How did we get here? Great chronology of citizen and corporate action on climate

August 1, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

I’m spending the summer lull updating How Change Happens and am coming across some really interesting stuff. To update the book’s case study on the Paris Climate Summit of 2015, Irene Guijt sent over ‘A short history of the successes and failures of the international climate change negotiations’ an excellent (open access) paper by Mark Maslin, John Lang and Fiona Harvey.

It takes us through the timeline from Margaret Thatcher’s ground-breaking climate change speech to the UN in 1989 up to the present day, and the 2 steps forward, 1 step back interplay between technical progress and politics in successive CoPs. Lots of detail, some of it hard to grasp, and some pretty overwhelming infographics (examples here). But the sections are I’ll pull out here are the ones on ‘global environmental social movements’ and the ‘role of corporations’, which provide a really helpful intro to both.

On Social Movements:

[There are] ‘four main waves of recent environmental social movements. The first was in 1970s and this growing environmental awareness can be traced back to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962; the image of Earth seen from the Moon in 1969; the Club of Rome’s 1972 report on Limits to Growth; the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident in 1979; the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986; and the Exxon Valdez oil spillage in 1989. But this environmental awareness focused mainly on pollution, pesticides and destruction of local environments and seemed to be limited geographically to the specific areas in which they occurred. Many of the key environmental NGOs were formed around these issues, such as Friends of the Earth (1969), Greenpeace (1971) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) (1961).

The second wave sprung up in the late 1980s and early 1990s when a growing realisation emerged that humanity’s environmental impact was global. It was the discovery in 1985 by the British Antarctic Survey of depletion of ozone over Antarctica that demonstrated the global connectivity of our environment. The ozone ‘hole’ also had a tangible international cause, the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which led to a whole new area of politics: the international management of the environment. There followed a set of key agreements: the 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer; the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer; and the 1990 London and 1992 Copenhagen Adjustments and Amendments to the Protocol. These have been held up as examples of successful environmental diplomacy. This movement climaxed at the Rio Summit in 1992.

The third wave was in 2008 and 2009, focusing on the hope of a major climate deal at the Copenhagen climate conferences. In the UK it was very successful as political parties looked to ‘rebrand’ and lead to the Climate Change Act being legislated with near unanimous support in 2008. As we know, Copenhagen ended in failure due to a lack of international leadership, a change in direction driven by the US and China, lobbying by powerful climate change deniers and the global maelstrom of the 2008 global financial crash. For almost 10 years the global environmental movement was held back due to the overwhelming focus on revitalising the global economy. This all changed in 2018.

The fourth wave of the global environmental social movement started in 2018. In May 2018, Extinction Rebellion was founded in the UK and launched in October 2018 with over 100 academics calling for action on climate change. Using non-violent civil disobedience, Extinction Rebellion aims to compel governments around the world to avoid tipping points in the climate system and stem biodiversity loss to prevent both social and ecological collapse. In November 2018 and April 2019, the group brought Central London to a standstill. Extinction Rebellion quickly spread to at least 60 other cities around the world.

In August 2018, Greta Thunberg – at the age of 15 – began spending her school days outside the Swedish Parliament holding a sign saying Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for climate) calling for stronger action on climate change. Soon, other students from around the world started similar school strikes on a Friday and called the movement ‘Fridays for Future’. It has been estimated that, by the beginning of 2020, over 4500 strikes across over 150 countries, involving five million school children had taken place. These strikes were interrupted by the pandemic but have resumed all over the world, including a high-profile one in Glasgow during the COP26 negotiations.

In 2018 and 2019, three influential IPCC reports were published. First, in 2018, the ‘Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C’ was launched, widely regarded as its most important report in its 30-year history. Second, came the ‘Special Report on Climate Change and Land’ and, more specifically, how climate change would impact desertification, land management, food security and terrestrial ecosystems. The third was its ‘Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere’ showing the impacts of climate change on the speed of melting ice sheets, mountain glaciers and sea ice, and their implications for sea level rise and marine ecosystems.

There is a school of thought that we have now entered a fifth wave of social movement – radical direct action. Borne out of the frustration that many climate campaigners feel from the lack of action by governments and many corporations, direct actions have included: Insulate Britain protestors gluing themselves to motorways; Just Stop Oil protestors throwing soup over famous paintings and then gluing themselves to the frames; protestors letting down the tyres of large sport utility vehicles (SUVs) in cities; and the sabotaging of oil pipelines and refineries. Many activists now see direct action and violence as the only way that government authorities will take note and act – in the US this has been defined as eco-terrorism.’

On the role of corporations

‘These new social movements, inspired by the latest science, have compelled some corporations to take a leading role in decarbonising the economy. Microsoft has set the agenda for the technology sector with an ambitious target to become carbon negative by 2030. By 2050 it wants to remove all the carbon pollution from the atmosphere that it and its supply chain has emitted since the founding of the company in 1975. Sky has set the agenda for the media sector, already being carbon neutral – it has pledged its entire value chain will go carbon negative by 2030. BP has also declared that its company operations will be carbon neutral by 2050 by eliminating or offsetting over 415 million tonnes of CO2 emissions – although it will still sell oil and natural gas.

These companies form part of a group of over 3000 global companies that have pledged to adopt Science Based Targets, meaning, they are all hoping to achieve net zero emissions by the mid-century.

But the relationship between corporations and net zero commitments is a difficult one. Many organisations and companies have actively engaged in greenwashing to keep their customers or shareholders happy. The financial think tank Planet Tracker has defined six types of greenwashing which are very helpful when analysing the various claims made by organisations and companies:

1. Greencrowding: hiding in a crowd of other ‘green’ (but vague) do-gooders.

2. Greenlighting: spotlighting a particularly green feature of operations or products to draw attention away from environmentally damaging activities being conducted elsewhere.

3. Greenshifting: implying that the consumer is at fault and shifting the blame.

4. Greenlabelling: where marketers call something green or sustainable, but a closer examination reveals this to be misleading.

5. Greenrinsing: regularly changing environmental, social and governance (ESG) targets before they are achieved.

6. Greenhushing: refers to corporate management teams under-reporting or hiding their sustainability credentials to evade investor scrutiny.

Given this real economic pressure, governments around the world have started to declare climate emergencies and that action must be taken. At the time of publication of this article, over 3250 local governments in at least 40 countries have made climate emergency declarations. Even though between 2020 and 2022 the whole world was focused on dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change remained a major issue. This was in part due to the large number of extreme weather events report all around the world in 2021 and 2022 and a shift in public perception about the reality and importance of climate change.’

August 1, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. It would be nice to have a scale for the depiction of global temperature change in Figure 4 (above) — I assume the colours are meant to be self-explanatory (from a restful blue to an angry red) but since the global targets are expressed in degrees celsius, it would be nice to have colour gradations scaled by degrees.

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