Why Climate Activists Are Turning To Drastic Measures

11:14 minutes

outside on a grassy path next to a street, four people, a female professor and three students, smile and stand in front of a model of the earth, that stands about four or five feet taller than the people.
Left to right, Dana R. Fisher, Lexie Sagun, Emmanuel S. Wanjala, Quinn P. Renaghan (not pictured: Mohammed Ademo). Credit: courtesy Dana R. Fisher

For Earth Day this year, people all over the world took to the streets to demand climate action. But as large and loud as these protests can be, they are often met with inaction. So activists are ramping up their efforts.

Just within the last year, we’ve seen people chain themselves to banks, throw mashed potatoes at a Monet painting, shut down highways, and even glue themselves to museum walls, all in the name of climate justice. Those actions went viral and really seemed to strike a nerve. How did we end up here? 

Guest host Kathleen Davis talks with Dr. Dana Fisher, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland College Park, about the state of climate activism and the tactics at play.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Dana R. Fisher

Dana R. Fisher is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland and author of American Resistance. 

Segment Transcript

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is Science Friday. I’m Sophie Bushwick.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: And I’m Kathleen Davis. For this year’s Earth Day, people all around the world took to the streets to demand climate action, like in Washington, DC.

PROTESTORS: (CHANTING) Ain’t no power like climate justice ’cause climate justice won’t stop.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: But over the years, a lot of these protests have been met with inaction, so activists are ramping up their efforts. Just within the last year, we’ve seen people chain themselves to banks, throw mashed potatoes at a Monet painting, shut down highways, and even glue themselves to museum walls all in the name of climate justice. Those actions went viral and really seemed to strike a nerve. So how did we end up here? Here to walk us through the science behind these protests is Dr. Dana Fisher, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Dana, welcome back to Science Friday.

DANA FISHER: Thanks for having me, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So let’s start with this year’s Earth Day. You went out to the protests in DC. What did you do there?

DANA FISHER: Well, I was out there with a research team of graduate students and undergraduate students from the University of Maryland, and we did a couple of things. We are studying in my activism class right now about both institutional and noninstitutional forms of activism and protest and looking at when protest gets confrontational why and why it matters. So we were out there observing what the activists were doing, and we were also talking with the activists themselves.

And we basically did a survey of the participants at the event on Saturday. And what we were trying to look for here is, who was participating? What was motivating them to participate? What kind of previous experiences they had doing activism and also what they were willing to do in the street? So for example, were they willing to get arrested? Were they willing to engage in civil disobedience but also general demographics, et cetera?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Super interesting to think about this from a data collection lens. Why is it so important to get all these little pieces of data?

DANA FISHER: I am so glad you asked that question, Kathleen. So as somebody who geeks out on data on an everyday basis and also believes that data is power, I can answer that in a couple of ways. The reason that the data are so important is that we can’t really understand what activism means unless we understand who is participating in the activism. And in a different role, I actually wrote a section of the IPCC’s recent report, specifically around activism and civic engagement.

And one of the things that I found is that research on activism and how it’s related to, and this is specifically climate activism and how it’s related to the outcomes in terms of climate mitigation climate adaptation or even CO2 emissions or greenhouse gas emissions broadly, is woefully missing. So we have very little knowledge at this point about what it means if somebody goes out in the street and participates in a protest or glues themselves to the tarmac of an airport. How is that actually related to emissions?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: There are so many different types of activism out there, like racial justice or gun control. How does climate activism compare with these?

DANA FISHER: One of the things that I think is unique about the climate protest or climate activists whom I’ve studied is, that when we look at the motivations– I’ve been collecting data on motivations from activists at climate-related events for many years now. And one of the things that is really interesting is the ways that we see consistent patterns of motivations for the people who are out in the streets at these climate events. And we saw it at the people’s climate match in 2017, at the youth climate strikes that took place around 2019, 2020 until the world shut down because of the pandemic. And then we see the same patterns re-emerge now around Earth Day.

And those patterns actually show the ways that issues having to do with equity, justice, and climate change are all combined together. And really in a lot of ways, I think that those are the components of the ways these people are making sense of what they call climate justice, which is the big issue that is motivating people to come out and participate in protests again and again.

So for example, this past Saturday at the Earth day actions, what we saw was a lot of people in the streets who are motivated not just by climate change, but in addition to that, they were motivated by systemic racism. They were motivated by income inequality. Many of them also said that they were motivated to be out in the streets because of reproductive rights. So there were overlapping issues that brought them out and they say created the motivation or the stimulation to get them into the streets to protest on this past Saturday.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: One tactic that has been making the news a lot is things like protesters throw soup at a super famous painting. How do these sorts of tactics come about? What’s the point there?

DANA FISHER: The type of disruption that you’re talking about is what I’m calling in my book disruption for shock. And here, the activists themselves are throwing food, are spray painting, are crazy gluing themselves, et cetera and so forth, specifically to get public attention. And the idea is to release this on social media with the hope it gets picked up and pinged all around the world. That type of disruption is specifically targeting– and the goal and the way that they measure the success of the goal is how much media attention and how much conversation they make around the issue.

And the hope here is that conversations about the disruption will help to get more attention for the issue and get more attention to the subject that motivated them to come out and do this disruption in the first place. And if we’re looking at that form, there’s a lot of research that suggests that it will work when the shockers are really getting people to start talking about the issue, even though in most cases, people are not particularly supportive of the action itself.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: There’s also been this growth in civil disobedience, like people chaining themselves to government buildings or shutting down highways. What message does that sort of thing send?

DANA FISHER: The people who are blocking buildings, in a lot of cases many of the people who are targeting buildings these days, are using disruption in different way. So it’s the same kind of tactic, but it’s a question of the way that it’s embedded in a campaign, or what I call– it’s a repertoire of contention. So when disruption is part of a repertoire, it’s embedded in a campaign that goes broader than just disrupting and getting public attention and hopefully media attention. It’s about disruption to draw attention to a campaign that you’ve been working on.

Probably the best example of this is the divestment efforts on college campuses where you have college students, alumni, and faculty drawing attention to the ways that endowments are invested in and making money from fossil fuel expansion and investment and trying to pressure the universities to move their funds. And the students will draw attention to it. They’ll lobby. They’ll use what we call these institutional tactics they have available. All of that is part of this repertoire of contention. Engaging in civil disobedience, but it’s just part of their campaign.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Is there a fear that these protests could be counterproductive? Like could it turn people away from the climate movement to have to sit in traffic because people are blocking the road or things like that?

DANA FISHER: There’s absolutely legitimate fear there. At the same time, there is very little research that shows that people who have actually experienced this type of activism are turned off to the cause. The research that actually does experiments looking at people who have experienced this kind of activism that is disruptive, this type of civil disobedience, in most cases what they find is that either people’s attitudes about the issue don’t change or they get stronger, and they start to worry more about the climate crisis because there are activists who are willing to block traffic.

Now, it is true that there’s also a lot of research that shows that the people who are actually doing the protesting and the civil disobedience, they’re not very well supported by the people who experience them. So basically, the groups that are doing the civil disobedience will have less support after doing such an act. But they will say, and there’s lots of research that backs this up, that they’re not doing it to be popular. And in fact, research shows us, if we look historically, that some of the most effective tactics that have been used by movements in the United States over our history were disruptive and were extremely unpopular.

Take for example during the civil rights period where there was a lot of disruptive activism, but the disruptive activism, and even some of the less disruptive activism, was not very popular in the general public, but it was very successful at getting more public attention and public attention to the way that Black Americans were being treated, which was a huge part of the movement’s efforts to shine a light on the injustices. And in the end, it worked. It didn’t work as well as it needs to, but it certainly started a process that continues today.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So Dana, before we go, I want to ask, what might we expect from the future of climate activism?

DANA FISHER: Well, Kathleen, I wish that I could tell you that this is just a wave of contention. It’s a small period of protest, and then everybody’s going to go back to their everyday lives, and we don’t have to think about it anymore, but unfortunately, the science is pretty clear.

The world is warming. We are approaching a number of tipping points that are going to cause climate shocks to become more frequent, more severe and take place in more locations around the world. We saw what happened in Pakistan this summer. We’re going to continue to see the effects of a warming world, and that is going to mobilize more and more people to engage in activism, including civil disobedience, until we address the problem sufficiently.

So what I talk about in my book is that the only way to save ourselves is for people to pressure the power brokers for the type of systemic change that is well documented to be what’s needed. And we’re nowhere near that. And until we get there, there’s no reason not to expect that the people are going to rise up along with the waters.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Dr. Dana Fisher is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Dana, thanks so much for joining me.

DANA FISHER: Thank you for having me.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: I’m Kathleen Davis, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

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