Why Is Activism Failing and What Needs to Change?

Humanity is in the most consequential decade in its history. The choices we make now about climate change will determine the future of generations to come. But the political reality is often miles away from what NGOs are calling for based on scientific evidence. So why is climate activism failing?

By Kumi Naidoo

Aktivismus COP 26 Demo Klimawandel Kumi Naidoo
Foto: flickr / Midia Ninja

Amílcar Cabral, the Guinea-Bissau freedom fighter and poet, famously urged that it was important that we: “Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories.”

As humanity finds itself in the most consequential decade in its history, the choices we make now and in the coming years to mitigate climate change will determine what kind of future we'll have or whether we will have a future at all. Unlike after the global financial crisis, when governments and businesses responded with a mentality of system protection, system recovery and system maintenance, what is needed as we think about post-Covid recovery is system innovation, system redesign, and system transformation. The reality is that there is a massive gulf between where economics and politics are, and what science says on climate change, as well as what extreme weather events are reminding us of week after week.

Without activism, the world would be a far worse place

This then raises the important question of whether activism is failing to achieve its stated goals. To be sure, were it not for activism in all its variety of shapes and forms, the world would be in a much more desperate state and the advances that we have seen in terms of environmental justice, gender justice, indigenous rights, and so on would have not been achieved. Without activism, the world would be a far worse place than it is now.

Activism is an expression of the amazing moral courage of ordinary people around the world and, collectively, we are winning significant battles against tremendous odds. The victories of indigenous Americans who protested against the Keystone XL petro-chemical pipeline running through sensitive ecologies between Canada and the United States is one such example. In Kenya, legal challenges by activists forced judges to stop plans to construct the country’s first ever coal-powered plant near the coastal town of Lamu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Across Asia, activists have found solutions to global warming including providing cleaner cooking stoves to rural families, improving rice cultivation, reducing emissions from deforestation, cutting a deepening dependence on coal, and tackling emissions from a growing number of cars, trucks, and buses.

But while we celebrate the wins of activism, we have to be brutally honest that we are losing the overall war for climate justice. There have been lots of sacrifices made by ordinary people putting their lives on the line on a regular basis and yet still, as Greta Thunberg reminded us in Glasgow, we are nowhere closer to righting the wrongs of unfettered capitalism. Why is activism failing?

Communications from activists are inaccessible to ordinary people

Firstly, we are losing on the communications front -- even though there are immensely creative expressions of activism from around the world. Far too much of communications from activists is jargonistic, policy wonkish, and does not speak to ordinary people's lived experiences. Given the complexity of the climate challenge, this is a big mountain to climb; activists should be able to speak about the climate emergency in a way that is more human centric. So for example, the fact that the environmental movement allowed climate change to be framed primarily as an environmental issue rather than as a cross-cutting issue was a tactical error. The fact is that we did not initially frame climate change as something about water, about our soil, about the ability to grow food and about sea level rise overwhelming people's homes. Instead, people were drowned in degrees, parts per millions, and an alphabet soup of acronyms that make the issue of climate change impenetrable for many.

Even though there's been a substantial improvement over the last decade, this is still not something that we are able to communicate with success, given how massive the fossil fuel industries' communication capabilities are in terms of shifting the narrative in their direction. The industry no longer denies that fossil fuels contribute to climate change, but they are doing their best to stretch out the longevity of the fossil fuel industry for the longest possible time. The task here for activism is really about doing the opposite. While the cards are stacked against activism being able to penetrate mainstream media on the scale that, ideally, they need every effort should be made to continue to claim every single centimeter of ground we can. At the same time, activism needs to advocate for a more diverse media environment where there's a difference between having the right to have your own opinion as opposed to having the right to have your own facts.

Focus more on the agency people do have

Secondly, activism far too often tends to focus on what people don't have. We don't focus sufficiently on what agency people do have. By being able to see what power ordinary people do in fact have, we might be able to create multiple pathways for people to be able to participate in climate action and other issues of concern. Doing this means the very definition of activism has to change. It has to be more inclusive in terms of not only including people who are in full-time paid positions and so on, but the vast majority of people who are not. To be sure, there are many inspirational examples of struggles being waged at the local level where people are exercising their full agency.

People have power Diagramm Kumi Naidoo

Thirdly, activism itself has become deadly with an average of four environmental activists killed every week. They are killed for speaking up against those contributing to the runaway climate crisis. The assassination of Bazooka Radebe in 2016 outside his home in Mbizana, Eastern Cape, South Africa, in front of his teenage son is a prime example of how risky it is to oppose large multinationals like Transworld Energy & Mineral Resources, a subsidiary of Perth-based Mineral Commodities Limited (MRC), that is still trying to mine that pristine coastline.

Fourthly, a failure to see the obvious interconnections between human rights, environment, poverty, and inequality, and so on, means that the potential impact and scope of campaigning efforts can not realize their full potential.

This is of course not an exhaustive list but represents some initial thinking I have been doing as a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy. I encourage further reflections and dialogue: kumi.naidoo@robertboschacademy.de.

Given these conditions and the huge challenges that lay ahead of us, the initial claim that we are in the most consequential decade of humanity’s history is a call for activism to imagine a path where we move from winning battles against injustice to winning the overall battle to avert climate catastrophe and to eradicate the injustices that got us to this point. The very survival of humanity depends on it.

Kumi Naidoo rund grau


Kumi Naidoo is a human rights and environmental activist from South Africa and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy. He was Executive Director of Greenpeace International from 2009 to 2016 and Secretary General of Amnesty International from 2018 to 2020.

You might also be interested in

Germany’s New Centrists? The Green Party

The German Green Party has evolved from its radical origins in the 1980s to become an appealing moderate force with increasing electoral success. They bear watching ahead of Germany's fall 2021 federal elections given their potential to join a government...

Read more

"Europe could be an Achilles heel for Le Pen"

The pro-European Macron faces the anti-European Le Pen in the final round of the French presidential election. What role has Macron’s position on Europe played in his success and to what extent will it be of importance for the final election campaign? And...

Read more

The meeting convinced me that diversity is not something we should fear.

31 July 2015. Atallah Kuttab, Founder and Chairman of SAANED, stresses the importance of cooperation in the philanthropy sector - between governments and philanthropy organizations as well as between the organizations themselves. In this video, Mr. Kuttab...

Read more