by Leona Lortie
A few months ago, I joined a group of people meeting with an MP. During the meeting the MP specifically mentioned that the issue in question was not naturally one of his priority areas but acknowledged that his constituents seem to be very concerned about it. As a result of several constituent meetings over the last few years, he has started to move initiatives on the issue forward.
MPs meet with dozens of people and various issues are raised consistently, but it is the number of people who raise a particular issue that often move an MP to take action. That is where public engagement and advocacy action or political engagement meet effectively. Our politicians are tasked to listen to us – their constituents – and work on the issues that matter to us.
The recent European Union elections are a dramatic case study of the point where public and political engagement meet. On May 23, the results of the EU elections showed that many voters moved from traditionally centrist sentiments and swung toward the left (pro-EU) or the right (anti-EU), although not as much as some had predicted. The surprising part, however, were the gains of the Green parties, especially across Central and Northern Europe.
The climate crisis ended up front and centre when voters went to cast a ballot to have a say in their own future. While EU Green parties in the various countries worked hard to communicate, build their platforms and garner support, their single most successful component has been widely attributed to the activism of a 16-year old Swedish student, Greta Thunberg.
Thunberg became aware of environmental devastation at a young age when learning about plastics in the oceans in school. She recalls crying while watching documentaries and then not being able to get the images out of her head or move on. In August 2018, then 15-year old Thunberg decided she needed to do something about these issues. She skipped school and sat outside of the Swedish Parliament in protest. She continued to strike every day for the next three weeks and shared what she was doing on social media. Her activism went viral and students and adults around the world soon joined her. Starting in September 2018, she went back to school Monday to Thursday and started what has become a world-wide movement called #fridaysforfuture in which students all over the world skip school on Fridays and demand climate action, not only from their governments, but from all of us.
In January 2019, addressing a room full of world leaders at Davos, a world economic forum, she said:
“Our house is on fire. I am here to say, our house is on fire. According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), we are less than 12 years away from not being able to undo our mistakes. […] At places like Davos, people like to tell success stories. But their financial success has come with an unthinkable price tag. And on climate change, we have to acknowledge we have failed. […] Some say we should not engage in activism. Instead, we should leave everything to our politicians and just vote for a change instead. But what do we do when there is no political will? What do we do when the politics needed are nowhere in sight?”
While the group of European People’s Party technically won the election with 23. 83% of seats in the European Parliament, 179 seats out of 751, the alliance of Green parties is seen as the real winner when it comes to the issues people rallied around, growing their seats from 51 to at least 70.
Many commentators point to a connection between the gains of Green parties and Greta Thunberg’s activism. However, success isn’t defined by specific party wins, but by the fact that climate became a defining election issue in a way no one expected. One girl skipping school and not “moving on” from what she had learned about the state of our environment created change.
The #Fridaysforfuture movement is just one example of how political activism and public engagement can come together on a specific issue. Direct communication with our political leaders is important and necessary, but in isolation, it is unfortunately often not effective. When one girl sits outside of the Parliament Building, politicians can easily ignore her, but when millions start doing the same, they no longer can.
On May 24, 2019, Canadian youth, parents and other supporters participated in 104 events across Canada in the global #fridaysforfuture strikes, joining 1.4 million students world-wide. Banners and slogans included demands for governments to act and to stop denying the climate crisis. No matter the party in power, concerned citizens, led by students, are sending a message that the status quo is not enough.
In Europe, the message has been heard loud and clear. Many people are concerned, and they want politicians to act. While many of the students who participated in the strikes cannot vote yet, their voices and demands had an impact on those who were able to vote. It is now up to the politicians to fulfill their mandate and to show that they have heard those concerns. The climate crisis continues and so will the demand for change, a demand that must be heard and acted upon across party lines
Thunberg finished her speech at DAVOS with exactly that demand, “Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
What happened in the EU elections reminds us that ordinary people have power to influence the public discourse around an issue to the extent where it can impact multinational elections. Thunberg’s story demonstrates how creativity and courage can propel action, no matter the issue.
Leona Lortie is the Public Engagement and Advocacy Coordinator for MCC Ottawa Office
MCC works in advocacy for justice, peace, and human dignity. We engage the public in Canada and the U.S. to build awareness, foster dialogue and invite people to take action. See our campaigns in Canada and add your voice. This is all of our future.