March 27, 2023
'More and more desperate measures': Climate protesters target another priceless piece of art

‘More and more desperate measures’: Climate protesters target another priceless piece of art

A climate activist stuck his head to the glass protecting Johannes Vermeer’s world-famous painting ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ at the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague on Thursday while a second stuck his hand to the panel holding the work.

In France, divisive climate protests also took place on Thursday when activists forced their way into a Climate Finance Day meeting at the former French stock exchange to protest French bank BNP Paribas’ investments in the industry fossil fuels. Outside the building, activists threw smoke bombs and poured black paint on the steps of the historic building, symbolizing oil and gas – two fossil fuels the bank is accused of funding.

They are the latest in a series of gripping stunts of climate protest that unfolded around the world in October, making global headlines. But how effective are they?

Vermeer’s painting is one of many works of art targeted: In the UK, climate protesters threw tomato soup at Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’. In Germany, Claude Monet’s “Haystacks” were hit with mashed potatoes. In Melbourne, two members of Extinction Rebellion stuck their hands on the glass covering a painting by Pablo Picasso.

The automotive industry has also been singled out: nine members of Science Rebellion stuck their hands to the floor of Volkswagen’s Autostadt museum in Germany while members of Extinction Rebellion stuck to Ferraris on display at the Paris Motor Show. Paris.

In New York, climate activists marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Sandy with days of protests, ranging from roadblocks to vociferous protests outside the home of Scott Nuttall, co-CEO of capital giant KKR -investment that owns dozens of fossil fuel companies.

Stopping the use of fossil fuels is at the heart of the demands of many protesters. Yet many also cited general concerns about environmental destruction.

“How do you feel when you see something beautiful and priceless being seemingly destroyed right before your eyes?” a protester asked about the painting known as the “Mona Lisa of the Netherlands”, at the Dutch museum in a video uploaded Thursday. “It’s the same feeling when you see the planet being destroyed.”

“Questions That Matter”

The timing of these protests is no coincidence. “We are seeing all these actions right now because COP27 is starting very soon in Egypt,” said Dr Oscar Berglund, senior lecturer in climate activism at the University of Bristol. “It’s to put the pressure on and keep [the climate] in the media.”

The growing nature of climate change means that climate activists are particularly mobilized to take such action. “We can’t just change our minds about whether or not we want climate change ten years from now,” says Mathew Humphrey, professor of political theory at the University of Nottingham. “They are protesting against potentially catastrophic, global and irreversible changes. This gives their cause a certain moral boost.

But there is always the risk that drawing attention to the issue with such confrontational protests will backfire. Drivers running errands or commuting to work can easily be angered by roadblocks rather than sympathize with protesters, for example, and attacks on beloved works of art in particular have divided opinion. “The potential downside is alienation from public opinion,” says Humphrey.

But there can also be benefits to a cause if protesters are able to draw enough attention with a stunt. “There is no connection between throwing tomato soup on a board and wanting to stop new oil and gas licenses,” says Berglund. “It all depends on how much attention you get out of it and how you use that potential.”

Evidence suggests that these high-profile protests are actually raising awareness about climate change in general. And the prevalence of social media can also help spread the message further. In the aftermath of the attack on Van Gogh’s painting, a video showing protester Phoebe Plummer explaining why she took part has been viewed 7.9 million times. “What we do is start the conversations so we can ask the questions that matter,” she says.

Another video of protester Lora Johnson being taken away by police as she claims to have participated in a blockade of Waterloo Bridge in London “for her son” has been viewed 11.5 million times.

“Leading social change”

The increase in drastic and eye-catching climate protests comes at a time of growing climate anxiety. In 2021, a global survey of thousands of young people aged 16 to 25 found that 95% were concerned about climate change and almost 30% were “extremely worried”.

Although the anxiety may be widespread, protesters tend to be a minority. Studies indicate that around 10% of people are willing to engage in nonviolent protests and, in fact, fewer actually do. Younger generations are most likely to back the divisive protest, but other age groups are also involved. The protesters who stuck hands with the Picasso were in their 40s and 50s.

Scientists are also engaged – Scientist Rebellion is a group of scientists and academics who take part in civil disobedience and call on their colleagues to do the same. One of them is Dr Stuart Capstick, deputy director of the Center for Climate Change and Social Transformations at Cardiff University. “Nonviolent civil disobedience is, for me, a last resort,” he says, “but something that I hope can help push policy makers to be more ambitious. The unfolding climate crisis does not is not treated with the seriousness it deserves.

In October, Capstick and four other scientists were acquitted of £2,000 in damages by UK courts for sticking up scientific papers, using chalk spray and sticking themselves to the windows of the UK Department for Business, energy and industrial strategy to highlight the danger posed by new oil and gas exploration.

For Capstick, the court process was “stressful and time-consuming,” he says. “But I never doubted that our group of scientists’ protest was the right thing to do.”

Many activists face the prospect of arrest, jail time and a permanent criminal record for their actions – and the stakes are rising. More than 400 climate scientists have signed an open letter expressing their “serious concern over the growing criminalization and targeting of climate protesters around the world”.

At the same time, the climate crisis continues to worsen. A UN climate report released on Thursday found that governments around the world “fall far short of meeting” emissions targets “without a credible path to [the stated climate goal of] 1.5°C in place”. Faced with the lack of government action, Humphrey says, “If you are a political ‘outsider’, the only chance you have of bringing your political issue into the public consciousness may be to engage in forms of protest and direct action. ”

Capstick acknowledges that the protests are only “part of the process”. Deeper change to reduce emissions, he says, “requires sustained action and pressure over time and made possible at all levels of society”.

Berglund agrees that militant climate protest alone has a limited role to play. “Climate change is deeply linked to capitalism,” he says. “We know we need to make the transition to sustainable societies and, at the same time, tackle serious inequalities. It takes a broad movement to really shake up the political system.

In the meantime, climate activist protests are likely to increase in the run-up to the Cop27 climate summit on November 6 and beyond.

“As decades go by, climate change will affect more and more people,” says Berglund. “And we will see people taking more and more desperate measures.”

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