New Orleans One of the many challenges for climate change campaigners is target selection. Arguably, there are too many. Where do you start? When do you stop?
Of course, there’s the fossil fuel industry and the big oil, gas, and coal operators that are its corporate face. They are almost too big, requiring actions of huge scale to move the needle, and certainly no easy wins. Their operations are also far-flung in vast expanses of land, desert, and ocean with little access and often precious little local support. Other big polluters are air travel, shipping, commercial buildings, utilities, and on and on, including pretty much all of us in some way another.
Recently, activist campaigners have increasingly targeted elite institutions in order to keep the focus on the campaign. Pictures of individual activists with various organizations gluing themselves to paintings in museums, chaining themselves to sculptures, and in some cases even pouring paint on the framing of art works have gotten attention. These aren’t mass actions of course, but more reminiscent of peace protests against the Vietnam War, where individuals would symbolically spill blood at draft offices and try to enlistments, Berrigan brothers’ style. The point seems to be press and media attention, rather than winning public support. Museums certainly don’t come anywhere near the top of the list as polluters.
Going after the wealthy and mega rich billionaires, as some campaigners are increasingly targeting, might stand a better chance in our age of inequality of getting at least a nodding sign of support from the broader public. The UK’s Extinction Rebellion and groups, particularly in Europe, have been going after super yachts and private jets with some vigor. The Associated Press reports that actions have included blocking runways, hitting private aviation conventions, chaining groups to individual aircraft and more.
[In Spain] Futuro Vegetal — or Vegetable Future — spraypainted a $300 million superyacht belonging to Walmart heir Nancy Walton Laurie. Protesters held up a sign that read, “You consume, others suffer.” In Switzerland, some 100 activists disrupted Europe’s biggest private jet sales fair in Geneva when they chained themselves to aircraft gangways and the exhibition entrance. In Germany, climate group Letzte Generation — which translates to Last Generation — spraypainted a private jet in the resort island of Sylt, in the North Sea. In Spain, activists plugged holes in golf courses to protest the sport’s heavy water needs during hot dry spells.
Is it working? Some say, yes, some say, no, but something has to be done, and, frankly, who is going to rally to the side of the billionaires. They have kind of asked for this. Oxfam says “the richest 1% will be responsible for around 16% of emissions by 2030.” Furthermore, it seems to be working. France has cracked down on allowing private jets to make short trips. The Netherlands giant airport, Schiphol has moved to ban private jets on its runways.
We’re going to see more of this as the fight ramps up and the sense of desperation by campaigners increases. When nothing else is working, gumming up the works has some appeal, and effectiveness. These targets are beyond public shaming, but much of this is altering behavior, so there are lessons here for all of us to learn.