Europe’s Missing Climate Marches

Europe’s Missing Climate Marchesby Donagh Cagney*

Ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections, Europe was rocked by massive climate marches. But as the 2024 elections approach, the streets remain silent

As a series of climate marches swept across Europe in spring 2019, Brussels was no exception. At the movement’s peak, 70,000 people massed in the EU quarter to loudly demand greater climate action.

The mobilisation paid off: The subsequent electoral ‘green wave’ unleashed five years of ambitious climate lawmaking.

Five years later, Europe is again getting ready to vote, but this time, climate marches are small and scattered. Neither record-breaking global temperatures nor threats to the Green Deal have been enough to motivate protestors to return to the streets en masse.

Euractiv spoke to activists and academics to understand why.

Greta and Gaza

“If there hadn’t been a genocide in Gaza (…) there would have been a reasonable chance of a new cycle of climate activism” said Dr. Anneleen Kenis, lecturer in political ecology and environmental justice at Brunel University London, who has long studied the climate movement.

Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s focus on the plight of Palestine exemplifies the dilemma facing activists: Should they ignore huge human injustice, or risk diverting attention from climate just as the issue is slipping down the political agenda?

The question continued to divide the climate movement.

Dr. Kenis felt that “it would almost be cynical to organised huge demonstrations” on climate, given the desperate situation in Gaza. ‘’Gaza is where the movement’s main attention should go now”.

Conversely, Larry Moffett, a climate activist in Brussels, said “we prefer to keep our focus on the climate as a unifying issue”.

Fragmentation and the far right threat

The dilemma facing the climate movement goes beyond Gaza.

“The mainstream climate movement has very much presented itself as being beyond politics” said Dr. Kenis, but in today’s polarised and unstable world “you can’t stay beyond politics anymore”.

Focusing on a single issue like climate can mobilise large numbers of people to hit the streets. But as the climate movement is confronted with wider issues such as security concerns and the rise of the far right, it may be harder to maintain just one simple unifying message.

The kids are all grown up

Young people were a clear inspiration for the wider climate marches that hit Europe in 2019, particularly the children who skipped school to protest. This youth movement is far less visible today.

“I don’t think the movement exists anymore. Not like it did a few years ago,” said Dr. Kenis.

While many young leaders remain active in climate action – with several chasing European Parliament – wider youth engagement has slumped.

While young people’s interests and priorities invariably change as they grow, Brussels climate activist Moffett also cited COVID restrictions and pressure from parents as reasons why the youth movement has dissipated.

Catching the next wave

Dr Joost de Moor, assistant professor at Science Po in France, argued that “sooner or later, numbers were going down anyhow. This probably has more to do with a loss of momentum and excitement than a drop in climate concerns.”

He, as well as others, acknowledged that COVID “probably set in motion a premature ending to the initial cycle”. All who spoke to Euractiv also noted that protest movements come in “waves”.

Kim Le Quang, co-founder of the ‘Rise for Climate’ movement in Brussels, knows this cycle well. “There is an emotional side and at a given moment, the emotion can disappear, and people move on to something else,” he explained.

The academics said such waves are triggered during ‘windows of opportunity’ – 2019’s movement was sparked by extreme weather during summer 2018, and a landmark IPCC report, which outlined the consequences of breaching 1.5 degrees of warming.

Most experts were confident that another wave of climate protests would rise in the future, although none would make concrete predictions.

Mattias Wahlström, assistant head of sociology and work science at the University of Gothenburg, noted that “climate change will continue to bring about catastrophes. While deeply troubling, such disasters will hopefully also trigger new waves of climate protest”.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

*Donagh Cagney joined Euractiv in March 2024 as Editor for the Energy & Environment and Transport Hubs. He has 14 years experience working on a range of EU policy areas including aviation, renewables, economic regulation, state aid and innovation. He has worked for an airport operator, a national energy regulator and industry associations representing airports and renewable ocean energy. Donagh has an undergraduate and Masters in economics, and is currently completing a postgraduate course in energy & climate at the University of Antwerp.

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