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Theoretical Perspectives

Fridays for Future: A Social Movements Perspective

Global Day of Action for Climate Justice. 100,000 people joined the Climate March in Glasgow at COP26 on November 6, 2021. Credit: Hanae Takahashi (Friends of the Earth Japan).

October 13, 2022

Fridays for Future, a network of young people working on climate change issues, is still active despite the COVID-19 pandemic under which large face-to-face events are hard to hold. In Glasgow, UK, during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November 2021, about 100,000 people marched to demand more aggressive action to combat the climate crisis. In mid-September 2019, this campaign succeeded in mobilizing more than 7.6 million young people globally, which is the world record for the number of participants in a street campaign. We can evaluate that this is the most successful collective action worldwide. We may wonder why these campaigns have been so successful. However, in spite of this global success, in Japan involvement in these activities has been small and slow compared to the rapid upsurge elsewhere. Why have these campaigns in Japan been so limited in terms of the number of participants mobilized, cities where street campaigns have been held, and influence on the media and within government, at both the national and local level? This article offers some answers to these questions from the perspective of social movements, focusing on cultural framing, mobilizing resources, and the structure of political opportunities.

Fridays for Future: the most successful collective action

Fridays for Future began on August 20, 2018, when Greta Thunberg, then a 15-year-old Swedish girl, started a protest by herself in front of the Swedish Parliament. This was the first day of the new school semester and the middle of the general election campaign in Sweden. Her original plan was to continue her strike for three weeks, until Friday, September 7: the end of the general election campaign. The “Climate Change Strike” or “school strike” which she started by boycotting her classes to demand that the government strengthen measures against climate change, was immediately spread through SNS (Social Networking Services) and media coverage overseas. In the wake of an unexpectedly big response to her protest, Greta decided to continue the strike every Friday after the general election until the Swedish government adopted more aggressive action to fulfill its promises under the Paris Agreement of 2015. Her TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) talk in November 2018 and her speech at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP24) in December that year were highly praised, and the climate change strike immediately spread worldwide as Fridays for Future campaigns.

Seven months after Greta’s first protest, on Friday, March 15, 2019, the campaign had expanded to include more than 1.4 million people, mainly youngsters, in more than 2000 cities in 125 countries around the world. Thirteen months after it had started, on Friday, September 20, 2019, just before the UN Climate Action Summit started on September 23, more than 4 million people participated in protests in 163 countries. The campaign continued until Friday, September 27, with more than 7.6 million participants in total in 185 countries over eight days. In most countries, many young people voluntarily participated in street demonstrations.

It was the largest collective action in the world to date on any issue or in any field. Prior to Greta’s actions, the largest climate change demonstration had been in New York, just before the UN Special Session on climate change in September 2014 with about 400,000 participants.

In 2020, due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, action on the street was strictly limited in most countries. But on Friday, September 25, 2020, a Global Day of Climate Action was called. Despite the pandemic, action was taken at 3200 locations around the world. In Germany, a total of 200,000 people participated in street actions at 450 locations.

The activities in Japan were poorly attended and slow to gain support, compared to the rapid upsurge around the world. The protests on March 15, 2019 were limited to a total of only 200 participants in Japan, in just two cities: Tokyo and Kyoto. However, the demonstration on September 20, 2019, named “the Global Climate March,” was attended by more than 5000 people in 27 cities across 23 prefectures. About 3000 people participated in Tokyo. To make it easier for people to participate, in Japan, the softer term march was used instead of strike or action.

The following characteristics of this movement are very interesting. (1) It consists of collective action mainly involving younger generations such as high school and university students. (2) Most of the participants were first-timers who had never been involved in any social movements or demonstrations before. (3) The action by young people of boycotting school classes and becoming involved in street action aimed at strengthening measures against climate change was essentially selfless. (4) It is not a one-off event, but still continues every Friday, and worldwide action has been held several times even during the COVID-19 pandemic. (5) It has spread all over the world including to developing countries. (6) SNS are used as a tool to call for participation. (7) Finally, it is a single issue activity focusing on climate change.

Analysis through cultural framing, mobilization structure, and political opportunity structure

My framework for analyzing social movements, the triangular model of social movement (TRIM) is based on work by McAdam (1996), and consists of three elements: cultural framing, mobilization structure, and political opportunity structure (Hasegawa 2018). Cultural framing defines the common situation shared by all the participants: the world image and the self-image of the movement, which justifies the social movement and activities, and motivates citizens to participate. Cultural framing is a dynamic and strategic process that mediates dissatisfaction and orientation towards change. The mobilization structure focuses on what resources can be mobilized under which conditions. All kinds of resources, for example, human, financial, material and informational, as well as symbolic resources like legitimacy or justification, can be mobilized. Finally, the political opportunity structure is the whole of the institutional and non-institutional political conditions that define the social processes of the emergence, development, and decline of social movements.

This is an analytical framework that integrates the perspective of collective behavior, the theory of new social movements, and the resource mobilization perspective. It is a response to the three spheres of “social movement and culture,” “social movement and organization,” and “social movement and politics.”

The name of Fridays for Future and the symbolic icon of Greta Thunberg were extremely effective. It has been considered difficult for key players in the movement that has formed around climate change issues to remain potent symbols for many years, even though there are longstanding symbolic icons such as polar bears. The symbolic figures are limited to the former US Vice President Al Gore, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. In terms of personalizing the issue of climate change, it is extremely significant that Greta Thunberg emerged into the spotlight. In 2019, she was invited to the World Economic Forum in January, the EU Parliament in February, and the UN Climate Action Summit in September; and her voice impressed, time after time. In December that same year, she was named Person of the Year by Time magazine.

Fridays for Future – it just happened to be on a Friday, a target day of Greta’s protesting – is also a good framing. Like the #MeToo movement, these words and phrases can be understood by elementary school children in English-speaking countries. The message is straightforward and positive. It is literally future oriented. It contains only 16 letters, but it is a call for action on Fridays, expressing a sense of crisis for the future. It is also easy to use as an abbreviation and convenient for hashtags, as in #FFFSendai: just like Fridays for Future Kyoto or Fridays for Future Kobe, we can add not only a country name but also a local place name. Because it is easy to localize, it is easy for young people to organize around it in their own area. In Japan, a total of more than 30 groups of Fridays for Future have protested continuously in each region. Compared to negative, forbidden, and accusative framings such as “opposite,” “anti-xx,” and “do not do xx,” it is less likely to cause resistance or repulsion. It can also create interest in what Fridays for Future is.

Regarding the mobilization structure, well-established environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) have retreated into the background. It is true that members of some established environmental NGOs and full-time staff of their secretariat are joining in to provide support, more or less; but basically, it does not rely on an organizational foundation. It is the best proof of the success of this framing that young people confront the climate crisis under the name of Fridays for Future.

Young people use SNS to communicate and mobilize information. Greta’s Twitter account has 5.05 million followers (as of the end of June 2022). Her Facebook page also has 3.55 million followers. Most of her Facebook articles have received more than 10,000 likes, and some more than 100,000 likes. Greta’s good sense of outreaching, problem-raising ability, and coherent attitude are great things to learn from when thinking about mobilizing.

The timing of the political opportunity of 2019 was instrumental in the great response to Greta’s actions. 2019 was the year before the Paris Agreement began to be implemented in 2020, and it was easy for the media to cover it. If the action had taken place in 2012, it is doubtful that it would have received such a response.

In May 2019, the Guardian newspaper in the UK, which is the most enthusiastic of the world’s daily newspapers reporting on climate change, said that the name climate change did not fully convey the seriousness of the reality at the time. Declaring a policy change, it thereafter began to describe the situation as a climate crisis or a climate emergency.

Greta’s actions show continuity. On Friday, June 17, 2022, the school strike reached its 200th week; at 52 weeks/year, it has been going on for around four years.

Japan: why the campaigns have been so limited

Japan’s Fridays for Future campaigns are extremely limited compared to those in other countries. Why have they been so limited in terms of the number of participants mobilized?

Japanese youth groups use the name Fridays for Future in English with no translation. This is a straightforward phrase, but in Japanese it would be very difficult to express and nobody has come up with a good counterpart phrase in Japanese. Similarly, there is no person who is a symbolic icon like Greta. Generally, in Japan, young people are silent, cynical, or indifferent, while many of the participants in street campaigns are foreigners and international school students. Even among Asian countries, the political achievements of Japanese social movements are poor; when compared to South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, etc., Japan’s social movements are weak in terms of funding, human resources, organizational foundations, and the involvement of experts. They are underpowered because cultural framing, resource mobilization, and political opportunities for social movements are all so weak. Eventually, the expansion of the mobilization will peak, and there is a possibility that we will face a diminished sense of political effectiveness and a sense of helplessness, with the idea that we are acting repeatedly, but in the end, we may not see any results from our activities. There are issues of how to maintain the energy of practices that continue repeating the same thing every time, and how to maintain the exercise as the freshness of participants and media coverage fade.

In terms of the structure of political opportunity, youth groups have not yet succeeded in finding an effective political route to push aggressive climate policy. There is no specific political program or agenda following the street protests. How should Fridays for Future campaigns be organized in new directions; what should the next step be; and who should their political allies be? This is all still very unclear. The upheaval caused by activism has failed to bring about victory in any national elections. Gaining political influence is still a difficult challenge for activists due to the limitations of their organizational backgrounds. In light of the political backlash fueled by ethno-centrism and populism, as well as the political pressure in the mass media, Japan’s civil society and civil activism on climate change issues stand at a crossroads, and their future direction remains uncertain. This might be a common issue not only for Japan’s Fridays for Future campaigns, but also for the overseas campaigns. But particularly under the political culture in Japan, where the political engagement of the general public is unlikely to increase, the issue of how to sustain the movement and make headway is very hard to tackle.

Koichi Hasegawa, Shokei Gakuin University, Japan, and member of the ISA Research Committee on Environment and Society (RC24) <k_hasegawa@shokei.ac.jp>

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