What are the targets in the sights of environmental activists this summer?

What are the targets in the sights of environmental activists this summer?
What are the targets in the sights of environmental activists this summer?

From blocking highways to spraying Britain’s Stonehenge megaliths with orange powder to throwing food at artworks, some climate activists have turned to more provocative tactics since the Covid-19 pandemic brought an abrupt end to the mass protests spurred by Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement.

As the last 12 months have been the hottest ever recorded on the planet and disasters (heatwaves, floods, etc.) linked to global warming are increasing, activists have their sights set on the most polluting companies and commercial interests.

For example, A 22 Network, an alliance of groups engaged in nonviolent protests, says it plans to disrupt airports in eight countries this summer in Austria, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. Global aviation is responsible for about 2.5% of global carbon emissions, more than the annual carbon footprint of Brazil and France combined.

“Our resistance will shine a light on the biggest users of fossil fuels and call on everyone to act with us,” Just Stop Oil, one of the groups taking the most controversial forms of protest, said in a statement. “We are facing a massive crisis, we cannot stop,” said Gabriella Ditton, a spokeswoman for the organization.

“Joyful and relentless action”

In the United States, activists are targeting Wall Street and plan to barricade the entrances to major banks and companies that finance, insure and invest in fossil fuels. Organizers of the “Burning Summer” campaign have pledged to take “nonviolent, joyful and relentless direct action to end fossil fuel financing” in the coming months.

In Europe, Extinction Rebellion (XR), famous for closing bridges over the Thames in London, has shifted its focus from mass civil disobedience to building an inclusive grassroots movement. This summer, the organization is calling on the governments of the United Kingdom and France to create citizens’ assemblies on climate and nature, while organizing sit-ins around fossil fuel insurance companies.

This new approach to climate activism is trying to “reach more ordinary people” and do “more grassroots organizing,” says Gail Bradbrook, a co-founder of the movement. “Mass occupations” are still planned for the summer, including one at the start of the Olympics, which open in Paris on July 26. It could last several days, but it will be “more visible than disruptive,” French organizers simply said.

A constant worry

What approach should be taken to attract attention and what is the best way to bring about change? This question has been the subject of heated discussions, including among activists, following a series of divisive actions targeting famous monuments.

When two Just Stop Oil activists threw orange cornmeal on Stonehenge in June, “they got a lot more media attention than spray painting airfields,” says Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Washington. The goal of these “shock” actions is to “make people crazy,” she says. The more people talk about the action, the more they talk about climate change.

Several studies in the UK and Germany have shown that public concern about climate change, even when not in favour of such acts, remains constant or even increases after acts of civil disobedience. “Historically, there is substantial evidence that radical fringes can generate support for the cause and moderate factions,” Fisher notes. But “it’s hard to know which is more effective,” she adds.

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