Some people have argued that the stunt discredited the wider climate movement. I don’t buy that for a second. Instead, I suspect it is far more likely to produce a helpful radical flank effect, making more moderate forces in the climate movement, such as the UK’s Green Party, more appealing to the mainstream. In fact, a recent study found that unpopular radical tactics from climate activism groups can indeed increase support for more moderate factions.
I emailed University of South Carolina sociologist Brent Simpson, the lead author of the study, to ask if he thought it applied to the Sunflowers protest. He saw a connection. “We didn’t study exactly these actions in our research, of course,” he wrote. “But, yes, our findings certainly suggest that these more radical protest tactics can increase support for groups who are using more moderate tactics to pursue the same general climate action goals.”
And if protestors continue to demonstrate in attention-grabbing ways, they will keep pushing the issue into the national conversation and pulling the Overton Window wider. We’ve already seen this happen in the US with the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which included climate provisions that would have been seen as radically left-wing until very recently but were passed with a moderate Democrat in the White House. This change happened not in spite of climate activism but because of it.
Most people believe in climate change now, and support for policies aimed at combating climate disruption increased considerably during the 2010s. And even if most people also think that lobbing food at pretty paintings is a stupid way to fight the climate crisis, it does raise an obvious follow-up question: Well then, what is the best way to fight climate change? Throwing canned goods is probably not top of the list, but it’s not doing nothing.
In the week following the Sunflowers stunt, Just Stop Oil has been busy. Activists blockaded a busy bridge in the eastern English county of Essex for several days. “More protests are coming, this is a rapidly growing movement and the next two weeks will be, I hope, the most intense period of climate action to date, so buckle up,” Margaret Klein Salamon, executive director of the Climate Emergency Fund (the organization largely funding Just Stop Oil) told The Guardian. Good! It’s soup season, baby.
This seems like a good moment to revisit a WIRED feature from 2018 called “Pipeline Vandals Are Reinventing Climate Activism.” It’s a fascinating dive into a different kind of stunt-driven climate action. The story follows environmentalists who sabotaged an oil pipeline in Minnesota, and how they were able to use a “necessity” defense in court, claiming that the government had taken so little action to ameliorate the harms of fossil fuels that it left citizens no choice but to intervene:
It was a cold morning, aspens shaking their dull gold under heavy skies. A fellow activist, Ben Joldersma, livestreamed to Facebook as the two women cut the chains around fenced enclosures containing large shut-off valves for two oil pipelines owned by the Canadian multinational Enbridge. The pipes carry crude oil from deposits of tar sands (also referred to as oil sands) in Alberta, transporting it to Lake Superior. Because making petroleum products from this goo—called bitumen—releases more global-warming emissions than most other oil sources, the activists were going to do what they could to keep it in the ground.
Enbridge was well aware they were there: About 15 minutes before they cut their way in, an activist named Jay O’Hara with the Climate Disobedience Center in Seattle had talked to Enbridge staff on the phone and warned them that protesters were going to be closing the valves on Line 67 and Line 4, each of which hum with 33,000 gallons of crude oil per hour.
What only a handful of people knew, however, was that Johnston and Klapstein were part of a nationwide action dubbed #ShutItDown that would also choke off pipelines at three other locations in North Dakota, Montana, and Washington State that day, moving east to west. They referred to themselves as the Valve Turners, and Reuters called their effort “the biggest coordinated move on US energy infrastructure ever undertaken by environmental protesters.” On that day, five principal activists—Michael Foster, 54, Ken Ward, 61, and Leonard Higgins, 66, in addition to Johnston and Klapstein—cut off 70 percent of the oil from tar sands that flows into the US from Canada.