Climate Strikers in Cornwall: Evidence from a protest survey and media analysis
Climate Strikers in Cornwall
Clare Saunders, Politics at the University of Exeter, Cornwall (in collaboration with Brian Doherty, Keele; and academics in 11 other cities across Europe).
- Greta Thunberg has been inspirational to Truro-based global climate strikers.
- The majority of Truro-based climate strikers are aged over 20, and therefore are not actually skipping school but rather showing solidarity.
- Women and the highly educated outnumber men and the less well educated.
- Participants are relative novices to protests (even if they do engage in pro-environmental behaviours), who engaged with the strike in order to pressure politicians and express their views.
- Despite being motivated to pressure politicians, the strikers have little faith in governments (or corporations) to solve climate change and they generally lack trust in political institutions.
- The local media has not been particularly supportive of the Truro climate strikes and tends to overlook the genuine motivations of the majority of participants and over play conflictual elements.
The Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, can be credited with establishing a globally significant movement of climate strikers. In August 2018, Thunberg began skipping school every Friday to protest outside the Swedish parliament against government inaction on climate change. Since then, she has become famous for cogently expressing the need for governments to act rather than simply talk about the climate crisis. She has done this in TED Talks, as well as directly to governments around the world, to the European Parliament and to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference. She is by now renowned for her outspokenness, her activism and her sustainable lifestyle, opting, for example to sail to the US rather than take a flight or a diesel-fuelled ferry. The movement that Thunberg kick-started demands rapid action on climate change, and highlights the need for intergenerational justice.
Fast forward to 15 March 2019. On that date, it was estimated that over a million school children participated in a Global Climate Strike in over 2,000 cities in 125 countries. Among the cities participating was Truro, in Cornwall. I led a team of volunteer student protest surveyors from my POC2114 Green Politics and POC3072F Politics of Protest classes to find out more about who was protesting and why. In addition, we consulted the local press to see how the protests had been reported there.
Our survey followed a version of the ‘caught in the act of protest’ survey methodology, which uses a combination of face-to-face and online surveys to collect data and allows us to make estimates about how representative our data are of the survey population. This survey turned out to be similar to many others I have surveyed: respondents to the longer online survey tended to be older, more experienced protesters and more highly educated than those who were interviewed and handed a leaflet but did not take up our invitation to complete the online survey.
Who were the Truro Global Climate Strikers? And why did they decide to skip school for the cause? We estimated 350 participants occupying the pavement and lawn outside County Hall, Truro on 15 March 2019, with the majority being over 20 years (72%) of age and female (64%). Despite around 30% of the participants being under the age of 20, over 60% had a university education. Most of the participants were relative novice protesters, although over a third were members of an environmental organisation and most of them engaged in pro-environmental behaviours (e.g. changing their diet for political, ethical or environmental reasons). The most popular motivation for attending the strike demonstration was ‘to pressure politicians’ (almost everyone surveyed agreed that this was a motivation for attending), followed by to ‘express my views’ (almost three-quarters agreed). Around two thirds of the school children there were inspired by Greta Thunberg, agreeing quite a lot or very much that ‘Greta Thunberg affected my decision to join the Climate Strike’.
Respondents have a lack of trust in businesses and governments to solve climate change, as illustrated in the following quote: “I believe that the main cause is global greed, driving the big corporations to ever more destructive ways to extract profit from our earth, irrespective of the consequences for people and planet” (61-year old male from Truro). This sits alongside their general disenchantment with political institutions.
The local press was, on the whole, fairly disparaging of the protests. There was disapproval about pupils skipping school, and disproportionate emphasis was given to an episode involving eggs being thrown at the Council offices. No one in the survey team as much as saw an egg. Rightly so, the Council is receptive to the need to ramp up action on climate change, and was dismayed to see that its efforts were not appreciated.
What next? The climate emergency is a real threat to humanity and particularly younger generations of school children. School pupils, therefore, may well be justified in skipping school to raise awareness of the urgent need for action. Local journalists might be encouraged to paint a fuller picture of the demonstrations that they survey.
The data is also used in a forthcoming book chapter Brian Doherty and Clare Saunders (2020) ‘Global Climate Strike protesters and media coverage of the protests in Truro and Manchester (UK)’, in Analicia Mejia Mesinas, Judith Bessant and Sarah Pickard (eds) When Students Protest, Rowman and Littlefield.