Dana Fisher is a professor at the School of International Service and Director of the Center for Environment, Community, & Equity at American University. She is also the President of the Eastern Sociological Society, a Senior Fellow in the Governance Program at the Brookings Institution, and the chair-elect of the Political Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association. She has appeared on ABC, CNN, and PBS Newshour, and her work has been featured in many publications, such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Science Magazine. Her expertise is also applied to various other projects, such as her role on the editorial boards of the journals Climate Action, Climate Policy, and Mobilization.
Below, Dana shares five key insights from her new book, Saving Ourselves: From Climate Shocks to Climate Action. Listen to the audio version—read by Dana herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Policies are not doing enough to stop the worsening climate crisis.
The climate regime and its related policies began in 1992, but we are on a dangerous pathway that includes continued expansion of fossil fuels. Given the outcome of the recent round of climate negotiations in December of 2023 at COP28—which concluded with a bland statement about phasing out fossil fuels someday—it is abundantly clear that the climate crisis will continue and worsen. Nations scramble to agree to and implement policies that all interests and actors support, leaving our current political trajectory unchanged amid lengthy negotiations.
Climate shocks are deviations from normal environmental patterns in the form of droughts, floods, heat waves, or other extreme events that have been exacerbated by climate change. As the recently released Global Carbon Budget documents, CO2 emissions from fossil fuels are continuing to grow while clean energy expands. As a result, we should expect more climate shocks that are increasingly severe and frequent, which lead to bigger and more disruptive climate activism.
2. Climate shocks trigger social conflict.
As climate shocks become more frequent and severe, they will inevitably lead to social conflict as areas become uninhabitable, resources grow scarce, and climate migration becomes more common. All of these stressors are well documented to result in social tensions. As our world warms, there is no question that we will experience all these stressors simultaneously.
History tells us that the precautionary principle (changing our behaviors out of an abundance of caution in case the climate warms) loses out when it goes head-to-head against entrenched fossil fuel interests that have benefited from privileged access to power and capital for so long. At this point, climate change is no longer a possibility to be avoided; it is an inevitability that we must work together to curtail.
“AnthroShifts open opportunities for innovative social change.”
The universal experience of personal risk motivates social change and opens opportunities to limit the climate crisis. As climate shocks and their effects grow, they will motivate what I call an AnthroShift. An AnthroShift occurs when a perceived risk reaches a critical threshold, leading people to alter their behaviors and compelling social entities to respond and mitigate the risk. But to reach that tipping point, things must get a lot worse. As the climate crisis continues to worsen, more people will die.
AnthroShifts are empowered by what I call a risk pivot: a heightened and generalized sense of risk that can motivate social change. We saw this process at the beginning of the COVID pandemic when much of the world shut down with the aim of limiting transmission of the coronavirus.
AnthroShifts open opportunities for innovative social change. However, social responses to the pandemic showed how only a massive shock that is both severe and long-lasting can open the window of opportunity wide enough that we achieve necessary systemic changes for addressing a problem sufficiently. Otherwise, we see only incremental change that is insufficient to limit abundant suffering—which, in the case of climate change, scientists have been reporting is right around the corner.
3. Mobilizing the masses to save ourselves is our best hope.
Since policymakers are still spinning their wheels and businesses are bipolar (with some pushing for clean energy and others investing in fossil fuel expansion), civil society and social movements are the actors most likely to initiate an AnthroShift. However, the climate movement has not yet mobilized the masses with an urgency to save ourselves.
To date, only a small proportion of society is engaged in the climate movement, but the movement is growing and evolving. As our world warms and people personally experience the climate crisis, they will join activists in the streets to demand change.
A ton of research documents the natural progression of social movements, showing how social movements either fizzle out or become increasingly confrontational the longer the activism goes without achieving its goals. Given the worsening climate crisis, the climate movement will not fizzle out. Instead, activists will grow more confrontational as the political system does not respond at the level needed.
Confrontational actions that become more common is evidence of what we in the social sciences call a radical flank. A radical flank is a faction of a movement that spins off and chooses to employ more confrontational tactics to achieve its goals. Some recent and notable examples of confrontational climate activism include throwing soup or paint, disrupting events (like at the Met Opera in NYC), slow marching, bird-dogging, and blocking buildings. Radical flanks of social movements tend to be unpopular but also tend to increase support for more moderate flanks of a social movement.
4. The activism around climate change is heating up.
The climate movement is a far cry from the radical flanks of past social movements, which blew up buildings and car dealerships, slashed works of art, and much more.
However, the radical flank of the climate movement is growing and is not a monolith. It currently includes what I call shockers (those who use civil disobedience to draw attention to the climate crisis) and disruptors (those who integrate civil disobedience into their broader campaigns).
“The radical flank of the climate movement is growing and is not a monolith.”
Historically, radicalizing social movement tactics has led to the emergence of counter-movements and law enforcement getting more repressive. This cycle of increasingly confrontational activism and repression is likely to lead to violence that targets activists. This will only draw more attention and encourage people to join the movement.
5. There is a way, but it will take all of us.
It’s bad, it’s getting worse, and nothing we have done so far comes anywhere close to what is needed. It is likely that large numbers of activists and disruptive protests will be necessary before we see outcomes that respond sufficiently to the climate crisis. This is especially true given the oversized role of entrenched fossil fuel interests in this battle—just look at the outcome of the most recent COP28 climate negotiations for evidence.
I have three takeaways about how we can save ourselves and mobilize enough to motivate necessary systemic changes for limiting climate change:
First, create community (and real solidarity) among activists and social movements. Activism that is embedded in community and has real grassroots is most likely to be successful.
Second, we need to capitalize on moral shocks (including violence). We should expect that as the movement grows, so too will violence against activists. I suggest we learn from the lessons of the civil rights movement, which took advantage of the violence against nonviolent protestors to mobilize sympathizers to the cause. More recently, in the summer of 2020, we saw how peaceful protesters getting tear-gassed by law enforcement in Washington DC motivated many more people—including Senators—to take to the streets in solidarity.
Third, we must cultivate resilience. As climate shocks become more severe, we must prepare our environments and communities so they can weather these extremes. There are some hopeful first steps for cultivating resilience in the U.S. government’s new American Climate Corps, which will support young people as they train to establish climate mitigation and climate adaptation in local communities—but this isn’t enough.
It will take everyone doing all types of activism: shockers and disruptors, but also everyday people working within their communities to create social and environmental resilience while supporting a clean energy transition. It will take us all to get to the other side of the climate crisis.
To listen to the audio version read by author Dana Fisher, download the Next Big Idea App today: