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Are Climate Activists Reaching Too Far?

Opinion Article
by Alexander Pham Europe Sep 8th 20236 mins
Are Climate Activists Reaching Too Far?

Over recent months, climate activists around the world have captured headlines by staging public protests, often daring as much as they are disruptive. There is no doubt that change is needed, but well-intentioned though they may be, are their messages getting mixed up in the methods?

Amid a worsening climate crisis, certain groups have stepped forward to make their voices known, getting up on their soapboxes and calling out for radical change. In nations around the world, these organisations of concerned global citizens have banded together under unified messages, identifying the individuals, power structures, or corporate entities that are responsible for harming the environment, and pressuring them to implement sustainable solutions to preserve long-term habitability on the planet. Although advocates of climate action have appeared across the headlines in recent months, this civic movement has existed for as long as humanity has started acknowledging that the Earth was changing, a movement that began in the 1970s

Since then, as the crisis increases in scale and as certain political maneuverings constrain the process of effective change, the movement has grown, expanding to incorporate people from all walks of life. The climate crisis is one that can impact everyone regardless of nationality, religion, gender, or sexuality. However, some are disproportionately impacted more than others, and just the same, some are disproportionately causing more damage than others. As such, activist groups have come to encapsulate the most diverse generation of citizens in decades, blurring arbitrary lines as they come together with similar goals. Yet the means employed to reach said goals have garnered no small amount of controversy. 

Protests, by their nature, need to be public and disruptive. They need to be a shock to the system that grabs the attention of the wider populace and mobilises action from those in power. To that end, climate activists have certainly used inventive methods to achieve their goals, and common tactics include disrupting public spaces or events to make their agendas known.

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Most recently, in August of 2023, a group of protestors representing the Seven Circles blockaded a road leading to the Burning Man festival, held each year in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Their demands were clear: ban the usage of private jets, single-use plastics, and excess fuel usage during the festival. The blockade remained in place for 36 minutes, much to the chagrin of the festival goers halted in traffic until tribal police officers forcibly removed the obstruction and arrested four of the protestors. 

In the United Kingdom, Just Stop Oil represents a body of citizens who oppose the government’s continual investment in fossil fuel development, demanding a halt to all such activities. In October 2022, they chose to communicate their message by throwing soup on a Van Gogh painting in London’s National Gallery. This year, members from Just Stop Oil interrupted two matches of the Wimbledon tournaments by charging the courts and tossing glitter and jigsaw puzzle pieces. 

Cases such as these are not isolated nor are they unique. 2023 alone has seen a string of similar events conducted by activist groups, all for similar reasons. In Italy, members of Ultima Generazione (‘Last Generation’) entered the Trevi Fountain in Rome, pouring a diluted charcoal mixture to dye the water black to illustrate their demands for ending public subsidies on fossil fuels. In France, the Prime Minister’s office in Paris was struck by Derniere Renovation, who spray-painted the front entrance and decried the government’s feeble attempts at addressing climate change. In Germany, Last Generation activists spray-painted a private jet at the Sylt Airport and hung banners on its wings, targeting the Chancellor of Germany and stating that the government’s climate protection measures have been insufficient. And if that wasn’t enough, a yacht belonging to the Walmart heiress was recently spray-painted in Ibiza, carried out by members of Futuro Vegetal, who later claimed that the richest 1% of the world population pollute more than the poorest 50%.

In their struggle to speak out, climate activist groups have earned themselves quite a bit of public backlash for their protests. There are other, less controversial forms of protest that do not attract as much public vitriol, while blocking traffic, defacing property, and disrupting events seem to be the most effective at grabbing attention. Many protestors from the aforementioned examples have been arrested with criminal charges for their efforts, yet these groups remain undeterred, and as the global movement picks up momentum, it raises an important question: Are the ends justifying the means?

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There appear to be two different ways of elevating an agenda; one, by appealing to the masses, and two, by pressuring those in power. The reality can be much more nuanced and complex than what this binary dynamic can portray, with factors dependent upon the country, the government, and the level of allowable civil resistance, but the comparison remains.

In the former case, when a protest occurs in public, say on a roadway, it is the public that bears the costs. Consider another example from the UK, when members of Just Stop Oil paraded into several locations along London’s M25 motorway during a Monday morning rush hour, halting traffic. The intended audience here were the motorists who were on their way to work, commuters who were trying to get to their jobs to make ends meet. 

An unforeseen interruption to the daily routines of an everyday, working-class citizen could mean lost wages, spelling out further consequences down the line. More important to consider is that on a different road or on a different day, critical emergency services like paramedics or firefighters might be delayed if another activist group decides to mount a blockade. This has already happened in Berlin when a bicyclist died on her way to work after being struck by a cement lorry, and protestors from the Last Generation who had glued themselves to the road delayed emergency services.

For these reasons, it comes as no surprise that certain climate activist groups receive so much backlash when their chosen methods of protest can cause so much damage, both real and potential. Blocking a road is an extreme measure against the wrong audience, galvanising negative feedback from those who are unsympathetic toward the cause, and even turning away those who are already sympathetic. Useless, disruptive acts such as these do nothing to garner the right attention but instead, they are met with hostility and criticism.

Rather, messages that target the right audience are key here. Namely, the examples previously discussed wherein a political office, a private jet, and a yacht were spray-painted by activists are cases in which the message was much more focused, and the audience was much more specific, producing little to no impact on the wider public. That said, property damage is still a criminal act, and this is not to excuse or justify such acts, yet nothing grabs more attention than when a figure of importance is forced to confront reality in a way they cannot ignore. 

As a question of efficacy, focusing on the right people with a strong message is more impactful than compared to inconveniencing, or potentially endangering the public citizenry. Depending on the case, it may even engender sympathy and support. However, as a question of ethics, this controversial brand of activism remains condemnable in the eyes of the law.

There are better and safer ways to protest that do not require such high levels of risk, remaining compatible with the principles of democracy and the rights afforded to politically active citizens. 

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author

Alexander Pham

Alexander Pham is a graduate with a bachelor's degree in political science from Wilfrid Laurier University and a master's degree in international public policy from the Balsillie School of International Affairs. Previously, he worked as a research fellow for Global Affairs Canada, writing and presenting a policy brief in a team of other fellows. His research interests lie in environmental policy, regarding issues such as clean energy, carbon pricing, climate justice, green economies, and sustainable development.

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