Climate activists are using a variety of tactics to pressure companies and political leaders to reduce global reliance on fossil fuels. We’ve seen anything from direct actions like blocking pipeline construction to behind-the-scenes work lobbying politicians and raising awareness. When climate activists come together as collectives and communities, they put pressure on policy makers, and they model alternative pathways toward holding fossil fuel companies accountable for the substantial part they play in climate pollution. It’s a type of glue that binds them — both metaphorically and, in several cases, literally.
Youth Climate Protesters Make a Splash
The youth climate movement has exploded into mainstream public discourse. Millions of students around the world have marched through the streets, calling upon leaders to adhere to their pledges under the Paris Agreement.
Last month, two climate activist youths walked into London’s National Gallery and splattered tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s famous “Sunflowers” painting and its gilded frame. The act of civil unrest was a way to protest fossil fuel extraction.
The painting was cleaned and returned to its place in the Gallery. A spokesperson noted that “there is some minor damage to the frame, but the painting is unharmed.” The painting, which is on exhibition within a glass facade, is one of several versions of “Sunflowers” that Van Gogh painted in the late 1880s.
The Tomato Soup protesters also used glue to fasten themselves to the Gallery wall. “Specialist officers have now un-glued them, and they have been taken into custody to a central London police station,” London’s Metropolitan Police said. The protesters were charged on suspicion of criminal damage and aggravated trespass.
People with knowledge of the incident explained to Inside Climate News that the Tomato Soup protest was a type of metaphorical glue — a mechanism to awaken activists across the world to make transparent society’s ongoing climate complacency.
In fact, these protesters are part of a “new radical flank” of the environmental movement that University of Maryland social scientist Dana Fisher calls the Disrupters. “These tactics are specifically geared toward getting media attention,” said Fisher, who academic work includes studies of activists and their motivations.
Fisher said these activists seemed to have targeted a painting that had a glass cover to incite minimum damage but get more attention than previous activists who had been gluing themselves to art. Throwing tomato soup “is an escalation of a tactic,” she said.
The group Just Stop Oil, which wants the British government to halt new oil and gas projects, said a group of protesters from the same group gathered later that day at police headquarters. They sprayed yellow paint over the rotating “New Scotland Yard” sign that fronts the building. Several protesters also glued themselves to the road, blocking traffic. Police said 24 people were arrested.
Just Stop Oil has drawn attention — positive and negative — for targeting artworks in museums. In July, Just Stop Oil activists glued themselves to the frame of an early copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” at London’s Royal Academy of Arts and to John Constable’s “The Hay Wain” in the National Gallery.
Activists have also blocked bridges and intersections across London, causing disruptions everywhere from major highways to the British Formula 1 Grand Prix. The Tour de France cycling race was forced to pause during several stages by climate activists who glued themselves to the road.
Volkswagen’s Audostadt Museum — Glue You!
In Wolfsburg, 9 Scientist Rebellion members lathered their hands with glue and put their palms down on the floor of the Porsche Pavilion at Volkswagen’s Autostadt museum.
Such protests are happening so often now that there’s a regular, accepted give-and-take to protest-as-performance-art.
- A group disrupts traffic or makes a scene.
- Authorities are called in almost immediately.
- The media follow, capturing the spectacle as protesters are unglued, unchained, or coaxed down.
The Autostadt is a VW gem among the Wolfsburg factory complex, with an immense glass storage tower that is the temporary site for shifting completed vehicles as they await delivery. It also has pavilions for Audi, Seat, Lamborghini, and Porsche.
This was the ideal setting for the Porsche Pavilion protest — a magnet for police intervention and media attention.
But, somehow, the VW museum staff didn’t know and react as expected to the usual sequence of events. Instead of calling Wolfsburg police immediately, staff “recognized the right to protest.” They closed the pavilion for the evening and left — turning off the lights and heat as they departed.
The UK Outlet Express, which writes frequently about regional protests, noted that the Porsche Pavilion group “pleaded for medical treatment because their hands were sore and moaned that they couldn’t go to the toilet.” The paper interviewed one protester, who said of museum staff, “They refused our request to provide us with a bowl to urinate and defecate in a decent manner while we are glued.” The protesters also reportedly complained about not being able to use their phone to order food. Instead, VW provided sustenance, albeit a regimented repast. “Lights off. Random unannounced checks by security guards with bright torches.”
After one protester was removed over a potential medical issue, the remaining 8 protesters, along with 6 Scientist Rebellion members who weren’t glued, stayed in place until morning. According to German outlet Welt, “The police then took action against the other activists. Criminal proceedings were initiated for trespassing, coercion , property damage.”
The protesters posted on Twitter about the event to VW Group CEO Oliver Blume. Their requests included:
- support for capping the maximum speed on German highways to 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph)
- hastening VW’s moves to lower its carbon emissions
- canceling the debt and interest payments “owed to VW by the Global South”
- “pressure the [government] to comply with our demands”
Here is my support statement for the peaceful protest by scientist colleagues this week near the @VWGroup factory. #UniteAgainstClimateFailure pic.twitter.com/hqLRB8i0ss
— Wolfgang Cramer (@wolfgangcramer) October 21, 2022
Climate Action from Expected & Unexpected Spaces
College students across the globe are demanding that their schools cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry because of its ongoing role in fueling the climate crisis. The increasing pressure students are putting on their educational institutions to play an active role in fighting global warming could have significant and lasting ramifications for the effort to curb rising climate pollution.
Recently, a dozen students at Brown University targeted ExxonMobil for attempting to recruit graduates to the fossil fuel industry. Then the next day dozens of Harvard University students interrupted a similar ExxonMobil recruitment event on their campus. The protest was one in a series of demands the students have made of Harvard, which has a massive $42 billion endowment and last year had an estimated $838 million in fossil fuel holdings.
Similar pressure has pushed 20 US colleges and universities in the last two years to promise to divest their endowments of fossil fuels. Globally, colleges and universities holding more than $6 trillion in investment power have made similar pledges.
Of all the people you’d envision joining the ranks of climate activists protesting against Big Oil, fossil fuel heirs are probably the last people you’d think would join in. Yet prominent US families who became fabulously rich from the ugly black gold have a new generation who are using their inherited wealth to do climate good — Aileen Getty is an excellent example.
Researchers are even calling on the broader science community to take up activism and risk arrest over the issue. Promises that turned out to be “greenwashing” — lip service from those in power to pacify young people while they continue to make money from fossil fuels — have prompted activists to be more explicit and hard hitting.
Final Thoughts about the Glue that Binds Climate Activists
Many of these climate protests stories bring out a smile in us. After all, aren’t tomato soup and glue a bit reminiscent of childhood?
But climate activism can have a dark side. EarthRights International has uncovered a trend in the US and abroad of closing civic space, where those who exercise their fundamental rights to speak up about matters of public interest face retaliation in the form of judicial harassment and physical violence.
The EarthRights International investigation identified 152 cases in the past 10 years where the fossil fuel industry has used strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) and other judicial harassment tactics in attempts to silence or punish its critics. It seems that companies and individuals file hundreds of SLAPPs each year in state and federal courts. They target community leaders, journalists, activists, and everyday citizens from across the political spectrum who speak up about a wide range of issues.
Such judicial harassment is an ever present threat to people who speak up on climate and other issues.
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