Before the big #ClimateStrike

A new protest generation is forming – this time against climate change. In the run-up to the Global Climate Strike on 15th March, GDI researcher examined whether the movement is growing beyond its European roots and whether it will enact large behavioural changes.

The "Global Climate Strike for Future" will take place on Friday, 15th March. School students from all over the world will take to the streets instead of going to school to demonstrate against climate change. What began in August 2018 as an individual action by Greta Thunberg, then 15, in front of the Swedish parliament and has since spread throughout Europe, shall become a global movement for the first time.

At least for now, that's not likely to happen. The movement is still strongly influenced by the rich countries in general and Western Europe in particular. How much so, can be seen in the ClimateStrike map of FridaysForFuture.org.

As of 10th March, a total of 957 actions in 82 countries have been announced for 15th March. The majority of these actions will occur in Western Europe–63.2 percent. By number of participants, the dominance of Western Europe is likely to be even stronger. The two most populous continents, Asia and Africa, account for less than five percent of all planned actions. The Muslim states in the Middle East are almost blank on the school strike map.

Whether the movement can gain a sustainable foothold outside Western Europe depends on perception of the movement’s leader; Thunberg and her communication have a decisive influence on ClimateStrike actions. This can be seen in the network analyses the GDI carries out with Galaxyadvisors' Condor software, which examines communication around the #ClimateStrike Twitter hashtag and calculates "betweenness" of accounts pertaining to this hashtag. GDI researchers examined the periods between 8th and 12th February and 5th and 10th March. One measurement took place during the school strike actions on Friday, one before and one after this day.

A significant difference between these measurements can be seen in Greta Thunberg's centrality. On the day of the school strike, the 16-year-old Swede is unequivocally the most central figure in the networks around #ClimateStrike–a role model for the strikes that inspire participants.

Beyond the strike days, however, other people and institutions also emerge in central roles. Mike Hudema is particularly noteworthy: The Canadian Greenpeace campaigner reports in detail on the strike movement, but also on the consequences of climate change and on measures and technologies that can decelerate it. With this–comparatively broad–range of topics, Hudema plays a more central role than Thunberg herself, both in the days before and after the school strikes.

From Greta Thunberg's communication, she seems to value only the school strike and climate change. Behavioural and legislative changes and climate-friendly products or technologies are not mentioned. From 17 to 23 February, almost half her tweets were retweets from various ClimateStrike locations, from Iceland to Uganda, from Japan to Florida. She also referenced reports on herself in "The New York Times", "Financial Times," and her own actions. During that week, she met the EU commission in Brussels and participated in the Friday Paris demonstration. But there is no mention of other topics or actions, which suggests Thunberg will only play a central role in the environmental movement as long as the action she initiated is central.

Thunberg's focus makes it difficult to utilise her for something that is not called school strike against climate change. There have been several attempts, especially on issues where activists see proximity to the movement's goals. Between 10 and 20 percent of the hashtags that appear in tweets with #Climatestrike or #FridaysForFuture relate to issues like veganism and animal welfare, Green New Deal and mobility transition, free Internet and freedom for Assange. It's possible strike participants could be sympathetic to these topics, but Greta Thunberg does not address them.

So if the school strike movement leads to behavioural changes that become economically and socially relevant, these will not be initiated by Thunberg; she merely creates an environment that could be favorable for change.