Reflections on a Climate Strike

In this blog, Matthew Hodgetts and Kevin McGravey consider last month’s Climate Strikes through the lens of their new paper in Environmental Values, ‘Climate Change and the Free Marketplace of Ideas?‘ (Online First, September 2019)

The youth of the world united the past two Fridays, September 20thand 27th, to continue #ClimateStrike on #FridaysForFuture, a movement spearheaded by 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg. In a speech earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Thunberg fiercely articulated the increasing frustration felt by youth around the world. As she put it, ‘Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.’[1]

The concern being expressed by Thunberg and by youth around the world is one also conveyed to us by students in our classrooms when we discuss climate change. Some of our students have even taken up the activist mantle, including becoming involved in the climate strike movement. While reactions to climate change run the expected gamut of degrees of concern, a very common response is a certain amount of exasperation that, despite societal awareness of and commitment to addressing climate change for many decades – long before our students were born – nothing much has been accomplished.

No Planet B
Climate March placard. Photo: Matthew Hodgetts.

In fact, despite the occasional good news story, things have only gotten worse over the course of our students’ lives. It is thus no surprise that a frequent refrain among students is simply one of dismay that few in power seem to be achieving anything meaningful. Thunberg tells every political leader she meets the same thing she told Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that ‘he, of course, is not doing enough.’[2]There are plenty of reasons for inaction, including the simple fact that climate change is an extremely complicated structural problem and despite knowing what we need to do – decarbonise the global economy – there are no simple or painless fixes, but the striking youth are quick to point out that has been the response of leaders for decades.

There is another important part of the story as to why little has been done. There are still many who do not believe that climate change is occurring or at least that it is primarily caused by humans. Again, while there are several factors that contribute to this outcome and much regional variation, at least in the case we examine, the United States, it is possible to identify a significant source of this situation. This is the small group of what we label the ‘professional’ climate deniers, a group whose history is well told in a number of accounts (including recent works by Michael Mann, Naomi Klein, and the podcast series Drilled) no doubt familiar to readers of this blog and journal.

Climate march placard. Photo: Matthew Hodgetts.

While the strategies of these actors are varied and well-documented, we focus on one particular feature of the debate prominent in the United States, but also one that should be familiar to readers elsewhere, which is that statements of climate denial by public figures and the efforts of these groups denying climate change are contributions to scientific discourse and a protected exercise of free speech. The United States provides a challenging case to consider limits on speech given it is well known for its strong protection of expression. While the responses we provide in the paper ‘Climate Change and the Free Marketplace of Ideas’ follow American jurisprudential logic, they are meant to be more broadly illuminating about such speech claims. As we suggest in the paper, more general forms of the claims are, to our minds, at least conceptually transferable to other contexts.

We leave our argument for readers of the paper and here lay out one argument that is made for what gets labelled ‘absolute’ speech protections, although it is worth noting that even in the United States there are no absolute protections for all speech. Central to the defense of free speech in the American context is John Stuart Mill’s ‘marketplace of ideas’ logic (although Mill did not introduce the phrase, which was coined later). Mill, in On Liberty,suggests that there are significant reasons to protect even speech that is false. Among his arguments, he suggests that even if the speech is completely false, there is value in continual debate that reminds us of why what we know to be true is true. Subjecting our beliefs to challenge prevents them from ultimately becoming dead dogma, devoid of truth and the capacity to inspire action.

Our response to this and other defenses of certain kinds of climate change denial is to go a different way, and after addressing the issues with the status quo approach, we provide three  alternatives conceptualising limiting climate denying speech, settling on the third, categorical exceptions, as the most attractive. While we are comfortable answering our students’ questions about why we seem to have done so little about climate change, it is important to also think about how we might provide some sense of a way forward, shifting the debate from ‘should we do something’ to ‘what should we do’. As Thunberg said in Davos, “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”[3]

House Fire
Climate march placard. Photo: Matthew Hodgetts.

[1]Quotation here:

[2]Quotation here:

[3]Quotation here:

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