Global Risk Themes 2020, #8: Anti-Corporate Activism

Levels of climate change activism spiked sharply in 2019, with key drivers being the emergence of the Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Fridays For Future movements. Support for both movements was strongest in Europe and to a lesser extent North America, with smaller solidarity movements also appearing elsewhere, including Australia and parts of Latin America.

The mainstream tactics have been various forms of peaceful civil disobedience, leading to localised disruption in city centres but so far relatively few acts of violence. However, there have been isolated cases of vandalism and criminal damage (for example to the headquarters of oil and gas companies and banks) as well as threats to interfere with airport operations using drones. 

Fossil fuel companies and financial institutions with investments in carbon intensive industries have so far been the main corporate targets. Transportation (particularly aviation) and supermarket retail (particularly relating to meat) have also been targeted. However, the XR movement is encouraging protests against the wider carbon value chain, meaning that the range of corporate targeting is likely to widen further in 2020. 

There has been a degree of convergence between climate change protest and more locally focused protest movements, for example against oil and gas pipelines and rail, airport and road expansion projects. It is at these points of convergence that the threat of more aggressive direct action tactics is highest, with companies involved in those projects (for example as construction contractors) facing the greatest exposure. 

A key issue to monitor in 2020 will be any evidence that elements of the climate change protest movement are fusing with strains of activism with a stronger tradition of using violent tactics, such as animal rights and fringe anarchist and anti-capitalist groups.
Besides climate change, 2019 also saw an increase in companies being targeted by activists campaigning against repressive government behaviour and policy. Examples included the introduction of a penal code imposing harsh punishments for homosexuality in Brunei, triggering an online campaign against hotel properties linked to the sultanate. There was also criticism of Western companies accused of providing technology used in surveillance and other security measures in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. 

The US election campaign in 2020 will see emotive policy debates relating to race and social equality return to the fore, increasing pressure on corporate brands and figureheads to take a public position. This could result in companies being targeted by hostile online campaigns and boycotts for their perceived stance on controversial issues. There will also be an increased risk of prominent business leaders being targets for threats and defamation from political and social activists.

Sibylline Annual Forecast 2020: Global Themes

This post is part of a series of eight global themes to watch in 2020. These form part of our annual forecast product, released to clients in December and including regional deep dives on the Americas, Europe, MENA, Africa, Eurasia and Asia Pacific in addition to an overview of key events and flashpoints in the year ahead. Please contact us if you are interested in receiving this product or finding out more about the World Risk Register.