In January 2019, Greta Thunberg was invited to address the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. She told the assembled chief executives and world leaders; “I often hear adults say, “We need to give the next generation hope.” “But I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I do. Every day. And I want you to act. I want you to behave like our house is on fire. Because it is.”
When an issue matters to people-when it really matters-things begin to happen. Legislation gets introduced. Counter-legislation is proposed. There is debate, media attention. Ultimately, the issue becomes catalytic and brings voters to the polls. When an issue rises to the top of the agenda, it gains what the political world calls “high saliency” Despite significant progress, the climate crisis has yet to gain global saliency. By and large, it doesn’t yet turn out people to vote or guide their choices when they do.
Movements drive saliency. But to succeed, they need to wield two kinds of power. First, there is people power, a broad base of supporters, plus a narrower group of activist leaders and participants. Second, there is political power, when allies in public office are enlisted to introduce, champion, and defend legislation. The goal of a movement may be a political realignment, a fundamental reset of public sentiment, a new set of leaders, or all of the above. In any case, movements give policy makers cover for political courage.