Current debates about climate change and sustainability raise a series of questions on how we organize our societies and the degree to which human activities, living standards, and consumption patterns are (un)sustainable and affect climate change (and vice versa). It is common to think of and discuss sustainability in terms of triangular concepts or as three interrelated systems, domains, or spheres in relation to the environment, society, and the economy [1
]. This way of understanding sustainability stems from the Brundtland Report from late 1980s [2
] and the proposal of a triple bottom line (People, Planet, Profit) model. This view has had significant impacts in both academic and public debates and has been consolidated once again under the recent United Nations’ Sustainable Development Agenda, i.e., Agenda 2030 [3
]. The model builds on the assumption that sustainability requires environmental protection, individual wellbeing, and economic growth simultaneously. The recently proposed notion of sustainable welfare [4
], however, further stresses the interconnectedness between welfare arrangements to promote good living standards among the population and environmental sustainability in terms of the use of limited natural resources. Thus, we cannot treat welfare systems or their outputs and the environment as two separate spheres. Through welfare state arrangements, a welfare sphere is largely about the provision and achievement of adequate or even substantial forms of material living standards through the (re)distribution of resources, but an environmental sphere is about respecting the earth’s system processes and staying within planetary boundaries. Whereas academics have explored the conflict between economic growth and the use of natural resources, less discussed is the complex relation between arrangements that seek to promote welfare among the public and how to satisfy such needs within ecological limits. This is a pressing issue because most European welfare states build upon a structure that is at odds with notions of both sustainable development and sustainable welfare, and we can observe a strong correlation between high socio-economic living standards and large ecological footprints [5
Even though there is an increasingly widespread understanding that we need to change our societies in terms of issues of individual living standards and wellbeing, it is much more disputed how such paths of transition can take place and whether welfare states are part of the problem or part of the solution. While welfare states (at least some of them) have played a key role in promoting good living standards and redistributed economic resources across the population, such welfare arrangements can potentially be at odds with environmental sustainability as more people have more money to spend. Present mobilizations by environmental and climate movements play a key role in capturing the relationship between social welfare and sustainability, not only because movements can be seen as an avant-garde pushing for social change, but even more so because recent protests have managed to mobilize extensive numbers of protestors on a global scale and thus have highlighted the urgency of environmental concerns amongst significant sections of the global population. In August 2018, the Swedish primary school pupil Greta Thunberg decided to demand forcible climate action from the politicians through a school strike outside of the Swedish parliament during the national election campaign. After the election in September, she started to have school strikes only on Fridays, a protest tactic that since then has been adopted by millions of school students worldwide under the banner “Fridays For Future” (FFF). Note, however, that the FFF slogan is not used in every country taking part in the protests. But since the protests have the school strike in common this article, in line with Wahlström and his colleagues [6
], proceeds from the conceptualization of FFF when referring to the global climate protests. Apart from the weekly school strikes taking place all over the world, global climate strikes have in the last year gathered millions of people, peaking during the Global Week for Future (20–27 September 2019) with approximately 6 million participants in the streets across the world [7
It is certainly beyond doubt that these demonstrations push the public and political agendas on climate change, but how do protesters capture the relation between promoting people’s welfare compared to protecting the environment and dealing with climate change? Or to put it sharply, do protesters put the “environment” first or “welfare” first in their views on societal change? Or do protestors see them as mutually supportive and potentially compatible and not politically and ideologically contradictory? Moreover, what are their views on environmental protection versus economic growth, which Western welfare states have built upon since the mid-20th century and which have been debated within the sustainable welfare literature (e.g., [8
])? This article analyzes climate protesters’ support for three key frames, namely an “environmental” frame (protecting the environment and reducing CO2
emissions), an “economic growth-oriented” frame, and a “welfare” frame (welfare arrangements that promote good living standards for the population). While we find ample studies into environmental movements and climate justice movements, we find fewer studies that direct attention to the activists’ views on and support for these frames when they are contrasted to each other.
Based on an original data set with protesters in the most recent FFF demonstrations and Global Strikes, we furthermore contribute to current debates on what explains frame support among climate activists as we analyze why certain protesters support one particular frame and whether protestors express support for multiple frames. Our article thus offers an original approach to current debates on sustainable development and sustainable welfare solutions as social movements are often seen as an avant-garde in pushing for social change.
This article draws upon a recent protest survey study of participants in six FFF demonstrations (Global Climate Strikes) in Sweden from March to September 2019. During these protests, we performed more than 700 face-to-face interviews and obtained over 900 web survey responses from protest participants. Sweden is a particularly ample context to study welfare and environmental frame support. First, Sweden is often seen as a key model of an advanced welfare state with strong state and public support for providing material welfare and well-being for “all” based on notions of social citizenship and social rights [11
]. Previous studies on attitudes towards sustainable welfare have shown that Swedish people in general tend to hold both pro-environmental and pro-welfare attitudes [12
]. Second, Sweden has a strong and long-lasting environmental movement—the movement’s most recent expression in the form of Global Climate Strikes or FFF originated in Sweden before it took off globally.
2. Environmental Movements, Climate Justice, and FFF
Environmental movements have been, and continue to be, fundamental in bringing about change in public opinion and media reporting, and they have played a key role in the establishment of new scientific disciplines and research institutes. They have also paved the way for many NGOs to be recognized as reliable partners in international negotiations. As such, environmental movements are some of the most debated and well-known forms of social movements.
Academics have put much focus on environmental movements and have studied differences between countries and across continents, their connections to political parties, their influence, and their values and social basis [13
]. Throughout the last decades, environmental movement research has come to focus on issues of climate change, environmental justice, and climate justice [18
]. In their analysis of the environmental justice movement, Brulle and Pellows [21
] show how environmental justice concerns have gained significance, often as grass-root mobilizations with local origins protesting against the use of pesticides and local waste dumps and expressing claims of unjust environmental risks (see also [22
]). According to Rootes and Brulle, such an environmental justice frame has increasingly accommodated not only traditional environmental organizations, but also the environmental movement more generally [18
]. Recent developments also point towards the emergence of what Schlosberg and Collins express as a form of climate justice movement [20
] (see also [14
]), illustrating a growing tide of groups and activists taking up issues of North–South divides and the unjust distribution of the risks and burdens associated with climate change. Cassegård and Thörn [23
] argue that the climate justice agenda grew stronger as a result of an internal critique towards established environmental groups as being too institutionalized. Instead, claims of more radical solutions were brought forward. Hadden [24
] suggests that the climate justice agenda was also the result of spillover effects from the global justice movement with clear anti-capitalist expressions [25
]. The formation of a climate justice movement has also gained ground thanks to the opportunities opening up at international climate summits like the climate summit in Bali (2008, COP 13), the summit in Copenhagen (2009, COP15), and more recent ones [24
]. Currently the movement is accommodated by several leading networks and organizations working with climate change and climate justice (e.g., Extinction Rebellion).
The most recent forms of climate change protests certainly build upon, but also differ from, previous ones. In sharp contrast to other activities, which occurred in direct correspondence to international climate summits, the recent protests emanate from the school strike developed by the Swedish pupil Greta Thunberg, which in its turn has evolved into an international phenomenon with strikes and demonstrations on a global scale. When Thunberg started her school strike on a daily basis outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm in August 2018, three weeks before the Swedish general election, it was a protest against politicians not paying enough attention to the climate issue. Quite soon other students started to join her in their effort to get politicians to acknowledge the emergency and crisis of climate change and other environmental problems. After the Swedish parliamentary election on 9 September 2018, Thunberg and other protesters decided to continue the school strikes on a weekly basis every Friday [27
]. Under banners like “Fridays For Future”, “School Strike 4 Climate”, “Youth for Climate”, and “Youth Strike for Climate”, millions of people have since entered the streets to express their frustration and anxiety over climate change and what they perceive as a lack of political leadership to accommodate such changes in a sufficient way. In a research report on the first Global Climate Strike on 15 March 2019, organized through the global FFF network, it is described as “a historical turn in climate activism” [6
] (p. 6). At the end of 2018, the school strikes spread not only all around Sweden, but also around the entire world [29
]. In one of the most recent Global Climate Strike demonstrations in Stockholm, it was reported that 60,000 protesters took part [30
], making it one of the largest protests in post-war Sweden. Demonstrations in other countries also attracted very large numbers of protesters, ranging from 100,000 protesters respectively in Melbourne and London to around 200,000 in Rome and Berlin, and to more than 300,000 protesters in Montreal [31
]. It is beyond doubt that this has served as an invigoration for the environmental movement as such and a broadening of its social base as new groups have joined the movement and participated in its demonstrations.
3. Frames, Frame Disputes, and Frame Support
The framing perspective in social movement studies highlights how movements produce and maintain the meaning of relevant events and circumstances (e.g., climate change and social injustices) in order to both mobilize supporters and demobilize antagonists [35
], but also as way to gain favorable media coverage and win political victories [36
]. Frames thus have key significance for movements, and it is easy to agree with Polletta and Kai Ho who argue that “frames matter”. They draw attention to what is relevant and irrelevant, and they tie different elements—arguments, beliefs, emotions, and experiences—into a (potentially) coherent message that makes (plausible) sense for participants. They might reconstitute or alter the meaning of an issue, or issues, at stake [35
]. Frames thus not only matter, they also have a transformative capacity by turning “… routine grievances or misfortunes into injustices or mobilizing grievances in the context of collective action” [35
] (p. 384). What come out of these framing activities are referred to as collective action frames that include “… innovative articulations and elaborations of existing ideologies or sets of beliefs and ideas, and thus function as extensions of or antidotes to them” [35
] (p. 401). Central to collective action frames are, for instance, the kinds of framing activities that have an action-oriented function in the sense of negotiating and defining a shared understanding of the problem or situation in need of change, but also who or what to blame, and so forth. Prognostic framing lies at the center of this paper because it “... involves the articulation of a proposed solution to the problem” [37
] (p. 616). Which prognostic frames protesters support (e.g., an environmental or a welfare-oriented frame, as in the case of this paper) is of course an empirical question. Moreover, frames are embedded into wider discursive fields [35
] (p. 401) that demarcate the distinct cultural and structural contexts (encompassing beliefs, values, and ideologies) that in turn have an impact on framing processes.
Much theorizing on frames and framing processes also emphasizes relations between frames. Such relations can be seen as conflicting by addressing the potential tensions within movements over how to articulate the wider ambitions and aims of the movement (e.g., [38
]). The notion of a frame dispute [40
] demonstrates that frames are plural, complex, and might build or even cause fractions and rifts within movements. Movements that attract a wide collection of participants, like the most recent forms of climate strikes, plausibly embody different and varied forms of frame support. That is, framing processes contain elements of ordering and sorting and emphasizing and highlighting, which make certain events or issues more important than others [37
]. In this way, one idea or belief might “... become more salient in an array or hierarchy of movement-relevant topics or issues” [37
] (p. 398), which will become apparent further below.
This article furthermore draws on another strand of the framing literature that pays much more interest to individual frame support. Ketelaars, Walgrave, and Wouters, for instance, have declared “an individualistic and explanatory turn” in framing studies [41
] (p. 342). Along these lines, our review suggests three broad types of factors that can explain why certain groups of participants tend to support one frame over another: (a) political and ideological orientation, (b) movement involvement, and (c) social characteristics.
Studies into political and ideological orientation emphasize that personal values and individual attitudes have key significance for individuals’ support of movements and particular frames. Wahlström, Wennerhag, and Rootes, for instance, found that climate protesters identifying as “right” on the left–right scale were less likely to formulate their prognostic frames as demands for “system change” or “global justice” in comparison to left-oriented climate protesters [42
]. Left-leaning tendencies among climate protesters have been reported in other studies on the environmental movement [43
]. This ties into wider debates on support for different political positions. Linde [44
], for instance, showed a positive correlation between identification with left and green parties and support for environmental policies. Moreover, the left–right division has long been associated with socio-economic conflicts regarding the degree to which the state should regulate markets, engage in economic redistribution, and organize common welfare systems, where a left position has meant a positive attitude towards state regulation, redistribution, and welfare [45
]. The correlation between left-wing orientation and support for economic redistribution and redistributive social policies is further confirmed by numerous studies (e.g., [47
]). Note, however, that the correlation of individual interest and egalitarian ideology with welfare state attitudes has been questioned [51
]; thus, researchers have included another set of subjective factors, such as multiculturalism, merit, authoritarianism, gender traditionalism, and generalized trust. Even though all of them correlated with welfare attitudes, none of them had a consistent effect across the 26 European countries that were included in the study [49
When it comes to movement involvement, studies on social movements emphasize social movement organizations as key to the mobilization of participants (e.g., [52
]) and for the understanding of their frame support. Participants’ organizational affiliation and previous experiences of participating in different demonstrations can thus be seen as expressions of a movement identification and thus as an inclination to express support for a particular issue. Membership in particular organizations can, hence, be seen as providing exposure to and potential support for a particular frame [53
]. It should be noted, however, that there might be a varying degree of commitment to social movement organizations or movements among protest participants [41
]. Nonetheless, we assume that individuals’ affiliation with a specific type of movement organization is positively correlated with their support for the specific frames that are central to the movement. Along the same lines, it can be assumed that there is an association between previous experiences of participating in different demonstrations for various causes (e.g., environmental causes) and individual participants’ framings (e.g., support for an environmental frame).
Lastly, research also stresses that different social characteristics such as gender, education, and so forth, might influence one’s support for specific frames. A study of climate activists found that women and people aged 30–49 were more likely than men and younger people to advocate solutions based on changes in individual behavior and that women were less likely to advocate system-oriented prognostic frames [42
]. Previous studies about the social composition of environmental protestors in Western Europe have shown that well-educated individuals with middle-class occupations are overrepresented, a pattern quite typical of protests of new social movements [42
] (see also reference [41
] for social compositions in different kinds of protests, and not only environmental protests). Although previous studies have not found any overrepresentation of young people or women in environmental protests, the media coverage of recent environmental protests seems to suggest that the climate strikes under the banner of FFF are more dominated by young school students and women. As we will see in the descriptive data of this article, this is also the case in the surveyed climate strike demonstrations in Sweden. This has significance for the interpretation of our data because studies show that young women (compared to other parts of the population) tend to be in favor of various kinds of climate policies [55
]. Moreover, studies of attitudes towards economic redistribution and welfare policies show that attitudes vary due to individuals’ class, age, gender, income, occupation, and education (e.g., [47
]). Often, these socio-demographic variables have been related to various social groups’ self-interest in the economic gains from welfare programs. Studies show, for instance, that education has a negative effect on welfare support, but that women are more prone to support the welfare state compared to men (e.g., [48
]). Regarding women, different theories have been used to explain welfare support. While some theories point to self-interest, others argue that it is the socialization process that makes women more concerned about the welfare of others [56
] (p. 400). In a similar way, pro-environmental attitudes among women have been explained in relation to self-interest, but also to women’s concern for the maintenance of life and relationships because of women’s traditional role as caretakers [57
]. Thus, the specific social composition of climate strikers will be of relevance for our analysis of support for environmental frames.
The theoretical discussions together with previous research and literature can be summarized in Figure 1
Each relation in the figure contains a particular set of hypotheses:
Protesters who place themselves on the left of the political spectrum or hold economic egalitarian values prefer a welfare frame before an environmental frame.
Protesters who identify with green and radical left parties prefer an environmental frame before an economic growth frame.
Protesters who are part of the environmental movement context prefer an environmental frame before an economic growth frame and a welfare frame.
Protesters who are part of social equality-oriented movement context prefer a welfare frame before an environmental frame.
This article tests three broad sets of factors to explain support for environmental, welfare, and economic growth-oriented frames within the most recent wave of protests in the environmental movement, namely the Global Climate Strike demonstrations that were primarily organized by the FFF network. Our explanatory variables include political and ideological orientation, movement involvement, and social characteristics.
Our results indicate that climate protesters to a large degree hold opinions that are “pro-environment” rather than “pro-economy”, and there is wide support for putting “the environment” and concerns for the environment before “the economy” and economic growth. This is hardly surprising because the demonstrations, per se, mobilize regarding climate change, and engagement in this issue is one of the main reasons for participating in the protests. A growth-centered market economy can be seen as an adversary for those who are environmentally concerned and engaged in the environmental movement. The divide between concerns for the environment and economic growth to a large extent follows along the lines of protesters’ political and ideological orientation, and those identifying with green and radical left parties tend to emphasize an environmental frame before an economic growth frame. Another strong predictor for putting the environment before economic growth is holding egalitarian values. The support for one of these frames instead of the other is thus related to the individual’s wider ideological orientation rather than just their identification with particular political parties. These results are in line with previous literature and research on the environmental movement (e.g., [42
]), but also more generally with research on public support for environmental policies (e.g., [44
However, the protesters seem to be partially split regarding their relative priority between the environmental frame and the economic growth-oriented frame. Participants active in trade unions serve as a key illustration in this respect. Here we find that trade unionists are less likely to put “the environment” first compared to environmentalists. Arguably, even though the protesters are united against a growth-centered economy and in acting for the environment, we find more fine-tuned differences among participants. Factors related to movement involvement explain less than factors related to political and ideological orientation. This might be an indication that views on environmental, welfare, and economic growth-oriented concerns, as illustrated through frame support, are more deeply embedded in personal values than movement involvement.
Whereas the support for the environmental frame vis-á-vis the economic growth-oriented frame was straightforward, the situation is much more complex regarding support for the welfare frame vis-á-vis the environmental frame. It is apparent that climate protesters hold more diverse views and opinions as to whether to prioritize the welfare frame or the environmental frame when they are contrasted with each other. Our results show that there is no unanimous support for one of these frames over the other among the protesters. This is further expressed by the large proportion of respondents who “neither disagree/nor agree” with the statements. This can be interpreted in different ways. On the one hand, this could indicate indecisiveness among respondents because they might not “have made up their mind”. On the other hand, this might reflect a more profound puzzle for protest participants because they are confronted with two frames that both come with positive connotations—being pro-environment and pro-welfare. Compared to taking a stance towards the environmental frame or the economic growth frame, this seems to be more difficult in relation to the welfare frame when contrasted to the environmental frame. This seems to be even more difficult when it comes to sorting and ranking them into a hierarchy of good and bad frames. The degree to which this is an expression of frame disputes or frame dilemmas is a matter for further research.
Once again, political and ideological orientation, but still only economic egalitarian values and not self-placement on the left–right scale, have a larger impact on frame support than movement involvement does. When it comes to social characteristics, our results show that those with higher education tend to support the environmental frame before the welfare frame. Potentially, this illustrates a tension over whose welfare is at stake here, someone else’s or mine. People with higher education in general have higher incomes and thus have potentially less to lose from poorer welfare arrangements; thus, it does not come as a surprise that they support the environmental frame before the welfare frame. Debates within the field of welfare attitudes find strong links between self-interest and support for redistributive policies [48
]. This also seems to be relevant here, but much more expressed as a climate concern rather than a concern for another individuals’ welfare.
It is interesting to note that when it comes to ideological orientation, holding economic egalitarian values is a central explanatory factor when it comes to support for the environmental frame (before an economic growth-oriented frame) and for the welfare frame (before an environmental frame). That egalitarian values are positively correlated with support for the welfare frame should come as no surprise, but it is not obvious that economic egalitarianism should lead to support for environmental concerns at the expense of economic growth and full employment. Our results for the more traditional indicator of ideological orientation, left–right self-placement, are even more puzzling. While previous research on welfare attitudes has found strong support between left orientation and support for welfare policies (e.g., [45
]), our study shows no correlation between left orientation and support for the welfare frame. Left orientation is, however, positively correlated with support for the environmental frame when this is contrasted with the economic growth-oriented frame. When left–right orientation is analyzed in the regression together with support for economic redistribution, the explanatory effect of left orientation more or less disappears, showing that for this frame the left–right dimension in the end boils down to holding economic egalitarian values. Why the protesters’ left–right orientation matters for their attitudes in value conflicts between environment and economic growth, but not in value conflicts between welfare and environment, certainly deserves more attention in future research. Perhaps this is due to a changed meaning of the left–right divide in contemporary societies in which “left” has become more associated with green, alternative, and libertarian values (what is today usually abbreviated as GAL and contrasted with TAN, i.e., traditional, authoritarian, and nationalist values) instead of the traditional meaning of “left” as being in favor of economic redistribution and market regulation [60
] (pp. 8–9).
Another key social characteristic that has explanatory power concerning frame support regards gender and being a woman. Women support the environmental frame before the economic growth-oriented frame, but also the welfare frame before the environmental frame. The fact that women are more pro-environment and pro-welfare compared to men has been shown in previous research [48
]. Thus, our results concerning the environmental frame vis-á-vis the economic growth frame in relation to gender do not come as a surprise. A more puzzling result is women’s support for the welfare frame before the environmental frame. Even though previous research stresses both culturally embedded forms of social responsibility and self-interest, it is still unclear why women, when having to choose between the welfare frame and the environmental frame, prefer welfare concerns before environmental concerns.
While much literature on social movements and political participation stresses that active involvement in social movement organizations contributes to activists’ frame support and political attitudes, such factors play little or no role for explaining variation in this study. Previous movement involvement does not matter much, neither in terms of active membership (some support) nor in terms of protest participation (almost no support). This does not need to be at odds with previous studies and theorizing, and perhaps this is due to the fact that the movement-involved activists found among the protesters of these recent climate change protests have not yet been active long enough to become socialized into supporting specific frames. Another interpretation of the lack of significance of these factors is that the kinds of frame support studied in this article go beyond organizational activity or previous protest participation and instead relate more to personal ideological convictions. The frames in question concern more profound ideological questions about movement adversaries (i.e., economic growth) and what needs to be protected (i.e., welfare or the environment). Especially regarding the latter, there are clear forms of ideological disagreements among movement participants that potentially constitute key divides among participants.
The Figure 2
summarizes our results and our hypotheses concerning frame support and/or frame disputes for environmental, welfare, and economic growth-oriented frames.
We find strong support for egalitarian values, but not for left–right orientation, when it comes to putting the welfare frame before the environmental frame (H1). We find limited support for the relevance of political party identification (H2). We also find some support for our third hypothesis (H3), as active membership in environmental organizations has a somewhat positive impact on emphasizing the environmental frame before the economic growth-oriented frame. However, we find no support for our fourth hypothesis (H4), as protesters who are part of a social equality-oriented movement context do not emphasize the welfare frame before the environmental frame. A limitation in our analyses is that our regressions only seem to explain a small part of the variation in frame support, especially when it comes to preference for the welfare frame over the environmental frame. This points to the need for further research focusing on other factors that might contribute more strongly to this variation. In addition, it would be interesting to explore frame support and potential frame disputes or dilemmas concerning the environment, welfare, and economic growth among climate activists in other welfare states because the connotations and understandings of these frames, especially the welfare frame, might vary between different welfare states.
7. Concluding Remarks
To sum up, this article shows instances of frame distinctions, hierarchies, and disputes within the most current forms of climate change demonstrations. The demarcation between environmental concerns and economic growth serves as a key for most protesters. This is a frame distinction that follows the long history of environmental movements mobilizing against a liberal market economy, and more recently against economic growth as a central feature of how we have organized our economies and our societies more broadly. The distinction against economic growth can be interpreted as a form of “adversary making” in the present climate change movement. It orders beliefs, ideas, and topics into a hierarchy of (non-)relevant movement-related frames. Beyond doubt, movement participants put the environment first when contrasted to economic growth. The simple ordering and hierarchy of issues and topics is, however, less evident when addressing welfare or environmental concerns. It is far from evident that protest participants in the most recent forms of climate change mobilization put the environment before welfare concerns, illustrating wider disputes and ideological rifts among participants about how to actually handle climate change and whether individuals’ welfare needs should be subordinate to the present pressure of climate change.
Finally, just as recent discussions on sustainable development and sustainable welfare address the interconnectedness between the environmental, social, and economic domains, there is a widespread argument that these spheres or domains need to be integrated in order to promote the societal change necessary to handle current pressures on the planet and to provide welfare and wellbeing within planetary boundaries. This article only captures a fragment of the complexity of these issues, yet the tensions we find among climate protesters most likely are tensions that are even more widely expressed among the population at large, i.e., that present forms of climate change should not have too great an impact on our welfare.