• Analysis

A surprise US climate deal won’t slow wave of desperate protests

Climate activists are turning to more confrontational tactics like deflating tires and gluing themselves to paintings. Can this shift meet the moment?
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Climate activists around the world are mobilizing, and unleashing a flurry of new — and at times confrontational —  tactics. 

Earlier this month in New York City, a group of anonymous climate activists deflated the tires on dozens of Upper East Side SUVs. Meanwhile, in Europe, protesters are gluing themselves to paintings in art museums, demanding an end to fossil fuel projects as record heat waves spark massive wildfires. 

“I think what we’re seeing is people attempting to match the emotional tenor of the inside with a tactic on the outside,” said Daniel Hunter, a longtime organizer and strategist who currently works as global trainings coordinator for 350.org.

Hunter attributes many of the recent actions to a growing sense of desperation, frustration with political inaction, and a deep awareness of the impact climate change is already having in their communities.

Amid this backdrop of desperate action, the Senate revived negotiations this week on a climate spending bill previously torpedoed by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III. In a surprise deal on Wednesday, Manchin announced his support for a less ambitious package that would invest $369 billion towards cutting emissions by around 40 percent by 2030.

While many activists heralded the bill as a step in the right direction amidst lagging global efforts, others criticized its clear concessions towards the fossil fuel industry.

“After dragging his feet for more than a year, Sen. Manchin announced an agreement that won’t solve the crisis, and may make it worse,” Wenonah Huauter, executive director for Food & Water Action said in a press release. “Streamlining permitting for natural gas pipelines and exports is not climate action, it is the opposite. More subsidies for dirty hydrogen, carbon capture and nuclear energy are not climate action, they are the opposite.”

Scientists agree that Biden’s initial goal of cutting U.S. emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade is the pace needed to reduce the risk of catastrophic floods, fires and droughts. Yet, around the world, communities are already contending with climate change’s devastating effects. In a 2021 poll by National Geographic and Morning Consult, nearly half of Americans said that extreme weather events like droughts and wildfires were influencing their views on climate change.

According to Hunter, this reality has divided activists’ attention — as they deal with crisis control — and spurred unprecedented engagement and urgency in the movement. On Tuesday, a group of young activists with End Fossil: Occupy! announced their plans to organize occupations of schools and universities during the next school year to demand action on climate change.

The activists explained their approach in an op-ed for The Guardian, writing, “Why occupy? Because we’ve marched. We’ve launched petitions. We’ve written open letters. We’ve had meetings with governments, boards and commissions. We’ve struck. We’ve filled squares, streets and avenues with thousands and, all together, millions of people … So, what do we do? Since giving in to defeatism will never be an option for us, we must now organize at a massive scale.”

Across the media, from Bloomberg to Vice to Fox News and the New York Post, the discussion around this new wave of climate action has largely focused on property destruction. In turn, this has led to speculation that the climate movement is shifting away from peaceful protest. Rather than get caught up in the moral handwringing, Hunter suggests focusing on questions of strategy.  

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“Tactics that turn off vast swaths of the population very quickly are ineffective and counterproductive,” he said. 

Instead, Hunter pointed to other actions that have successfully met the desperation of a moment, while also disrupting systems of power. In 2016, for example, members of the Standing Rock tribe inspired global solidarity when they established a water protectors’ camp as a center of resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

A less recent example, from the late 1980s, is the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT-UP, which channeled the grief and desperation of its members into creative and relentless acts of civil disobedience that forced policy makers to finally confront the AIDS pandemic. In one campaign, protesters staged dramatic die-ins at church services attended by politicians who refused to fund AIDS medication and research. 

“Those were acts of desperation that tell a very clear story — you’re targeting the people who have the power to make a difference,” said Hunter. At the same time, he acknowledged that ACT-UP also experimented with a wide swath of tactics as they sought change — which, ultimately, is how he envisions this stage of the climate crisis playing out as well. 

“At the end of the day, we have to rebuild a society that is no longer so numb to environmental violence,” he said. “The violence that we create on our own selves, our own people, our own plants, our own animals and the whole mother that we live on.”

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