Activism works, says Dr. Julia Steinberger. She would know; apart from her work as an award-winning researcher, she made headlines in 2022 for showing up at the kind of protest where someone has to physically haul you away. (She and others were blocking a road in Switzerland and calling for better energy efficiency.) Per Vice:

“In a video of the protest, Steinberger was carried off by police and placed in a van as she said in French, ‘nonviolent civil action is important. We don't have much time left.’”

Ever since, Steinberger, a professor of ecological economics at the University of Lausanne, says her voice in the media has been elevated. By contrast, when she helped author part of the IPCC’s hefty Sixth Assessment Report—the defining work on all things climate change over the last few years—press interest died down after just a week.

“It turns out that activism has a much longer shelf life,” Steinberger reflected during a recent Zoom call with some 200 fellows and others interested in learning and doing more about climate change; the replay is here. She said if you want powerful officials, journalists, and the public to notice and act on the urgent need for sweeping climate action, you shouldn’t overlook nonviolent civil disobedience as a tactic.

“The urgency of the climate and ecological crises does not allow for gradualistic transitions,” she said. “These combined crises of our time call for radical transformation, really fast.”

So why activism—why not just science-informed policy? Because, in short, a scientist who studies how we need to tackle the climate crisis and writes it up in a research brief will most likely be ignored. To break through to politicians and key officials, this work needs amplification: “Good science is not good enough,” Steinberger said. “We need activism.”

Some caveats followed, like that where and how you act matters: In some places, sharing links to raise awareness and strategize can get you charged with sedition or worse, Steinberger noted. “I personally know people who are in jail right now because of climate activism, which is a very hard thing, or people who have lost their jobs.” She also stressed commiting to nonviolence, else “things can go pear-shaped very fast.”

There is no set playbook for what will get traction, so she also stressed the importance of creativity—like donning wigs and playing tennis in a Swiss bank lobby to protest fossil fuel investments. (Such investments have ticked down in Switzerland over the last few years, Steinberger says, crediting exactly this type of pressure: “I think they realized they were getting bad press and they were losing social legitimacy.”)

“What if I don’t see myself taking to the streets?” someone asked. “The street is the tip of the iceberg,” Steinberger answered. Behind-the-scenes roles range from maintaining websites to facilitating meetings, “because activism is a lot of meetings!” From running trainings to just cooking food, there’s plenty to do beyond “waving placards in the street.”

One other caution: If your activist effort does manage to, say, persuade a financial institution to divest from fossil fuels, don’t expect them to send a thank-you letter. It’ll be up to you and your friends to organize your own party, she said, “and you should throw the party anyway.”

Daniel Potter

Check out the full replay for more, from Dr. Steinberger’s book recommendations to why “threats to democracy are threats to a liveable future.”