Skipping school or throwing soup: which climate action will achieve your goal?

They were world news for a moment: the two young climate activists who emptied cans of soup on a Van Gogh in London’s National Gallery Museum on 14 October. A frequently asked question: does such an action make sense? The activists themselves think so: after her release, one of them stated that the artwork was not damaged, and that her action generated a lot of attention.

But not every action makes the same sense. And it is impossible to say in advance whether your action will have the intended effect. At a glance: five well-known forms of climate action, and their advantages and disadvantages.

Action form 1: on the street

Last year, 40 thousand people attended the climate march in Amsterdam, and this year too, the march in Rotterdam could count on 10 thousand people. Demonstrating is and remains the most classic way of raising a problem without tweeting. And it is relatively accessible: a stick and a cardboard sign are enough to tell the world what is going wrong.

Partly thanks to the climate truancy campaigns, the climate in Belgium was a topic of conversation for months

Demonstrating is a seemingly simple way to raise a problem, especially now that social media is increasing the reach of a demonstration. For example, Belgian high school students managed to draw attention to themselves in 2019 by regularly skipping school; from demonstration for a future. The Belgian climate truants managed to get demonstrations of 35,000 people on their feet within a few months.

However, there is also criticism of the action form. A successful demonstration gains, at least in the short term, mainly media attention. Partly thanks to the climate truancy campaigns, the climate in Belgium was the subject of discussion in newspapers and on TV for months. But in the elections, a few months later, the victory nevertheless went mainly to the right-wing parties, which paid little attention to the climate in their party programs.

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Action form 2: disrupt the order

Demonstrating is therefore a relatively safe form of expressing your opinion. However, some climate activists want to do more than address the problem. The climate crisis is too urgent for that and the informing stage is over, they believe: the problem is now well known. More and more of them therefore opt for civil disobedience: breaking the law for a political purpose. They disrupt public life to make the urgency tangible. For example, they block bridges, roads and public transport.

The originally British action group Extinction Rebellion (ER) is known for this direct action form. ER addresses the urgency of the climate crisis by disrupting urban life in mainly western cities such as London, Paris, New York or Amsterdam. ER stands for nonviolence, but accepts arrest as a result of climate action. Having yourself arrested shows how far you are willing to go to address the need for change. This form of action can also often count on a lot of media attention, but here too there is criticism: disrupting the order mainly affects citizens, not the biggest emitters.

Moreover, according to some, this form of action is too white and too privileged

Moreover, according to some, this form of action is too white and too privileged. Those who have themselves arrested willfully, such as the London ‘soup throwers’, are relying on fair treatment by the police. People of color and other marginalized groups often have more unpleasant experiences with the police and are at risk of longer prison terms, excessive violence or racist treatment. Arrest or police brutality is something many can risk, but not everyone.

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Action form 3: occupy and sabotage

For those who want to tackle the major polluters directly, occupation is often a valued form of action. In Germany, the activist group Ende Gelände (‘End Terrein’ or ‘until here and no further’) is known for this tactic. Every year, this group of thousands of activists tries to shut down coal plants by blocking the coal supply. If successful, the group will prevent tons of CO2 pollution per day – more than you can achieve by not eating meat or avoiding the plane.

Occupying is a way to put pressure on the biggest polluters without bothering citizens

This form of action has become increasingly common in European countries in recent years. It’s a way to put pressure on the biggest polluters – such as coal, oil and gas suppliers – without bothering citizens. The actions often take place in industrial areas, far removed from normal life. The action form exchanges the accessibility of a demonstration for the concrete result of an occupation.

The downside, however, is that such occupation actions often receive little media attention. There are few journalists on the scene, and the target prefers to cover up the actions to avoid a bad image. This also applies to sabotage actions. It is relatively easy to puncture or puncture the tires of polluting cars in the middle of the night smash the windows of an energy company, but as long as no one knows about it, the social impact remains minimal. That’s why the soup-throwers in the National Gallery had themselves filmed; they knew that an action can only achieve something if it is noticed.

Action form 4: protect the ground

For the original inhabitants of the Americas, the fossil fuel industry is not a far-from-your-bed show. Pipelines run right through their land and fuel extraction sometimes even takes place on their land. The protests in Standing Rock (since 2016) and Wet’suwet’enland in the US and Canada show how indigenous people are resisting the construction of these pipelines. Rather than give way, they set up a protest movement that combines many of the forms of action in this article.

Protecting areas is also a well-known form of action in Europe, albeit in a different way than in the ‘reserves’ of North America. Climate activists climb the trees of forests that are in danger of being cut down, so that they cannot just be cut down. For example, in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, France, climate activists occupied a forest for years where the French government wanted to build an airport. After years of resistance against bulldozers and police, the airport plan was shelved in 2018.

In Germany, too, from 2012 onward, forest occupiers protected the Hambach forest from an expanding lignite mine in the Ruhr area. In the end, the German court agreed with the forest protectors and forbade the energy company RWE to cut down the remaining part of the forest. In the Netherlands, climate activists first applied this form of action at the beginning of this year to protect the Sterrebos in Limburg against the expansion of a car factory: they entrenched themselves in hanging tents in the trees. Ultimately, a judge ruled that the forest could still be cut.

The effectiveness of a forest occupation has already been proven in France and Germany, but it is of course a relatively inaccessible form of action for many people. It takes stamina and puts yourself in danger. These actions also rarely appear extensively in the news, making them relatively unknown to the general public.


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Action form 5: fight it out in court

For those who don’t want to get their hands dirty, there is still the courtroom. The Urgenda Foundation made world news at the end of 2019 when it finally won a lawsuit, forcing the Dutch state to reduce CO2 emissions by 25 percent by the end of 2020 compared to 1990. It was the first case in the world in which the court recognized that the state has a legal duty to protect its citizens from global warming.

Following the example of Urgenda, more and more organizations are trying to force large polluters to become more sustainable through the courts. Sometimes with success: Milieudefensie won a climate case against Shell last year. The judge ruled that the company’s global emissions must be 45 percent lower by 2030 than in 2019.

It is not only organizations that make the move to court. In Portugal, six young people have been suing the European Union and some neighboring countries since 2020 for what they see as negligent climate policy. The young people finance their business thanks to a successful crowdfunding. If they are right, it will have far-reaching consequences for European climate policy. Recently, the European Court of Human Rights referred the case to the ‘Grand Chamber’, which has seventeen judges who are only presented with the most serious cases. The youth are now preparing for that hearing.

A lawsuit can bring about many concrete changes, as the Urgenda climate case has proven. But it does require a lot of patience and a lot of (legal) expertise. Most people who want to do something about the climate crisis find themselves on the street or in nature faster than in court. Sabotage, occupations, lawsuits and demonstrations: the toolbox of climate activists is diverse. Ultimately, all of these together add to the pressure to implement rapid sustainable change.

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