Generation #ClimateStrike – Snapshot of a radical movement

One of the fastest political careers of all time is currently arising around 16-year-old Swede, Greta Thunberg. Within months, her individual school strike against climate change turned into a movement that brings hundreds of thousands of students onto the streets every Friday for the #ClimateStrike. Who mobilises Generation Z? An analysis.

Map Climatestrike

View large version of the #ClimateStrike network

Greta Thunberg has caused a worldwide sensation and controversy with appearances at the Katowice UN Climate Summit and World Economic Forum in Davos. Her calm, uncompromising attacks on politics, business, and adults both polarise and engender enthusiasm.

The Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute is examining this dynamic stage of the #ClimateStrike movement. GDI researchers Christine Schäfer and Detlef Gürtler used the Galaxyadvisors’ Condor software to conduct a network analysis in which Twitter communication around the terms #ClimateStrike and “Greta Thunberg” was examined. The software calculated the "betweenness" of accounts active for these terms. The accounts with the highest betweenness are the most linked or most talked about on the web, and the observation period was the school strikes on 8 February to 12 February 2019.

The figure shows the result of the #ClimateStrike network analysis. The movement has an extremely pronounced centre – Greta Thunberg. A look at the languages of the accounts in the network shows #ClimateStrike is currently a predominantly Western European phenomenon. Besides English (which cannot be assigned geographically), German is clearly the second strongest language (19.2 %), followed by French, Spanish, Swedish, Dutch and Italian (between 2.9 and 4.5 %). Eastern European and non-European languages each account for less than 0.5% of accounts. A similar distribution can also be seen on the world map, where the location of the tweets is shown. The #ClimateStrike movement receives global attention – from Alaska and Brazil, via Finland and South Africa, to Japan and New Zealand. With more tweets than anywhere else, the clear centre of the movement is Western Europe, where #ClimateStrike began.

Weltkarte Climate Strike

View large version of the world map

Another finding is there are practically no “important actors” in the network. The 100 accounts with the highest betweenness almost all belong to private individuals. They are relatively active and well-networked: on average, they have 2370 followers. But they are not institutions or organisations – the movement is currently a movement of individuals who follow Greta Thunberg’s example. The (few) organizations present in the network are primarily of radical ecological origin – with Greenpeace as the association closest to the established political system.

A still very young organisation called Extinction Rebellion appears several times. The group, founded in October 2018, says it is fighting "with civil disobedience against climate-induced mass extinction". The present goal is to mobilise for a worldwide "Earth Strike" on 27 September – a "general strike to save the planet". Like the Thunberg movement, Extinction Rebellion (XR) has its roots and focus in Europe: the organisation was founded in the UK and, according to its own figures, currently has more national organisations in Europe (10) than in the rest of the world (8). Their influence has so far barely extended beyond the classic industrialized countries: of the 27 Twitter accounts that are currently known as regional or national XR accounts, only two are in emerging markets: India and Colombia. Together, these two accounts currently have about 500 followers – the organization's main account is followed by almost a hundred times more users.

Another institution – We Don't Have Time – played a central role in the viral dissemination of Thunberg's action in August 2018; this eco-action company was founded in 2017 by Swedish entrepreneur Ingmar Rentzhog. Rentzhog published the first photo of Greta Thunberg's strike in front of the Swedish Parliament on the Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts of We Don't Have Time on 20 August, and later showed Greta Thunberg on his website as "Youth Advisor". This led to the assumption Thunberg would be exploited by third parties. "Who controls?" is an article by Sebastian Sigler in "Tichy's Einblick", which suspects Thunberg of becoming a global success "possibly thanks to skillful PR from an interested party", namely Ingmar Rentzhog.

In the current networking images for #ClimateStrike, however, We Don't Have Time does not appear, or at best, only at the margin. Thunberg has no connection to the organization anymore: Rentzhog’s attempt to associate her with his start-up was not discussed with her, and We Don't Have Time apologised. The fact that Rentzhog, whom Thunberg didn't know, was the first to post her photo was simply because he was one of the first to pass by Parliament.

So the answer to the question "Who controls?" is Greta Thunberg herself. Thunberg personally writes her material. And what she says, she means: her independence and uncompromising nature appeal to her movement. She takes an extreme position in the public discourse on climate change, but this is not the first time a radical attitude has developed special radiance. Extreme positions from Machiavelli to Marx serve more as guard rails for confrontation – they enable actors from all camps to formulate their positions more clearly.

Another effect of Greta Thunberg could be a change in consumer behavior. She exemplifies three radical behaviors: she doesn't fly, lives vegan and doesn't buy anything new. There are sporadic reports of imitations – like a 16-year-old Berlin schoolgirl, who encouraged her school to travel to Croatia by train instead of flying. The extent to which such adjustments take hold will depend on the further course of the movement.

The ecological movement of the 1970s, which championed civil disobedience, decided against a fundamental opposition and for options of political participation. This has led to a complex network of interests, in which the uncompromising nature of the #ClimateStrike movement can hardly be integrated. This is more about the hope that extra-parliamentary action will shift the overall climate of opinion in the direction of ecology. Even if Thunberg rejects political compromises, or rather, precisely because she does, her movement can lead to countable successes in the fight against climate change.