Thousands of people surrounded Parliament in London over the weekend to demand an end to fossil fuel development, just days after protestors upended the World Snooker Championships by throwing orange powder and a month after scientists blockaded private jets at a Netherlands airport.
This week, New York City activists will conduct a sit-in at the headquarters of fossil-fuel financier Citibank, and others plan to disrupt the White House Correspondents dinner to call for an end to oil and gas drilling on public lands.
It’s all part of the “Spring Uprising, a campaign that concludes May 2 with the occupation of hundreds of schools and universities around the world.
This is what climate protest looks like as atmospheric carbon edges past 422 parts per million.
Amid the deepening crisis and a sclerotic response from government and industry, direct-action groups such as End Fossil: Occupy!, Extinction Rebellion, Scientist Rebellion and Just Stop Oil are stepping up.
But this is not your grandfather’s Greenpeace, which pioneered environmental direct action in the 1970s. These young climate agitators are often loosely organized and spontaneous, making headlines by shutting down highways, gluing themselves to runways and hurling tomato soup at Van Gogh’s (glass-protected) Sunflowers.
Two months before the Spring Uprising got underway, Hollywood activists gathered in an unmarked red-brick building in Los Angeles for an auction of movie memorabilia and other items owned by Adam McKay, director of the climate allegory Don’t Look Up and The Big Short and an executive producer on HBO’s Succession.
The proceeds would be donated to Climate Emergency Fund (CEF), a nonprofit that is quietly financing the Spring Uprising and the new generation of in-your-face climate activists.
CEF was co-founded in 2019 by documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, and initially funded by activist and Getty Oil heir Aileen Getty, who wrote in The Guardian last year that “extraction and use of fossil fuels is killing life on our planet.”
In 2022, the organization awarded $5.2 million to 44 climate activist groups, including many youth-led grassroots outfits that mainstream foundations tend to shun. In September, McKay pledged $4 million to the organization.
“These direct action groups get by with so little that $4 million is just such a game-changer,” says Margaret Klein Salamon, CEF’s executive director and a clinical psychologist by training.
Salamon says the organization “only [funds] groups that engage in disruptive protests, but also restricts its grants to nonviolent, legal actions.”
From McKay’s perspective, the existential threat of a climate catastrophe — and the halting efforts to address it — demand this kind of mass civil disobedience, much as civil rights, anti-war and gay liberation protests ignited social revolutions in the 1960s and ‘70s.
“Incrementalism really becomes a dangerous, almost murderous game of delay,” McKay tells Bloomberg Green. “We’ve seen it for years and years, and I don’t think it’s a good-faith effort.”
“There’s a really simple thing we can all do,” he adds, “which is to shut down the mechanisms that are driving the destruction of the climate, in a nonviolent but very disruptive way.”
Taking disruptive direct action has increasingly high stakes. The emergence in the past year of CEF-funded groups like the UK’s Just Stop Oil, Germany’s Last Generation and Spain’s Futuro Vegetale — whose members glued themselves to a podium in the Spanish Parliament in January to protest livestock subsidies — comes amid a growing clampdown on peaceful climate protests.
Australia, the UK and other countries have introduced or passed legislation imposing severe penalties on nonviolent demonstrators. In December, an Australian court sentenced a 32-year-old protestor to 15 months in jail for blocking a single lane of traffic on the Sydney Harbor Bridge. (The sentence was overturned in March.)
“The crackdown on disruptive protests is far more swift and aggressive than the crackdown on carbon emissions,” says Clare Farrell, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion UK, which in January said it would temporarily cease disruptive actions in favor of building a broader coalition for climate action.
With the support of some two dozen other groups, Extinction Rebellion organized the four-day “Unite to Survive” protests at the UK Parliament this past weekend.
Farrell says Extinction Rebellion obtains most of its funding from individual donations, but grants from CEF allow the group to pay the upfront costs of organizing high-profile actions that attract public support.
“There’s not enough funders, in my view, like Climate Emergency Fund, who are intentionally funding frontline boots on the ground, the people who show up, the people who take risks,” she says.
CEF, for instance, has been Just Stop Oil’s majority funder since the group formed last year, though Just Stop Oil is now also raising small donations to diversify its finances, says spokesperson Mel Carrington.
The organization’s activists have attracted global attention — and outrage — for interrupting sporting events, throwing food on priceless artworks and gluing themselves to walls.
Carrington says those tactics have proved far more successful in generating awareness of Just Stop Oil’s demands than when it blockaded an oil terminal in the UK last year.
“What we’ve seen is that when we go and disrupt fossil fuel infrastructure for days on end, it gets no press coverage whatsoever,” she says. “But then we go and jump on a snooker table… and it’s front-page news.”
In the UK this week, Just Stop Oil began a series of disruptive “slow marches” — parading through public streets — to call for an end to government licensing of fossil fuel projects.
“We’re now in a situation where an entirely legal march on the public highway is more or less a radical act,” says Carrington. “Slow marching has a long and honorable tradition amongst civil resistance organizations and it’s something that anyone can get involved in.”
Salamon says CEF generally doesn’t advise its grant recipients on strategy, but helps young activists with the nuts and bolts of building an organization, including fundraising and budgeting.
It can also move quickly to fund climate actions. When five teenage and twentysomething climate activists staged a hunger strike outside the White House in October 2021 to press the Biden administration on climate legislation, they financed the protest on their credit cards. Then CEF stepped in unbidden with a $20,000 donation.
CEF itself relies on funding from individuals, family offices and foundations. In 2022, more than 2,000 donors supported the group, including Disney heir and activist Abigail Disney and actor Jeremy Strong, who plays Kendall Roy on Succession, according to its annual report.
McKay’s $4 million pledge helped CEF quadruple the total value of grants issued to climate activists between 2021 and 2022.
Political scientist Reed Kurtz, a lecturer at Purdue University who studies radical climate action, says the growing number of direct-action groups is a result of “increasing recognition that the very same actors and institutions that created this crisis are incapable of resolving it.”
He says organizations like CEF play a key role as “obviously, mainstream environmental groups are not going to fund these direct-action groups, particularly the more youth-led groups.”
At the same time, Kurtz says, “My sense is that Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil overestimate the symbolic value of these actions and underestimate the value of targeting fossil fuel infrastructure. How does throwing paint on a painting translate into keeping fossil fuels in the ground?”
On this point, Salamon argues that museum protests and other controversial actions are needed to break through in the media, which helps activists mobilize political support to stop fossil fuel development.
“They hacked the broken media ecosystem in a way that got the Just Stop Oil Message out to millions of people,” she says. “The narrative of climate activists targeting fossil fuel infrastructure just doesn’t get covered.”
Farrell at Extinction Rebellion says there are also signs the movement is broadening, pointing to a new UK group called Lawyers Are Responsible, whose members pledge not to represent fossil fuel interests or prosecute peaceful climate protestors.
She is also seeing more mainstream, David Attenborough-type environmentalists increasingly willing to take action beyond donating to their favorite green charity.
“They might not be ready to glue themselves to the motorway,” Farrell says. “But they’re certainly ready to get off their sofa and stop clicking on things and go and actually do something in the real world.”
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