‘Outrageous’ climate activists get in the faces of politicians and oil bosses – will it work? | Climate crisis

The head of ExxonMobil told to “eat shit” as he was about to receive an award. A US senator and coal boss called a “sick fuck”, almost sparking a brawl. Theatre shows interrupted. As the climate crisis has deepened, protests aimed at those deemed responsible are becoming starkly personal, and often confrontational.

At the vanguard of this new style of in-your-face activism is Climate Defiance, a group of just a handful of core staffers now marking its first birthday following a year of disrupting, often crudely, the usually mundane procession of talks, speeches and panels that feature Joe Biden administration officials, oil company bosses and financiers.

“They are seen as the hot climate group right now, which is amazing given how small they are,” said Dana Fisher, a sociologist and author who is an expert in climate activism at American University. “They are obnoxious, but they are having some success in being outrageous enough to get attention, and in an election year that is important. They are certainly pushing the Biden administration.”

Climate Defiance’s tactics are usually clandestine, signing up to or slipping into events before storming the stage and denouncing their targets, who are often referred to as “monsters” or “fiends”, in a sort of public shaming spread via social media.

But as the group’s influence has grown, having been granted a meeting they requested at the White House to share their calls for stronger action on global heating, so has the scale of their ambitions. Climate Defiance is organizing a mass protest involving hundreds of people aimed at shutting down the congressional baseball game, a longstanding bipartisan tradition in Washington, this summer, calling on “every good person to join us”.

“It’s really going to trigger a nerve,” said Michael Greenberg, the 30-year-old founder of Climate Defiance. “People love the tradition of the baseball game, because it’s bipartisan, and we’re going to say, ‘No, we’re shutting it down.’ We really need to shake people awake and make climate a top three issue for this election.”

How Climate Defiance activists confront business leaders and politicians – video

Greenberg is disparaging of what he sees as the placid, desk-bound conformity of mainstream climate groups, as well as the litany of events that feature those he considers responsible for the climate crisis. “They’re literally risking billions of lives and they’re getting honored at galas,” he said of his targets.

The confrontations themselves are very much fashioned for an era of TikTok and Instagram, where a new visual edge needs to be found each time. “Another soup toss at a painting isn’t going to get attention now, and so cursing is something new they are doing,” said Fisher. “It’s designed to be provocative, but is very performative. It’s designed for younger people who are scrolling through videos.”

Sometimes the swearing is in visual form – Darren Woods, the chief executive of Exxon, stood haplessly alongside a banner reading “eat shit, Darren” as he was denounced as a “climate criminal” by protesters – while sometimes it is uttered by target and activist. “Just close the fucking door,” muttered Jerome Powell, the chair of the Federal Reserve, as his speech in December was interrupted by activists who stormed the stage, causing him to flee.

Occasionally the confrontations can provoke flashes of anger, like recently when a Climate Defiance volunteer accosted Joe Manchin, the conservative Democratic senator and coal baron, and called him a “sick fuck”, causing the incensed West Virginia lawmaker to square up to the protester, who was then pushed away by an aide.

Such interactions will not persuade people such as Manchin to suddenly oppose fossil fuels and may even dismay casual viewers of the video, Greenberg admits, but the founder insists such stunts help push climate up the agenda with an easily distracted public.

“For your average suburban soccer mom, they probably don’t love it, but a lot of our supporters were excited to see it,” Greenberg said of the repeated tangles with Manchin. “I guess there’s a tension in some of these actions. The stuff that gets the most attention is often the stuff that’s a little bit less popular. So yeah, I consider it a trade-off.”

He added: “What we’re aiming to do is much more ambitious than just get some anger off of our chest. We’re really trying to make climate change a top-tier issue in the American political system. Otherwise, it’ll just get ignored.”

For these efforts, Climate Defiance is increasingly feted by political figures and donors. Fundraising parties have been held by the likes of Abigail Disney, the heiress and climate campaigner, and attended by appreciative progressive Democrats. “You have gotten the country’s attention,” Ro Khanna, a Democratic congressman from California, told one of the fundraisers. “People in Congress are talking about you. Senators are talking about you. The president is talking about you. And remember this, the future is with you.”

Even John Podesta, Biden’s top climate envoy, who has had several events interrupted by Climate Defiance, has engaged with the group, agreeing to meet them at the White House for talks last year. Podesta called the group a “pain in the ass” and complained that it did not protest against enough Republicans, Greenberg said. Podesta was contacted about the comments.

But will any of this make a difference? Being hounded by climate activists may have helped nudge the Biden administration to pause new gas exports, but the influence is more opaque when it comes to the broader American public, who are increasingly worried about the ravages of heatwaves, wildfires and flooding but still mostly consider the climate crisis as a background issue when it comes to voting.

“We know historically that radical action can inspire other people to join more moderate components of the movement, but most research on this was done before social media,” said Fisher. “We don’t know how well videos saying ‘eat shit’ will work out yet. It’s frustrating.”

‘Ecocidal pyromaniac’

The protests may even backfire with some voters who consider them to be counter-productive or even violent, as evidenced in some of the negative reactions to a brawl that erupted last week after Climate Defiance activists rushed a stage where Lisa Murkowski, a Republican senator, was speaking. Murkowski is a “murderer” and an “ecocidal pyromaniac”, according to the group, which in its confrontations connects politicians who have supported fossil fuel interests to the harms of the climate crisis.

For now, the currency of success is measured in video views and in how normalized protest interruptions are becoming from a range groups, such as Sunrise or Extinction Rebellion, who have shouted down speeches by Donald Trump or halted performances at the opera or theater to decry the lack of action on the climate crisis.

“Climate Defiance changed the format,” said Nate Smith, a climate activist and theater producer who stood up to interrupt a press preview of An Enemy of the People, the Henrik Ibsen play currently showing on Broadway, in a protest by Extinction Rebellion NY.

“I’ve been in front of unmarked security forces with machine guns and felt way more calm than interrupting my own love, my own business, but there is no Broadway on a dead planet,” said Smith about the action. Smith’s warning about sea-level rise during the show was responded to in character by Jeremy Strong, the Succession actor who plays the protagonist in the production.

Strong, ironically, is on the board of the Climate Emergency Fund, which funds groups such as Climate Defiance. “Listen, I didn’t want it to happen, you know, on my stage but at the same time … I’d feel like a hypocrite if I didn’t, in a way, support what they were saying,” Strong has said.

Acting in an unperturbed way has now become a required skill for politicians and others who risk interruption. At a boosterish breakfast meeting in Manhattan last week, Eric Adams, the mayor of New York, was delivering a self-laudatory speech to several hundred supporters when a group of young people involved in Planet Over Profit, another activist group, clambered on stage to shout “Landlord Adams, burning NYC” and unfurled a banner, before being bundled away. Four arrests were made outside.

Adams plowed on with his speech throughout the intervention, remarking afterwards that the protesters were trying to “hijack the narrative” and that they “mean nothing to me”. If this new era of confrontation becomes commonplace to the point of being ignored, what tactics will climate activists come up with next?

The climate crisis won’t wait to find out. The last 10 months have, globally, smashed all previous temperature records and, just in the past week, new studies have come out showing that the planet’s coral reefs are facing their most serious risk of heat death yet, while the world’s economy is set to lose 19% of its income in the next 26 years, an eye-watering $38tn, because of the impacts of climate change.

“These activists are going to annoy some people, but scientists are screaming at the top of their lungs about the climate crisis, and no one is listening,” said Fisher.

“Not everyone will like it but a range of tactics is necessary right now. The destruction we are seeing is far worse than calling Joe Manchin a nasty name.”

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