter. The asymmetries are (at least) fourfold: Some states bear more responsibility than others, both for historical and present-day emissions; some are more vulnerable to those impacts than others; some have more capacity than others to adapt to these climate impacts or to reduce emissions; and some have more influence than others over the international climate policy decision-making process (Parks & Roberts, 2008). There is no neat alignment of states on either side of the ledger, though certainly, in broad terms, high-income early industrializers are positioned as culprits and their low-income counterparts as victims.

That alignment has changed with waves of industrialization. Climate change, insofar as it reflects global divisions, creates responsibilities for the “minority world” as against the “majority world.” This model was reflected in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, where the 36 high-income countries ostensibly took the lead in emissions reduction. This unintentionally created a perverse incentive for the rest of the globe to industrialize on the basis of fossil fuels. The emissions window allowed under the Kyoto Protocol enabled a 30-year wave of industrialization, especially in China and India. Emissions escalated across the newly industrializing countries and there was an intense debate about consequent responsibilities, precipitating conflict, for instance, at the 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations. In this context, climate campaigning focused on the need for more concerted action in high-income countries. Demands centered on countries most responsible for historic emissions that had signed up to emissions reductions under the Kyoto Protocol (see Brand et al., 2009).

The climate action movement was centered on environmental advocacy organizations making claims on behalf of the environment and of people affected by climate change. This environmental advocacy model was centered on legitimizing the science and empowering expert advocates in international forums (Nightingale et al., 2020). The plea for “climate action now” relied on the abstract terminology of “global warming” and “parts per million.” There were efforts to humanize the injustices of climate change by symbolically mobilizing peoples who were directly affected, from inundated islands or from drought or flood-stricken regions (Delina & Diesendorf, 2016). People in this sense were invoked as proxies for the wider problem, recruited into the process of international advocacy. In the process, climate action became defined as a form of abstracted ethical action on behalf of distant others (and relatively weak in terms of mobilization).

More recent climate action has shifted beyond advocacy, and instead sought to develop a more movement-building approach. This has been made possible by the spread of climate concern globally. With the 2015 Paris Agreement, there was a shift to globally “comprehensive” climate commitments (Chancel & Piketty, 2015), which reflected the growing impacts of climate change and the need for concerted action, including among later industrializers. With this, for instance, the Climate Action Network gained stronger presence beyond high-income countries, and supplemented advocacy with aspects of “community organizing” (Tattersall, 2015). Another climate action organization, “Extinction Rebellion” (ER), formed in 2017, retained the goal of urgent government action for emissions reduction, pursuing this through expressive civil disobedience designed to shock the wider population into recognizing the need for action (Berglund & Schmidt, 2020; Westwell & Bunting, 2020).

The shift into active movement organizing came with the move to a stronger “climate justice” framing (Hadden, 2015). Here, peoples affected by climate change could take leadership of the movement, substantially shifting the logic of politicizing climate impacts. Instead of environmental campaigners expressing outrage at the social impacts of climate change and seeking to advocate on behalf of peoples directly affected, we now increasingly see those peoples themselves forging their own constituencies and agendas (Hadden, 2015). This substantially alters the logic of mobilization: instead of peoples being invoked by advocates, we see the peoples themselves and their own representatives making their demands directly, and much more powerfully (Bond, 2012).

There are several examples of this shift. Indigenous peoples’ movements, for instance, have become prominent in contesting the impacts of climate change on their ancestral lands, especially in high-income settler societies such as the United States, Canada, and Australia (Whyte, 2017). Here, the destruction of ecosystems wrought by climate change is defined as another wave of colonization and cultural destruction (Norman, 2016). Indigenous movements now take a leading role in contesting fossil fuels, including in postcolonial contexts such as in India, and also in advancing alternative values for decarbonization. Indigenous peoples increasingly gear their campaigns for land and culture to the impacts of climate change, in the process opening up new agendas for both climate politics and land rights (Claeys & Pugley, 2017).

Trade union organizations are likewise increasingly focused on the impacts of climate change, and especially so in high-income countries (Hampton, 2015). There is an increase in efforts to politicize the impacts of climate change in the workplace in terms of rising workplace heat stress, for instance, with a major international initiative including the International Trade Union Confederation (UNDP, 2016). There is a focus on workers’ vulnerability to climate disruptions, and some of the key unions advancing this agenda in the United States are health workers and emergency workers (Sweeney, 2014), linked with other unions focused on “just transition” issues for fossil fuel–dependent regions (Stevis, 2018).

Perhaps most significant has been the explosion in organizing by young people. Quite remarkably, the mobilization of young people against intergenerational injustice has recently become the key driver for climate mobilization (Martiskainen et al., 2020). Greta Thunberg and the youth-led Fridays for Future movement has overwhelmed preexisting climate action movements in high-income countries. In sheer numbers the climate strike of 2019 mobilized between 4 and 6 million people in contrast with the previous high point of 1 million mobilized at the 2015 Global Climate March. This can be largely attributed to the symbolic power of the movement, as the personification of climate injustice (de Moor et al., 2020).

(ii) Contesting Causes—New Constituencies for Ending Fossil Fuels

The shift to climate justice from the mid-2000s signaled not simply a move to movement building, but also to mobilizing against the root causes of climate change in terms of fossil fuel extraction and burning. This opened up a “new frontier” in climate politics (Green, 2018), where fossil fuels now carry a normative burden, as a threat rather than an asset (Goodman et al., 2020). Refocusing on the causes of climate change was in part driven by a disenchantment with international negotiations for emissions reduction. This dates back to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which set targets well below the required minimum and gave states extensive scope to sidestep obligations via expanded carbon sinks and international offsets (Brand et al., 2009).

Offsetting arrangements became a key target for climate justice campaigners from the early 2000s, who began to mobilize against Clean Development Mechanism and other international offsets such as the proposal for offsetting credits from “Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation” (REDD). The injustice of shifting the burden of emissions reduction to low-income countries became a key flashpoint for the emergent climate justice movement (Bond, 2012). Here, the injustices of the climate policy regime itself, not simply the impacts of climate change, became a focus for contestation.

The effort to create offsetting mechanisms was experienced as a form of domination especially where land tenure and coastal rights are contested (Joshi, 2021). Peoples living in and dependent on “sinks” have become increasingly mobilized to maintain their livelihood and resource sovereignty. Indigenous movements against the UN’s REDD program became particularly important (Long et al., 2010) and positioned Indigenous peoples as leaders in emerging climate justice articulations (Claeys & Pugley, 2017). Partly as a result, REDD offsets are only permitted for voluntary emissions reduction efforts, not to meet country-level commitments. Other parallel mobilizations have emerged in the context of proposed offset regimes in soil and blue carbon (Barbesgaard, 2016). The demand is often for local benefit, and also for meaningful consent and participation; there is also a strong critique of the offsetting arrangements themselves, as giving high-income countries a justification for continued fossil fuel use.

The rejection of offsetting was part of a wider focus on fossil fuel emissions and on the fossil fuel sector as the key driver of climate change. As noted, prior to the mid-2000s, the climate movement was largely focused on policy debates, centered on the abstract question of society-wide emissions reduction and the issue of responsibility to achieve this. Disenchantment with international negotiations led the movement to focus more on the material drivers of emissions, to directly target fossil fuel extraction and burning “at source.” The abstract concept of “parts per million” was thereby translated into a much clearer focus on “unburnable carbon,” a term coined by the NGO “Carbon Tracker” in 2011 (Carbon Tracker, 2011; Edwards, 2019). Here, a wide range of new movement allies already engaged with issues of fossil fuel use could be brought into closer engagement with climate issues and in the process, new climate constituencies could be opened up. A wide range of strategies and forms of contestation could then be developed (David, 2018).

Two key insights helped precipitate and focus this strategic shift. The first was based on research published in 2009 in Nature, which measured the emissions potential of existing fossil fuel reserves against the remaining global carbon budget for limiting global warming to 2degC above preindustrial levels (Meinshausen et al., 2009). This was then amplified and elaborated by Carbon Tracker (2011) and by the climate campaigner Bill McKibben, who charted a new pathway for climate activism of targeting the fossil fuel sector as “Public Enemy Number One” (2012). The data was elaborated still further in 2015 with detailed country-level obligations to ensure that a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves, and over 80% of current coal reserves could be written off (McGlade & Ekins, 2015). Related, and equally important, was the research from Heede in 2014, which focused on the sources of global emissions and found that 65% of world emissions from 1751 to 2010 had been produced by just 90 entities, two thirds of which were corporations (Heede, 2014). This led to the “Carbon Majors Report” in 2017, which found that just 100 corporate and state entities were responsible for 71% of emissions from 1988, when the IPCC was established, to 2015 (Griffin, 2017).

The new focus on the material process of emissions production, and on particular culprits, drew the climate conflict into direct “close combat” with some of the world’s largest corporations and their economic allies (Princen et al., 2015). The material sites ranged from the financing of fossil fuel projects to opposition to fossil fuel installations in terms of impacts on local environments, land, culture, community, livelihood, water, and health (Lazarus & von Asselt, 2018). The dimensions of concern are spatially correlated along the commodity chain, from mining or drilling to pipelines, rail lines, and ports, to power stations and refineries, to consumers and waste outlets, and to those left in sacrificed landscapes. The swarm of concerns at the local impact of fossil fuels has become closely interrelated with climate concerns, and these have resonated within wider movements as a result (Carroll, 2020).

With the focus on “unburnable fuels,” a range of existing campaigns and movements have become more orientated to the climate agenda and have become closely articulated with climate concerns. Local mobilizations against fossil fuels have been refigured as global events, with significance for the wider struggle for emissions reduction (Brown & Spiegel, 2019). In the process, campaigns have gained significantly wider influence and traction on the ground. Often local movements themselves are not principally concerned with climate: their focus may be on farmers’ rights or peasant livelihood or Indigenous and forest rights, or on smog and health issues, or on workers’ rights and community survival, or on conservation and biodiversity. Increasingly though, their capacity to make gains on these issues has become closely linked with climate issues.

At one level the process can be interpreted as an emergence of climate-related tactical opportunities for those ranged against the fossil fuel sector. Certainly, there is an instrumental aspect to the process, as local campaigners seek a frame-shift and new climate campaigners deliberately seek out the new allies. Here, there are cross-accusations (reflecting preexisting hierarchies) against relatively elite climate movements as not genuinely committed to wider fossil fuel–related issues, or of locally dominant groups cynically seeking to control or manipulate ostensible allies. Yet there is also substantial evidence of more strategic and normative engagement (Edwards, 2019), especially as the alliances start to make gains against the fossil fuel sector, creating newly mobilized constituencies and opening up new agendas for social action (LeQuesne, 2019).

These place-based campaigns against the concentration of fossil fuel power have the effect of vastly magnifying the symbolic intensity of climate action. They also bring into play mobilized constituencies of affected communities, angry at existing or proposed fossil fuel infrastructure and its effect on land, water, biodiversity, health, culture, and community life (Brown & Spiegel, 2017). There are new and historic alliances emerging, for instance, between Indigenous peoples, environmentalists, and farmers or peasants, directly linking climate issues with issues of culture and livelihood (see cases in Tokar & Gilbertson, 2020). One celebrated example was the Dakota Pipeline campaign in the United States in 2018 that brought together Native American landholders with climate and environmental campaigners and trade unionists to challenge the construction of an oil pipeline on their lands (Deem, 2019). Also in the United States, the mobilization of communities against coal-fired power stations, initiated by environmental NGOs in the name of community health, has had remarkable success. In Australia, there has been a large civil disobedience movement, composed of environmentalists and farmers against coal seam gas, and Indigenous peoples have been central to campaigns against new coal mines. Anti–fossil fuel campaigns, though, are not confined to Northern contexts. There are powerful campaigns in India, linking Indigenous Adivasi communities and climate campaigners to halt new coal mines; there are many parallel cases against new coal, oil, and gas infrastructures in Latin America, across Southeast Asia, and in parts of Southern Africa (Global Energy Monitor, 2021; Goodman et al., 2020; Princen et al., 2015; Tokar & Gilbertson, 2020).

Social movement contestation of fossil fuel infrastructures is complemented by the rapid growth of divestment campaigns to force investors to exit from fossil fuels. Divestment has its origins in campaigns targeting particular states, such as Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. Building on campaigns against particular corporates, and related “corporate responsibility” and “ethical investment” initiatives, divestment has centered on a sector-wide process of “stigmatization” to remove legitimacy for fossil fuels (Ansar et al., 2013). The campaign has targeted institutions that have high public reputation, arguing their values prevent them from continuing to invest in fossil fuels. Religious and educational institutions, for instance, may have very little capital to withdraw from fossil fuel companies but, as they mobilize ethical claims, it can have a major public impact when they do so. Universities were an early focus, with student-led campaigns making gains on campuses beginning with Stanford in May 2014, extending to a lawsuit against Harvard, the world’s richest university. The same pressures were then put on charitable bodies, local councils, and other public authorities, all seen as expressing public values and interests.

Since 2015, divestment has spilled over into the wider finance sector. The key factor is the growing threat of more concerted climate policy under the Paris Agreement, which has created a new “transition risk” for fossil fuels, discouraging investors (Goodman & Anderson, 2020). In 2020, for instance, the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, announced it would only invest in companies that had plans “for operating under a scenario where the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to less than two degrees is fully realized” (Fink, 2020). Bill McKibben, key architect of the divestment strategy, called this a “watershed moment in climate history” (McKibben, 2020). Fossil fuel corporates themselves now face growing vulnerability to climate litigation, as a form of strategic legal action (Ganguly et al., 2018; Setzer & Brynes, 2019). Legal cases have been initiated by a variety of campaign organizations, notably by young people suing companies and governments for violating their rights to a stable climate, creating a new genre of climate engagement (Setzer & Vanala, 2018). Legal activists have moved from contesting planning decisions within the scope of existing law to invoking new legal precepts derived from international climate policymaking. New avenues have been created for invoking rights under advancing climate injustice, translating norms into legal effect.

(iii) Advancing Solutions—From Social Cost to Social Benefit?

One of the most significant changes to occur in climate politics in recent years has been the shift to viewing emissions reduction as an economic benefit rather than as a cost. The narrative of climate policy from the late 1980s was dominated by the question of burden-sharing. Emissions reduction was invariably understood as a burden that could negate development prospects and undermine competitiveness. The language of responsibility and obligation reflected this. US President George H. W. Bush famously announced at the 1992 climate summit that “the American way of life is not negotiable” and in 2001, his son, President George W. Bush, refused to implement the Kyoto Protocol stating it unfairly exempted industrializing countries; Australia followed suit and in succeeding years competitiveness concerns further undermined the Kyoto commitments (Anshelm & Hultman, 2015).

In contrast, the move to decarbonized technologies is today presented as the precondition for economic prosperity, and increasingly also for social justice. The logic of burden-shifting is giving way, remarkably quickly, to emissions reduction through renewable energy as the new socio-technological “fix” for capitalist accumulation (McCarthy, 2015). The main driver for this shift is the recognition that renewable technologies are now substantially cheaper than fossil fuel energy sources (and are set to become cheaper still). A fierce battle has opened up over the capture of emerging renewable energy systems and the resulting surplus (Boyer & Howe, 2019). The emergence of new forms of more equitable socially distributed renewable energy threaten utility-scale energy supply and offer new possibilities for the social organization of energy. In this context, social justice agendas are becoming increasingly integrated with the effort to reduce energy-related emissions, as exemplified in calls for the post-Covid “Green Deal” (Aronoff et al., 2019; Neale, 2021).

The relative “cheapness” of renewable energy is the central plank for this more equitable model of emerging “green capitalism” (Moore, 2015). Social movements were key drivers in its early development in Germany where the peace and antinuclear movement in the 1980s underpinned energy transition (Jacobsen & Lauber, 2006). The renewables sector in Germany was centered on municipal and cooperative ventures and its political influence was bolstered by large and organized renewables producer groups as well as environmental organizations (Buchan, 2012). Where the fossil fuel sector has sought to reverse policy support for renewables, it has faced formidable counter-pressure. Subsequent innovation in the industry, in China especially, has seen costs fall dramatically, putting in sharp relief ongoing state support for fossil fuels (IRENA, 2016). This became an issue even at the G20, which in 2009 became committed to phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, though (still) with minimal impact (BloombergNEF, 2021).

A wide range of social movements are now engaged in seeking to accelerate and transform the energy transition (Piggot, 2018). These center in the first instance on the localities for renewable energy production. Local campaigns have emerged especially in coal-dependent regions where decarbonization threatens local jobs and regional development. Campaigns calling for a halt to new coal mines and power stations or the closure of existing ones overlap with efforts to establish local renewable energy industries, to enable region-level conversion and diversification. Local transition campaigns emerge across a range of local social movements, sparking a debate about regional futures (Hess, 2018). Alliances between affected fossil fuel workers, trade unions, and environmental groups become critical (Kalt, 2021), with region-level agendas for “just transition” directed at communities and workers threatened by the move away from fossil fuels (Gürter et al., 2021). Planning capacity for the local, state, and other public authorities becomes central to enable diversification and build new infrastructures and to enable retraining and redeployment of the regional workforce.

There is also a range of campaigns centered on renewable energy in “green field” sites where most large-scale renewable energy is being located. These are often directed at securing local benefit in terms of co-ownership, Indigenous and community participation, payments to landholders, employment, energy access, and a range of other co-benefits such as local education, training, and transport. Large self-interested utilities can pit consumers against local beneficiaries, seeking to maximize their returns. Utility-scale operations can have difficulty in securing local legitimacy and can be seen as an external imposition, even a recolonization, as charted by Boyer and Howe in Mexico (2019); local opposition can then be harnessed for fossil fuel interests (Marshall, 2016). Again, region-level planning is central, and can open up a series of agendas for deliberation and participation in making the energy transition (Avila, 2018; Routledge et al., 2018).

Local-level renewable energy campaigns are correlated with sector-wide campaigning. National-level renewable energy campaigns are increasingly common. These are generally led by climate movement organizations linked to policy research think tanks and can enable on-the-ground organizing, new alliances across movements, and related collective action (Hess, 2018). Specific proposals for increased renewable energy at local or national level have become important rallying points for climate campaigns, including in industrializing countries such as India (Dubash et al., 2018; Ylä-Anttila & Swarnakar, 2017). Coalitions of households, community, and cooperative renewable energy have emerged, as have campaigns for publicly owned renewable energy, led by the international campaign “Trade Unions for Energy Democracy,” for instance, which has developed strong linkages with Asia-based unions (Sweeney, 2014). These initiatives offer models for the social organization of energy beyond corporatized utility-based models. They demonstrate the need for democratic involvement and ownership and can generate major public campaigns across municipalities and urban contexts (Becker et al., 2020).

Social movements have also built more far-reaching agendas for addressing the climate crisis as a society-wide challenge. The requirement to decarbonize society creates a wide agenda for collective action to overcome fossil fuel interests, and to extend the benefits of transforming energy and society (Neale, 2021). With the climate crisis defined as a justice issue, there is growing cross-fertilization between social justice and climate agendas. A closer link between climate and social justice came in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing economic recession: in the United Kingdom, for instance, there was a campaign for “One Million Climate Jobs,” and in the United States, there was the first wave of campaigns for a “New Green New Deal” (echoing the 1930s recovery program in the United States). These campaigns gained impact with the failing Paris agenda, with Trade Unions for Energy Democracy forming in 2012 in the United States, drawing the union movement and wider Left-aligned organizations into positive agendas for transition climate change (Szulecki, 2018).

From 2018, Green New Deal (GND) proposals were increasingly embraced by center-left parties, in the United Kingdom by the Labour Party and in the United States by the Democratic Party. In 2019, GND proposals faltered in the United Kingdom with the victory of the anti–European Union Right but gained ground in the European Union itself with its “Green Deal” initiative. In the United States, the GND agenda gained momentum with the victory of the Democrats on a mandate to lead the recovery through decarbonized public and community energy, “green” public infrastructure and services, and “just transition” measures for fossil fuel–dependent communities (Aronoff et al., 2019). By 2020, with the Covid crisis, these proposals provided a template for a decarbonization-led recovery, and were being implemented by governments in the European Union, the United States and elsewhere, such as in South Korea. In 2021, campaigns for climate justice were being reframed as a society-wide agenda for “just recovery” centered on the expected social benefit of socialized renewable energy (see, 2021).

Social movements have certainly converged around the “green deal” agenda. It is gaining much wider traction as a source of new investment opportunities as a spatial and temporal “fix” to address twin crises of economy and climate (McCarthy, 2015). In a time of unprecedented financial instability, with the economy now resting on various forms of “quantitative easing,” the focus of economic concern has shifted from financial deficits to financial liquidity. “Green” investment linked to social welfare provision offers a means of stimulating economic activity whilst reorientating the economy to the upsurge in accumulation anticipated to come from the move toward decarbonized development. The optimism may be infectious but comes at the risk of endorsing “green growth” trajectories that can affirm existing social hierarchies (Mookerjea, 2019), and negate possibilities for effective emissions reduction (Brand & Wissen, 2018).

Beyond the “new deal” there are also growing campaigns for a “degrowth” agenda to address the climate crisis. The agenda has been popularized by a range of organizations, especially in Western Europe, and these have gained greater prominence with the persistent hegemony of fossil capital. The movement for degrowth has a strong emphasis on planetary limits and the need for more ecologically sufficient ways of living (D’Alisia et al., 2014). There are links to ecofeminism, most evident in Southern contexts such as in Latin America and India. It has also drawn inspiration and forged alliances with Indigenous movements asserting alternative generative modes of development, grounded in “living well” or buen vivir, for instance. These themes have played an important role in creating more far-reaching agendas for climate transformation (Buckhart et al., 2020). One example is the Cochabamba Conference on the Rights of Mother Earth hosted by Bolivia in 2010 as an alternative to the failed 2009 UN Copenhagen climate summit. In 2012, an alternative to the neoliberal “green economy” was developed by the World Social Forum at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) (Goodman & Salleh, 2013). These and other initiatives recently joined under the banner of the “Pluriverse,” encompassing subaltern initiatives in the Global South and Northern degrowth perspectives (Kothari et al., 2019). As yet, these emerging models are not translated into political programs but may gather momentum as the logic of the climate crisis intensifies and official policy responses remain inadequate.

Concluding: A Climate Movement Society?

This article suggests that three main sites have emerged for social movements engaging with climate issues. As argued, these are centered on impacts, causes, and solutions. In each, a variety of social movements have integrated climate concerns with their priorities and have become directly involved in climate campaigning. In the process, the agendas for climate action have vastly expanded. The field has become highly generative, with new tactics for contestation, new agendas and programs, and newly mobilized constituencies. This process of climatizing society is advancing rapidly and is yielding results across the board, not least as ongoing policy failure and intensifying climate change force new priorities into view.

The three sites are associated with three key strategic shifts. Together these have created a generative dynamic across social movements engaged with climate issues. The three shifts are summarized in Table 2 and closely mirror the central dimensions of social movements identified at the start of this article—of collective action, shared identification, and transformative programs. Through to the early 2000s, climate activists sought to build a specifically climate movement on emissions advocacy, abstract aspirations, and scientific facts. In contrast, the current climate activism is pluralized across many social movements and is centered on mobilizing affected people, driving the fossil fuel phaseout, and developing programs for social and climate justice (see Table 2).

Table 2. Climate Change and Shifting Movement Strategy



Politicizing impacts

Collective identification and action by people affected by the impacts of climate change happening now or anticipated into the future.

A move from climate advocacy to climate organizing: acting “with,” not “for.”

Contesting causes

Actions to challenge the legitimacy of fossil fuels, materializing and politicizing the causes of climate change in the fossil fuel cycle.

A move from a demand for abstract emissions targets to concrete fossil fuel phaseout.

Advancing solutions

Developing policy programs to transform social relations as much as to reduce emissions.

A move from treating emissions reduction as a burden to be shared to viewing it as part of wider social transformation, of benefit to all.

There are certainly weaknesses. One key issue is the lack of coarticulation across these fields in the shared aspiration for climate stability. There is a tendency for movement organizations to be confined to a particular aspect of the climate agenda as it relates to specific movement priorities, rather than to seek the bigger picture. As a result, strategizing across the fields of contestation can be intermittent. Sometimes a movement is able to supersede these divisions and articulate a symbolic claim able to frame other responses (Della Porta & Parks, 2014). One example is the Fridays for Future campaign, which took a clear and simple message linked to a new set of highly symbolic collective actions and in the process transformed the agenda. These moments cannot be planned but they can be enabled, through cross-fertilization and creative framing.

There is also the question of tactics and the process of collective action itself, in terms of what modes of intervention are required in the current period. As with all social movements, climate movements draw on the existing range of actions such as marches and rallies, but also innovate with their own approaches. Since the 1990s, there has been a clear escalation, from a focus on lobbying to public demonstrations, rallies and marches and now to more disobedient actions, from school and workplace strikes to occupations and blockades. Actions can be at odds, as confrontation may alienate, or consensual approaches may frustrate; tensions may sharpen as the crisis intensifies, notably with the question of sabotage now firmly on the agenda (see Malm, 2021).

Regardless of how these debates develop, there is little doubt that climate issues are rising up the agenda for social movements. New possibilities for societal transformation are being developed and are being pursued in new ways. As institutions respond, from government departments, to financial institutions, to the fossil fuel corporates themselves, we are seeing a growing process of society-wide climatization. Climate concerns are never far from social movement agendas and as movements politicize climate issues, provoke public opinion, and force changes to public institutions, they create a type of climatized “movement society.” With governments still committed to protecting the fossil fuel sector, the lines of political antagonism have sharpened. New socially grounded movement challengers to “carbon democracy” have emerged. With the fast-intensifying climate crisis, some movement initiatives have gained considerable and unexpected traction. An interregnum has ensued, with much maneuvering by movements to put new possibilities on the agenda, from living well, to new deals, to degrowth.

As the crisis grows and institutional change remains inadequate, we can expect new movements to emerge with wider constituencies and more pointed political agendas and methods. Looking forward, we can track how far and fast this agenda is developing, in its spatial and temporal dynamics. We can highlight co-inspiration and co-strategizing and the tactical innovations that are emerging. And of course, we can address the response and non-response of the authorities as societies move still further into the climate change era. Underlying these aspects, there is also the wider normative project of building political projects adequate to the emerging realities of climate society. Here we are at the center of the new agenda for the social sciences under climate change, of creating “purposeful” climate agency, adequate to the times we are living in.

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