Hopes and fears

Exploring the emotions and motivations of climate strikers

Over the course of one week in September 2019, more than seven million people across 185 countries took to the streets in a series of climate strikesTheir actions made front-page news across the globe, but what do we know about the protesters themselves? 

Research by Dr Mari Martiskainen, together with colleagues in the US, Canada and Norway, attempted to find out – digging deep into what motivates the strikers, their feelings about climate change and the actions they take as individuals to address the climate crisis. 

Mari explains how the project was sparked by a Twitter exchange. “Dr Stephen Axon [Assistant Professor of Sustainability Science at Southern Connecticut State University] tagged me in a tweet about his academic heroes. From there, we began a conversation about our shared interests. And, with the global climate strike on the horizon, we decided it was the ideal time to do some research on climate activism.” 

From there, Mari involved Benjamin Sovacool from SPRU, who then recruited Dylan Furszyfer Del Rio (SPRU) and Siddharth Sareen (Imperial College and the University of Stavanger, Norway), while Stephen enlisted Kayleigh Axon, a teacher in New Haven, Connecticut.  

Getting the project off the ground 

Just a few months after the initial idea was hatched, the researchers headed out to interview climate strikers in six cities across four countries: Brighton (UK), London (UK), New York (USA), New Haven (USA), Montreal (Canada), and Stavanger (Norway).  

“Our attitude was very much ‘let’s go and find out’,” explains Mari. “There was no predefined large project behind us, so we were free to be quite innovative and proactive. In the midst of preparations for the REF exercise and the academic research funding applications cycle, Mari found this bottom-up, explorative approach refreshing. “All the team members effectively gave their spare time and were passionate about exploring the issue,” she says. “To me, that’s what research is all about, finding what you are passionate about. I am very grateful that my co-authors wanted to get involved in a project like this, although I would of course love to see more funding opportunities for rapid projects like this.” 

While there was no official funding for the workMari was able to use funds from her Research Excellence Awardawarded by the Business School in 2019, to cover research expenses, such as the cost of transcribing interviews 

Walking and talking: research on the go 

The study set out to discover what knowledge the protesters had about climate change; what their emotions were in relation to the climate crisis; what motivated them to take part in the climate strike; and what individual actions they were taking to tackle the climate crisis. “I was particularly interested in why people were taking part, and how this related to their emotions around the subject of climate change,” explains Mari. “This wasn’t something that had been explored much previously in relation to a global strike of this scale.” 

The researchers chose to focus their attention on climate strikes taking place in highly industrialised countries that are responsible for both high consumption and emissions patterns. The particular locations were also influenced by the ability of the team to visit the cities on strike days.  

On the day, researchers joined the strikers and approached individuals to ask whether they would spend 10 to 20 minutes answering questions. “We tried to ensure a diverse set of respondents, but are not claiming that this was a representative study. Instead, we used qualitative interviews to explore protesters’ views.”  

Mari has a particular interest in this area, having led workshops on qualitative interviewing techniques for the Doctoral School at Sussex. “With action research such as this, you have to be prepared to read the situation and be flexible,” she explains. “It’s a fine balance between making sure you have enough meaningful data and not disrupting anyone’s day. People might not want to stop for long, so you need to be prepared to walk alongside them while they talk, which in itself is actually a ‘mobile’ research method. You also have to accept that not everyone will want to take part. That just means being ready to move on to someone else.” 

Uncovering motivations, emotions and actions 

The interviews revealed varying degrees of knowledge about climate change, and a range of motivations for taking part, including concern for the planet, wanting to influence public opinion and policy, and concern for future generations and vulnerable groups. 

The range of emotions connected with climate change was surprisingly large“On the one hand, there was a lot of fear, anxiety, despair and anger,” recalls Mari. “But one of the nice things about the project was that we also uncovered a great deal of hope for the future. Many protesters told us they felt empowered or comforted by taking part in the action and enjoyed a sense of belonging and community – that they were not alone, and that, together, they could perhaps make a difference.”  

Many respondents were keen to make lifestyle changessuch as changing their mode of transport or their diets, and many had already done so. But there were also many who found that structural and systemic factors limited their ability to make major changes such as avoiding car use, and who instead were focusing on smaller, more manageable actions, such as recycling and reducing consumption.  

Future research on climate activism 

The budgetary and time limitations of the project meant the researchers were not able to follow up any of the interviews. “In a future study, it would be interesting to go back to the respondents and find out whether taking part in the protest had affected them in any way, perhaps spurring them on to make more changes in their day to day lives,” says Mari. “We also need further research on who is, and is not, able to take part in climate change action and how issues such as social class or education, for example, may come into play. 

She would also like to see comparisons with different forms of activism in different locations. “We’re lucky in this country that we’re free to protest in this way. In other parts of the world, it’s much more dangerous. Sadly, many people have lost their lives protesting oil pipelines and deforestation, for example.” 

 “Finally, while climate change is spurring people to take action, further research on the longer-term impacts and effectiveness of that action would be welcome, in particular how they might affect public opinion, policymaking and corporate decision making. 

Mari MartiskainenAbout the researcher

Dr Mari Martiskainen is a Senior Research Fellow and Co-Director at Sussex Energy Group (SEG) based at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU). She is also the theme lead for Equity and Justice at the UK-wide Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS). 

Read the paper

Martiskainen, Mari, Axon, Stephen, Sovacool, Benjamin K., Sareen, Siddharth, Furszyfer Del Rio, Dylan, Axon, Kayleigh (2020). Contextualizing climate justice activism: Knowledge, emotions, motivations, and actions among climate strikers in six cities, Global Environmental Change, 65.