About a third of Swiss citizens changed their daily behavior as a result of Greta Thunberg’s climate strikes, despite not having participated in them, according to a new study. Researchers looked at the broader impact of the protests on people’s environmental choices and found a large share had made significant changes. While the findings may not carry over to all countries, they show that climate protest can have a noticeable influence.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Last month, the youth climate movement celebrated its fifth anniversary. It all started in 2018 when 15-year-old Greta Thunberg sat in front of the Swedish parliament to protect the lack of political action to tackle the climate crisis. Thunberg conducted her strikes on Fridays, with thousands of people, and not just youths, joining these climate strikes since.

But has this initiative really made a difference?

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) surveyed Swiss residents after the protests in October and November 2019. Over 1,200 people aged 18 to 74, who didn’t go to the strikes, answered a set of questions on their environmental habits before and following the protest to spot any changes.

When asked about their views of Thunberg and her organization, Fridays for Future, the majority looked favorably at both of them. This translated into concrete action for 30% of the respondents. This shows that people are more aware of how their actions affect the environment and also that big shifts are happening at an individual level.

Climate strikes change habits

Most of the reported changes focused on transportation, recycling, and consumption of foods and goods, the study showed. Participants reported looking for alternative ways to get to work, such as cycling, and avoiding flying when going on holidays. They also said they were eating more local, organic produce and reducing the intake of beef.

Changes that require a big upfront investment, for example, in new energy and heating technologies, were mentioned only by a small fraction of respondents. The findings suggest political action is needed to stabilize the behavioral changes, and also to account for unequal opportunities for change due to financial constraints, the researchers said.

The sympathy for the Fridays for Future movement and Greta Thunberg is a major agent for the changes it can provoke, the study showed. Among those who evaluated the climate strike positively, 48.4% reported changes in their behavior. This was the case for only 1.7% of those who evaluated the movement as consistently negative.

“Our study found that this type of civic engagement through collective action can have a direct effect on society, confirming that such action is warranted,” Livia Fritz, study author, said in a news release. “We also saw that changes made at the individual level can lead to broader societal change provided they’re supported by political action at the same time.”

Overall, the results show there’s untapped potential for inciting changes in behavior that could be addressed more effectively by the climate strike movement in addition to its direct appeal to politicians, the researchers said. The movement can reach a wide range of people, including to some extent those who are not environmentalists, they said.

Millions are expected to take the streets around the world on September 15-17 amid the United Nations Climate Action Summit that’s set to happen in New York. They will march to call governments and energy companies to put an end to the use of fossil fuels, one of the main forces behind the climate crisis, and present more ambitious climate targets.

The study was published in the journal Sustainability Science.


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