Protesters threw soup at the Mona Lisa on Sunday in the latest instance of deliberately shocking climate activism. While some consider disruptive antics such as this alienating to the public, research into social movements shows there is strategy behind it.
By combining radical forms of civil disobedience with more mainstream actions, such as lobbying and state-sanctioned demonstrations, activists not only grab the public’s attention, they make less aggressive tactics more acceptable and possibly more successful.
I study the role of disruptive politics and social movements in global climate policy and have chronicled the ebb, flow and dynamism of climate activism. With today’s political institutions largely focused on short-term desires over long-term planetary health, and global climate negotiations moving too slowly to meet the challenge, climate activists have been radically rethinking their tactics.
In meetings with global activists in recent weeks, my colleagues and I have noticed their emphasis shifting away from government policy fights to battles in the streets, political arenas and courtrooms. The lines between reformists and radicals, and between global and grassroots mobilizers, are blurring, and a new sense of engagement is taking root.
Activist groups have long relied on a strategy known as the boomerang effect — using international networks and global institutions such as the United Nations’ climate talks to influence national governments’ actions. Although this approach initially was well suited to climate change, results show the talks have been too slow and insufficient. The growing influence of the fossil fuel industry has left some activists seriously questioning whether the U.N. climate process is still useful.
Last year’s U.N. climate conference solidified these concerns when the host country, the United Arab Emirates, put its state oil company CEO in charge of the talks. The conference was overrun by a record number of oil and gas lobbyists, and the final agreement of COP28 left room for the continuing expansion of fossil fuels. The announcement in January that Azerbaijan, host of COP29, would place another oil industry veteran in charge of the conference further diminished any faith activists still had in the system.
In response to the weakness of global climate negotiations and policy, my colleagues and I are seeing a ramp-up in sophisticated legal battles over climate change. More than 2,000 climate-change cases have been filed in the past five years, the majority of which are in the United States. More than half of such cases decided between June 2022 and May 2023 have had a favorable outcome for the climate, though most still face appeals. And while court decisions rarely produce radical societal change, they are frequently followed by legislative changes that meet more moderate demands.
When in-your-face activism takes place at the same time as formal institutional challenges, studies show the combination can help increase awareness of the problem and support for moderate action. Researchers call this the “radical flank effect.” It was effective for both the civil rights and feminist movements, and it is evident in other political movements in the U.S. today.
We’ve seen this in the United Kingdom. After initially disapproving of shocking climate protests, in 2019 London Mayor Sadiq Khan met with Extinction Rebellion, a group known for dramatic actions such as spraying fake blood on the steps of the U.K. treasury. Britain’s environment secretary also met with the group, and days later Parliament declared a climate emergency, making the United Kingdom the first nation to do so.
Climate protesters are shifting course in the U.S. as well. President Biden made climate change a focus of his first presidential campaign, but activists aren’t getting anywhere close to what they want and have made him a recent target of protests and hecklers.
Criticism of extreme activism often misses a crucial point: Public reaction isn’t necessarily the activists’ end goal. Often, their aim is to influence government and business decision-makers.
Objections to acts of climate activism such as the latest food fight at the Louvre are understandable but might miss the point. Protesters’ perceived madness is indeed method.
Shannon Gibson is an associate professor of environmental studies at USC. This article was produced in partnership with the Conversation.