Climate protesters target another priceless artwork

A climate activist glued 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 glued his hand to the panel holding the work.

In France, confrontational climate protests also took place on Thursday when activists forced their way into a Climate Finance Day meeting in the former French stock exchange to protest the investments of French bank BNP Paribas in the fossil fuel industry. 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 financing.

They are the latest in a spate of attention-grabbing climate protest stunts that have happened around the world in October, grabbing global headlines. But how effective are they?

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

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

In New York, climate activists marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Sandy with days of protest, from road blockages to noisily protesting outside the home of Scott Nuttall, co-CEO of KKR, a private equity giant that owns dozens of fossil fuel companies.

Ending fossil fuel use is at the heart of many protesters’ demands. Yet many have also cited general concerns about environmental destruction.

“How do you feel when you see something beautiful and priceless being apparently destroyed before your very eyes?” asked one protester about the painting known as the ‘Mona Lisa of the Low Countries’, at the Dutch museum in a video posted online on Thursday. “That is that same feeling when you see the planet being destroyed.”

‘The questions that matter’

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

The intensifying nature of climate change means climate activists are especially mobilized to take such action. “We can’t just change our minds about whether or not we want climate change in ten years’ time,” says Mathew Humphrey, professor of political theory at the University of Nottingham. “They are protesting against potentially catastrophic, global and irreversible changes. That gives their cause a specific kind of moral impetus.”

But there is still the risk that drawing attention to the issue with such confrontational protests will backfire. Drivers running errands or heading to work can easily be irritated by road blockades rather than sympathize with protesters, for example, and attacks on beloved artworks in particular have divided opinion. “The potential downside is alienating public opinion,” Humphrey says.

But there can also be benefits for a cause if protesters are able to attract enough attention with a stunt. “There’s zero connection between throwing tomato soup on a painting and wanting to stop new oil and gas licenses,” says Berglund. “It’s all about the attention that you get from it and what that potential is used for.”

Evidence suggests that such high-profile protests are, in fact, raising public awareness about climate change in general. And the prevalence of social media can also be instrumental in spreading the message further. In the aftermath of the attack on Van Gogh’s painting, a video showing protester Phoebe Plummer explaining why she participated has been viewed 7.9 million times. “What we’re doing is getting the conversations going so we can ask the questions that matter,” she says.

Another video of protester Lora Johnson being carried away by police as she proclaims that she took part in a blockade of London’s Waterloo Bridge “for her son” has been watched 11.5 million times.

‘Driving social change’

The increase in radical, attention-grabbing climate protests comes at a time of rising climate anxiety. In 2021 a global survey of thousands of 16- to 25-year-olds found that 95% were worried about climate change and nearly 30% were “extremely worried”.

Although the anxiety may be widespread, protesters tend to be a minority. Studies indicate around 10% of people are willing to engage in non-violent protest and, in reality, less actually do so. Younger generations are most likely to support confrontational protest, but other age groups are also involved. The protesters who stuck their hands to 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 these is Dr. Stuart Capstick, deputy director of the Center for Climate Change and Social Transformations at Cardiff University. “Non-violent civil disobedience is, for me, a last resort,” he says, “but something that I hope can help push decision-makers to be more ambitious. The unfolding climate crisis is not treated with anything like the seriousness it deserves.”

In October, Capstick and four other scientists were acquitted of £2,000 in criminal damage by UK courts for pasting scientific papers, using chalk spray and gluing 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 legal process was “stressful and time-consuming”, he says. “But I have never doubted that the protest by our group of scientists 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 stating their “grave concern about the increasing 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 are “falling far short” of emissions targets “with no credible pathway to [the stated climate goal of] 1.5°C in place”. Faced with a lack of government action, Humphrey says, “If you are a political ‘outsider’ then it may be that the only chance that you have to bring your political issue into public consciousness is to engage in forms of protest and direct action. ”

Capstick recognizes that protests are only “part of the process”. More profound change to reduce emissions, he says, “needs action and pressure sustained over time and enabled at all levels of society”.

Berglund agrees that militant climate protest alone has a limited role to play. “Climate change is deeply connected to capitalism,” he says. “We know that we need to transition to sustainable societies and, at the same time, to address severe inequalities. You need a broad movement in order to really shake the political system.”

In the meantime, it is likely that militant climate protests will increase in the run-up to the Cop27 climate summit on November 6 and beyond.

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


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