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Will social movements focused on fossil fuel supply help solve the climate crisis?

The past decade has seen the rise of the “keep-it-in-the-ground” movement. What influence will it have on climate policy?

Georgia Piggot / Published on 18 December 2017

In an article just published in Climate Policy, I discuss the rise over the past decade of the “keep-it-in-the-ground” movement – a loosely coordinated mobilisation effort aimed at halting the extraction of fossil fuels. It has included occupations to stop construction of pipelines, blockades of shipping lanes, marches at UN meetings and campaigns for organisations to divest from fossil fuel companies.


The climate march at COP23 in Bonn, Germany, called for the end of coal. Photo: John Englart / Flickr.

Debates on the significance of this movement often fixate on whether attacking fossil fuel production is the right way to solve the climate crisis. Numerous critics have called the movement “misguided”, arguing the movement is fighting “the wrong battle” and should instead focus on supporting policies that reduce fossil fuel consumption, such as a carbon price. In essence, the question often asked is: would mobilisation be more effective at addressing climate change if it focused on reducing demand for fossil fuels instead of supply? This question is problematic, however, because it rests on several flawed assumptions about the relationship between supply- and demand-side policy and movements.

First, it creates a false dichotomy between supply- and demand-focused policies. It presumes they are at odds with one another, rather than complementary. We don’t need either a price on carbon or a plan to phase-down fossil fuel production – we need both. Tackling supply alongside demand can be a more cost-effective approach to reducing emissions. Doing so also directly addresses the “lock-in” problem – namely that investments in infrastructure and the disproportionate political influence of the fossil fuel industry are tying us to a fossil-fuelled future. Furthermore, attention to the supply-side can bring greater focus to the fate of those who live and work in fossil-fuel-dependent communities, who may otherwise be forgotten in our transition to a new green economy.

This question also implies that targeting fossil fuel supply detracts attention or support from other forms of climate policy, when in fact the opposite may be true. There is good reason to believe supply-side movements make demand-side policies more politically palatable, not less. Recent work suggests that the divestment movement has aided demand-side policy efforts by pulling climate change out of the margins of the political agenda, and by making proposals such as a carbon tax appear to be a moderate option. The supply-side movement has helped increased the attention and perceived legitimacy of demand-side policies.

Furthermore, the notion that the movement should shift its focus from supply to demand belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how movements form and, in turn, influence policy. The object of movement attention can’t simply be substituted and retain the same momentum and impact. The movement to halt fossil fuel production has very tangible targets, such as infrastructure and investments. It also attracts a broad array of supporters, because it includes people motivated by issues by other than climate change (e.g. those concerned about land rights or water pollution). For this reason, the supply-side movement has had more success mobilizing supporters than efforts emphasizing emissions reduction.

The immense scale of countering climate change demands big solutions, and many of them. It also requires citizens mobilising to demand politicians enact those solutions. Rather than questioning whether the supply-side movement has focused on the wrong target, perhaps our time would be better spent trying to understand what influence this mobilisation will ultimately have on climate policy.

This is a challenging question to answer, but one for which there is a good body of social movement literature to illuminate. I outline relevant insights from this literature in my recent paper in Climate Policy. In short: there are lots of pathways through which movements influence policy, and the ultimate fate of a movement’s influence on policy depends on a combination of factors coming together at the right time – such as windows of political opportunity opening, resources for mobilisation becoming available, and evocative framing of problems and solutions calling people to action.

The supply side movement seems to have nailed this combination on several occasions, leading to noticeable political shifts away from fossil fuels – see for instance Obama-era decisions to restrict fossil fuel extraction, and the French Government’s proposed ban on future oil and gas exploration. It remains to be seen whether the movement will support similar shifts for demand-side policy, but I wouldn’t rule it out. Further – and more to the point – we shouldn’t judge mobilisation based on its ability to deliver any particular policy, but rather based on its ability to change the conditions for climate policy implementation and make a broad range of climate solutions more palatable.

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