As thousands of school students around the world walked out of class Friday to demand action on climate change, a study has found that taking to the streets to protest may have a positive effect on the public. The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Communication, found that individuals tended to be more optimistic about people’s ability to work together to address climate change.
Janet Swim, a professor at The Pennsylvania State University in the US, said the findings suggest that climate change marches can have positive effects on bystanders. “Marches serve two functions: to encourage people to join a movement and to enact change,” Swim said. “This study is consistent with the idea that people who participate in marches can gain public support, convince people that change can occur, and also normalize the participants themselves,” she said.
Over one million young people are expected to join the “school strike for climate change” protests in at least 110 countries on Friday. They are calling on politicians and businesses to take urgent action to slow global warming. The strikes are inspired by student Greta Thunberg, who has become a global figurehead since protesting outside Sweden’s parliament in 2018.
Swim added that recent research has shown that marches are becoming more prevalent in the US, not just for climate change but for many issues. She and her colleagues were interested in learning more about whether marches are effective at changing psychological predictors of joining movements.
“There are several measures that predict people engaging and taking action in the future,” Swim said. “One of those is collective efficacy—the belief that people can work together to enact change. People don’t want to do something if it’s not going to have an effec,” she said.
The researchers recruited 587 bystanders—people who did not participate in the march but observed it through the media.
As many as 302 participants completed a survey the day before the March for Science held on April 22, 2017, and 285 completed a survey several days after the People’s Climate March held on April 29, 2017. “Activists are often seen negatively—that they’re arrogant or eccentric or otherwise outside of the norm,” Swim said. “One of our questions was whether marches increase or decrease people’s negative impressions of marchers,” she said.
Since the researchers were also interested in how media coverage contributed to outcomes, they also noted the participants’ preferred news sources and coded whether the sources were generally more conservative or liberal. They found that after the People’s Climate March, study participants were more optimistic about people’s ability to work together to address climate change—referred to as collective efficacy beliefs.
The team also found that study participants had less negative opinions of marchers after the march.
The researchers also found that participants who regularly consumed news from conservative media had more collective efficacy beliefs and intent to take action after the marches.
Those who regularly got news from liberal media tended to have less negative impressions of marchers, particularly among those who reported having heard about the marches.
Swim said that because they controlled for such factors as political affiliation and beliefs, these changes were likely due to the way their preferred media sources portrayed the marches before and after the events.