ZOiS Spotlight 9/2021

Environmental Activism in an Age of Democratic Backsliding

by Adam Fagan Marek Józefiak 10/03/2021
Anti-smog protest in Poland’s capital Warsaw. The poster reads: Warsaw without the smog. IMAGO / Eastnews

Democratic backsliding has been observed in countries around the globe, but its emergence is particularly striking in post-communist members of the European Union (EU), which were long hailed as poster children for successful external democracy promotion. The manipulation of elections, violations of civil liberties, the creation of an uneven playing field for opposition parties, and the reduction of institutional constraints on executives have been well documented. Yet, protest movements and activism across Central and Eastern Europe appear more vibrant than ever. Indeed, after three decades of relative passivity, civil society seems to have finally sprung to life in these supposedly imperilled and decaying democracies.

Environmental campaigners are one group of activists who are responding to and functioning within closing political and legal spaces. Protesters are not expected to restore democratic institutions and the rule of law, but evidence of their ability to set agendas and contest the power of political elites would indicate a degree of optimism for a democratic revival—or, at least, the stalling of backsliding.

Coming up for air: Poland’s anti-smog movement

There has been a growing wave of anti-smog activism in Poland since 2015. This is hardly surprising given that thirty-six of Europe’s fifty most polluted cities are in Poland. A 2019 survey found that 62 per cent of Poles considered air pollution one of the top three environmental issues, against a global average of 35 per cent.

Since the first anti-smog initiative in Kraków in late 2012, similar campaigns and local movements have appeared in numerous towns and cities, mostly in southern and central Poland. A major development occurred in 2015, when three local initiatives created the umbrella organisation Polish Smog Alert (PSA) to establish a common platform and campaign agenda.

Despite their existing ties with Poland’s established environmental movement, the anti-smog activists opted to develop their own grassroots networks. While PSA began its campaigns on social media, over time the group has fostered close links with conventional online and print media. Yet, in spite of such successes, the movement has never mobilised large numbers of people. Indeed, the largest protests organised by PSA have involved only a couple of hundred at the most.

The movement appears to have been quite effective in setting policy agendas at the local, regional, and national levels. PSA’s strong media presence and Poles’ growing use of anti-smog apps have allowed the group to create leverage and raise the issue of pollution to one of the top priorities of Poland’s right-wing government. Air quality has also become the central priority for established environmental nongovernmental organisations (ENGOs), including international movements such as Greenpeace and ClientEarth, and local bodies like the Polish Green Network.

Agenda setting without mass mobilisation

The interesting question, particularly in terms of understanding climate activism and environmental politics more generally, is how PSA has been able to influence decision makers without mobilising large numbers of people—and to do so in a domestic political context dominated by the conservative centre right. The answer appears to lie in the fact that PSA is steadfastly committed both to being nonpartisan and to focusing solely on the issue of air pollution. Interestingly, the group makes hardly any link in its actions to other causes, such as media freedom, LGBTQ rights, or reform of the justice system. This has made it very difficult for the government-controlled media to brand PSA as liberal or leftist.

PSA has also managed to maintain a balance between outsider and insider campaign strategies. In other words, while the group has kept a firm foothold in the activist camp, it has also published serious reports on air quality and helped disseminate information gathered by Polish authorities and international organisations. Early on, PSA established good connections with right-wing politicians from Kraków who then rose to prominence in the Polish government. These links proved critical in ensuring that PSA was granted insider status, thereby enabling effective lobbying and an ability to set the political agenda that is usually beyond the remit of conventional ENGOs.

A final important observation relates to what scholars of social movements refer to as framing. PSA concentrated its campaigns on the health impact of smog. This changed the focus of air-pollution activism among established ENGOs, shifted the emphasis of their campaigns, and enabled the quick formation of new allegiances. Anti-smog activists campaigned alongside health experts, scientists, and famous athletes and were thus able to engage two important social groups: parents of young children and recreational runners. Unlike the earlier generation of green activists, PSA did not shy away from campaigning with Catholic church leaders. The group’s members were not frightened of joining forces with more radical activists and were prepared to stand alongside local and regional politicians, irrespective of their ideological bent.

So what does this new form of activism suggest about democratic backsliding? The experience of Eastern Europe in recent years confirms that democracies rot from the top. Not only does liberal civil society survive, but it also seems to gain political momentum and vibrancy as the slide towards authoritarianism gathers pace. The key question in terms of democratic revival—or survival—is whether social movement actors can do more than just adapt to the confines of the new illiberal politics. Can they also resist and reach beyond their campaign networks to forge novel progressive movements?

Adam Fagan is a professor of European politics at King’s College London. Marek Józefiak is a PhD candidate at the Warsaw School of Economics.