New study shows marching for climate change can sway people’s beliefs and actions

Collective actions have a real impact, even on people that aren't taking an active role in the fight against climate change.

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Image: Campact / Flickr / Cc By-Nc 2.0

On Friday, over 1 million people in over 100 countries participated in a massive #schoolstrikeforclimate action. Now a new study says that marches such as these can have profound optimistic repercussions on bystanders.

A team of researchers from Penn State found that “people tended to be more optimistic about people’s ability to work together to address climate change and have better impressions of people who participated in marches after the March for Science and the People’s Climate March in the spring of 2017.”

“Marches serve two functions: to encourage people to join a movement and to enact change,” said Janet Swim, professor of psychology at Penn State. “This study is consistent with the idea that people who participate in marches can gain public support, convince people that change can occur, and also normalize the participants themselves.”

Swim and her coauthors on the project, Nathaniel Geiger from Indiana University, and Michael Lengieza from Penn State, set out to study whether marches are effective at changing psychological predictors of joining movements.

Researchers asked survey participants about their impressions of marchers before and after the March for Science and the People’s Climate March, both of which took place in April 2017. They found that participants were less likely to view marchers as “arrogant or eccentric or otherwise outside of the norm,” after the marches.

“Activists are often seen negatively — that they’re arrogant or eccentric or otherwise outside of the norm,” Swim said. “There’s a fine line between marchers and other activists expressing themselves and raising awareness of their cause, while also not confirming negative stereotypes. So, one of our questions was whether marches increase or decrease people’s negative impressions of marchers.”

The study consisted of researchers talking to 587 bystanders, people who did not participate in the marches but who were aware of them via media exposure. 302 participants completed a survey the day before the March for Science was held and 285 complete a survey a few days after the People’s Climate March.

Researchers were also interested in the effects of media coverage on participant’s reactions. The results showed the participants who regularly got their news from conservative media had more collective efficacy beliefs – the belief about people’s ability to work together to address climate change – after the marches. This could be due to the fact that many conservative news sources only talk about the march after the fact, so many might not be aware of it beforehand. On the other hand, participants that consumed media from liberal sources tended to have less negative impressions of marchers.

Swim says that in the future she would like to study how news and media sources contribute to people’s beliefs about climate change itself.

This is fantastic news for organizers who now know that their collective actions have a real impact, even on people that aren’t taking an active role in the fight against climate change.

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