Photograph: People march during a demonstration under the banner “Protect the climate – stop coal” two days before the start of the COP 23 UN Climate Change Conference hosted by Fiji but held in Bonn, Germany November 4, 2017. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay
A smartphone without an operating system. Or a brand-new car without the road-network to drive it on. The 2015 landmark Paris agreement at COP21 delivered the first truly global deal to tackle climate change, but national action needs to be significantly toughened to meet the goal of keeping global temperature rise on the low. That is why half of the world moves to Bonn this week. Where the Paris agreement set out principles, the 23rd annual ‘conference of the parties’ (COP23) under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is looking to build structures and rules that will enable the Paris deal to work.
With all the world-leaders and influencers in the field of climate in one place, Bonn seems to be the place where everybody wants to show their stance. As the COP23 Climate Summit has started on Monday, several activist groups and protesters have tried to make their mark. Over the weekend, thousands of people had gathered in Bonn ahead of Summit, calling for the measures set out in the accord to be implemented faster. For Germany specifically, this means a move away from coal to renewable resources. More protests were staged in the nearby town of Kerpen on Sunday.
Early July, we have seen similar forms occurring, with mass protests surrounding the G20-Summit in Hamburg. In most recent years the G20 has caused mass protest in the host-city. And also the 2015 Paris based COP21 saw thousands defy a protest ban to call for climate action. Where the nature and goals of these protests differed from those in Bonn (as well as the amount of violence used in some occasions), we can see how large, international conferences like the G20 or COP often result in protests by advocacy groups calling for change on a variety of topics.
The question which automatically occurs, or that should occur anyway, is one of effectivity. How effective are the mass protests on the sidelines of these events where the rich and powerful of the world meet? Al Jazeera’s Srecko Horvat writes, public demonstrations might be necessary “to show the massive dissatisfaction with the current global system. But even if there are 150,000 people in the streets, this massive mobilization won’t produce any concrete change.”
There are, of course, several answers to this question. But let’s go with a rather positive one. The answer is yes; these forms of protest do matter, but in a more indirect way than we might think. In a 2011 study, economists from the Universities of Harvard and Stockholm found that protests do in fact have a major influence on politics. Their research shows that protest does not work because big crowds send a signal to policy-makers—rather, it’s because protests get people politically activated. More than directly influencing their apparent targets at the summit or conference, “protests can build political movements that ultimately affect policy.”
Although the study is of a mostly quantitative nature, and has more implications than just this one, we can see the logic. Change is not the result of influence the actual protest has on policy-makers, but of the way it motivated attendees of the protests. Protesters may be affected by interactions with other protesters, and non-protesters may be affected by interactions with protesters during and after a rally has taken place. Opponents become neutrals, and neutrals might be pulled to your side! What protesters in Bonn might not achieve, is a direct influence on the decisions made at the GOP23 in 2017. However, their protests will be a breeding-ground for debate and a growing political movement. Although this developing political consciousness is what will cause change in the end, the spark of the protest is indispensable in the process.