Reinvigorating the Climate Movement by Aoife Powell

Hello, my name is Aoife Powell and I’m a climate activist. I’ve been involved in the climate movement in some capacity since the age of twelve, particularly within the school global climate strikes. As I’ve gotten more involved within the movement, I’ve been able to watch it grow into a beautiful, blossoming force and I’ve watched it form and change massively within the space of five years. I’m writing this post for Julie today because I wanted to share my observations on how it has changed and how we can continue to bring new energy and ideas to the movement to help it flourish and create the change we need to see. 

Comparing the movement as it is today to the movement that was taking off when I was twelve, I can see the massive changes and impacts that it has had internationally. When I heard Greta’s speech five years ago on the kitchen radio, I was despairing yet transfixed. I spent that summer before starting secondary school trying to involve myself in the movement- putting up posters around my neighbourhood whilst urgently contacting politicians and encouraging them to act. I fell into a bout of hopelessness that summer as I could not for the life of me find a climate action youth group for people as young as me that cared for the climate crisis as I did. I realise now that it is incredibly easy to join a climate action youth group because of the sheer amount of groups created since the 2019 school strikes- then again I only know of these groups because I am in the movement already and stuck in an ‘echo chamber’ of climate activism on social media, which I also did not have at that young age. This raises a question about how we could recruit passionate people for our movement outside of finding and following the group’s social media account, which, in my experience, aren’t checked all that often due to lack of time. We are constantly crying out for people to help us within our climate action groups with different tasks, yet we limit ourselves when using only social media as a strategy to claim new members. This is especially obvious when outreach is done by groups of people who are already within the climate activism ‘echo chamber’ on social media, where the message will only get out to the people already involved in the movement instead of those outside of the activism side of social media. As a result of algorithms, we only recruit those probably already in other groups with a low capacity to help another group, burning out those who are already in the movement instead of the new members we really need; everyone and anyone.

I imagine the climate movement to be a tree. In order for it to blossom and grow, you need to have the vital foundations. The roots are passion, hope and our own strong roots in nature. The roots are why we fight for climate action. Passion and love for our earth and the environment. Hope for a fair and peaceful future. Our strong roots within nature that remind us of who we are and where we came from. Without the roots, there’s no point in fighting. The trunk of the tree is unity. Without multiple, if not thousands of people demanding change on the streets in unity and collectively choosing to live more sustainably, governments around the world would not feel pressured to act. It was the global climate strikes in 2019 that brought millions together and shook the system, enough to put climate action on the table. Enough to make politicians sit up and take notice. Change isn’t happening fast enough, but we can see that there has been a shift in how the climate crisis is viewed and being taken more seriously than it was in the past. It has become a topic of general conversation now, something our parents could have never dreamed of happening in the past. Finally, from the trunk of unity comes the branches and leaves of all the different actions, big and small, and the important stories that make up the movement. The branches and leaves are interconnected, and it is only when we come together and unite that the trunk of the movement grows out the branches and leaves of action.   


For a movement to work, you need all the parts of the tree. When a problem emerges, it has a ripple effect on the rest of the tree, which collapses. When we only recruit with social media and only recruit those in the movement, we create a problem. Every climate activist that I know is in at least two groups. Some many, many more. We all have lives outside of the movement. School, work, family, friends, hobbies. When we sign up for too much, take on too many tasks in these groups, we burn out. When we burn out, we don’t help ourselves or the movement. The climate movement has a massive issue with mental health. There is this idea of ‘perfectionism’ within the climate sphere, that in order to avoid experiencing imposter syndrome of being a fraud environmentalist- something heavily stereotyped and criticised within our media, you must be ‘perfect.’ This is an unrealistic goal in a world where perfect cannot be achieved. We cannot be completely sustainable in a society which was built on capitalism, unfairness and exploiting nature and people for profit. When I realised that I could never be completely sustainable, I experienced guilt and imposter syndrome like many others, feeling like a fake in the movement. To cover it, I poured everything I had into joining groups and taking on too many tasks, which left me burned out and having to take a break. We cannot keep overworking ourselves within this movement, because we will not get anything done and we’ll lose sight of why we’re fighting. Our mental health will crash and burn and that does no one any favours. Instead, we need to embrace ‘imperfect activism,’ having bigger groups where tasks are shared evenly no matter level of experience and in which a positive space is created where we encourage anyone to take on a task, where we encourage people to take breaks. Otherwise, our movement will die down, where the roots of our tree will disappear, and we will forget why we’re fighting at all.  


So, as I’ve pointed out, we need radical action. We need more people from outside of the movement to join us, because we know that numbers have an impact. We know that we need to start recruiting members outside of social media, because algorithms will only get the same people in the same groups and encourage spaces where burnout, eco-anxiety and overworking are normalised. What we also need, is to get people on our side. We need everyone if we want to transform our political systems and show politicians that supporting the people’s views is what will get them votes in their elections. We need to focus on the urgency of the solutions and hope in the movement to draw people into it, instead of using tactics which shut people down and force them to put their heads back into the sand when the facts become overwhelming. As well as re-evaluating how we recruit people, I think that we should look at our radical climate action groups.

There are specific groups who think that radical action is the strongest way to ensure concrete climate action. I think both are necessary. What we need to reconsider is the people they target their radical civil disobedience, where the public is targeted and guilt tripped instead of welcomed into the movement. There have been radical climate actions such as throwing canned tomato soup at a Van Gogh painting, throwing red paint on flowers at a garden show and puncturing the tyres of cars in which aren’t electric. In other words, throwing soup on a painting painted by a working-class artist hung in a public amenity during a cost-of-living crisis, throwing paint on flowers at a show promoting nature which is free of charge, and puncturing car tyres of the general public- many of which were accidentally electric and frankly, expensive and a nuisance to fix. All these actions are driving away the very people that you need within the movement. Sure, it creates media coverage- mostly negative, painting a negative image and a dangerous stereotype for climate activists whilst turning scores of people who were actually considering joining the movement against the movement itself. Instead, we should be using radical action more cleverly, following suit of activists who targeted an oil ship (which actually contributes to the climate crisis). Or perhaps targeting and boycotting a bank that might invest in fossil fuel companies such as Shell or Exxon. Or even standing up during a speech of a politician who has not stayed true to their word on delivering climate action and holding him to account. These are all much more targeted approaches of radical action which target those responsible for delayed climate action in a way that brings the public with us, not against us. 

I am honoured to be in this movement. The opportunities that it has given me, the inspiration that I have gotten through the incredible people I have the privilege of calling my friends and colleagues. The hope that I have gotten seeing the resulting positive impacts everyday through collective activism, where eco-anxiety and despair are replaced by hope and determination. My experiences have been truly eye-opening and something that I wouldn’t have been able to experience if I had not found groups like Climate Assembly Éire and Fridays for Future on social media. I know that the pandemic halted much of the momentum that we had when the movement was growing monstrous in size, but I am hopeful that if we can re-evaluate how we reach people to join our movement and prioritise mental health working on an issue which is extremely anxiety-inducing, that we can reinvigorate the movement and continue to grow and flourish, pushing for concrete climate action in the process.