climate change

Throwing Soup at Paintings Won’t Save the Climate

Photo: Just Stop Oil/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Last week, a pair of British activists tried to galvanize action on climate change by tossing a can of tomato soup at a Vincent van Gogh painting.

The two young agitators belonged to Just Stop Oil, an organization dedicated to opposing new fossil-fuel extraction, largely by means of nonviolent civil disobedience. “What is worth more, art or life?” they asked shocked spectators in London’s National Gallery. “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet?”

Many observers rejected the notion that they needed to choose between preserving Earthly life and enjoying van Gogh’s sunflowers. Both in the gallery and online, the reaction to Just Stop Oil’s demonstration was largely negative. But the group is quite used to the public’s ire; it has spent much of this month blockading London’s central roads, much to the consternation of the city’s commuters.

In an interview with The Guardian, Just Stop Oil’s spokesperson Alex De Koning said that the organization did not wish to alienate people but that, ultimately, “We are not trying to make friends here, we are trying to make change, and unfortunately this is the way that change happens.”

De Koning is probably wrong about that. And his organization’s flawed theory of change is all too common within the broader world of climate nonprofits and philanthropies.

To be sure, Just Stop Oil’s work has its admirable aspects. The soup tossers should be commended for their readiness to subordinate personal comfort to the global good. When I was their age, the only cause I risked arrest for was getting stoned in public parks. And the action certainly succeeded in generating headlines about climate change at no actual cost to our collective artistic heritage; the van Gogh painting was behind glass, which caught all of the wayward soup.

And yet, it’s not clear that such headlines will do much to advance decarbonization at this point in time.

Awareness-raising efforts by climate activists may have paid some dividends over the past decade. Although it is difficult to isolate the impact of such activities, growth in philanthropic spending on climate advocacy has coincided with the fortification of an elite consensus behind action. That consensus helped persuade Democrats to prioritize climate change over competing objectives this year: Though Joe Biden’s domestic agenda shed myriad social-welfare policies on its route to enactment, the president’s proposals for green energy and technology made it through largely intact.

Yet there are hard limits on how much theatrical agitation against fossil-fuel extraction can accomplish. And the past year of high and rising energy prices has exposed them.

After the failure of Barack Obama’s “cap and trade” plan in 2009, climate philanthropists concluded that they had put too great a priority on technocratic problem solving and elite suasion, and not enough on seeding a social movement that would force elected officials to take action. But building a broad-based social movement takes more than the disposable income of guilty oil heiresses. And climate is an especially difficult issue to mobilize a mass constituency behind.

Those most immediately harmed by climate change are largely disenfranchised by their positions in space and time. Residents of low-lying island societies too poor to build seawalls know that climate change is no abstract hypothetical. But they also have scant power within the global order. Future generations of Americans, meanwhile, may come to experience the planet’s warming as a threat more dire than rising gasoline prices; current generations simply don’t.

Voters were reluctant to prioritize climate policy over competing concerns even in the era of relatively affordable energy that preceded the COVID pandemic. In a 2018 AP-NORC survey, less than half of working-class respondents said they would be willing to pay $1 more in monthly electric bills for the sake of combating climate change; when that sum was raised to $10 a month, opposition among all voters was overwhelming. That same year in the heavily Democratic state of Washington — amid a “blue wave” election that saw exceptionally high Democratic turnout — a carbon-tax referendum lost by a 56 to 44 percent margin.

This isn’t to say that American voters weren’t at all concerned about the climate. They very much were and are. In the AP’s poll, large majorities of voters favored government action on climate when the tradeoffs of such action were small or unmentioned. And among Democratic voters, climate consistently ranks as a high priority. But electorates have consistently failed to punish elected officials for presiding over rising carbon emissions, even as they quite reliably punish them for presiding over rising fossil-fuel prices.

In the present context of high energy prices, voters show little inclination to force action on climate. In a Gallup survey asking voters to name the most important problem facing the country, only 3 percent said anything to do with the environment, while 17 percent named “the high cost of living” (or variations on that phrase). Earlier this year, Pew asked voters whether they would prefer for the U.S. to “phase out the use of oil, coal and natural gas completely, relying instead on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power only” or to “use a mix of energy sources including oil, coal and natural gas along with renewable energy sources.” Respondents preferred the latter approach by a 67 to 31 percent margin, a result that evinces concern for balancing the affordability of fossil fuels against the reduction of climate risk.

The public’s tendency to prioritize issues that immediately and clearly impinge on their personal finances over ecological sustainability can’t be attributed solely to conservative propaganda, misinformation, or lack of awareness. For working-class families on tight budgets, an increase in the cost of gas or electricity has immediate consequences for how they live their lives. When the government fails to keep energy cheap, such households are forced to buy less (or lower quality) food, save less for their children’s educations, fall behind on mortgage payments, or shiver in bed at night. By contrast, when the U.S. government fails to expedite emissions reductions, such households experience no direct privation. The consequences of such a policy failure manifest in the future, and in ways difficult even then to perceive: Green policy can’t actually prevent the climate from getting worse, it can only limit the extent of the damage. “A marginally less unfavorable climate a decade from now (so long as India and China emulate our government’s policies)” is never going to be as energizing a rallying cry to the general public as “cheaper energy now.”

To their credit, the Just Stop Oil protesters evinced some awareness of this reality. During their demonstration at the National Gallery, the activists tried to frame their cause as a crusade for more affordable energy, declaring, “The cost-of-living crisis is part-of-the cost of oil crisis. Fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families.”

This argument is a bit more coherent than some commentators have allowed. The fossil-energy economy is probably more vulnerable to energy price shocks than a mature green-energy economy would be. But you cannot change the foundation of industrial modernity overnight. Eliminating the global economy’s reliance on fossil fuels for heating and electricity might spare future people from a cost-of-living crisis similar to today’s in Britain. But that is a longterm project. It requires the construction of wind and solar farms and transmission lines, along with the development of better technologies for battery storage and/or, more cost-effective approaches to nuclear and geothermal energy. In other words, it is not a solution that works at the speed of politics, which, in democratic countries, operates on short time horizons.

Meanwhile, we don’t need to speculate about what the short-term impact of realizing Just Stop Oil’s immediate objective – reducing fossil fuel production – would be. Thanks to years of underinvestment in production by fossil fuel companies, the Saudis’ geopolitical machinations, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we are already running that experiment. And as the protestors’ own rhetoric suggests, the results have been lackluster: As demand for natural gas has exceeded supply, Western Europe has been plunged into a cost of living crisis while low-income developing countries have fallen into blackouts, with millions of their people effectively priced out of the global gas market. This is a disastrous outcome as a matter of social justice; increasing the cost of home heating and electricity in low-income countries kills low-income people. And the consequences of the supply squeeze for the climate haven’t been wholly positive either: Because there is no lever that governments can pull to immediately manifest a mature green economy, scarce natural gas has led many nations to increase their consumption of coal, a more carbon-intensive energy source.

None of this makes decarbonization any less imperative. But it does call into question a theory of change that deems “preventing fossil fuel extraction” the primary goal, and “raising awareness” the primary means. It is possible that restricting fossil fuel supply will expedite green energy development and deployment in the long-term by making alternative energy sources more cost-competitive. But by itself, this is a very inequitable and politically hazardous approach to the challenge. It is tantamount to a carbon tax that generates no revenue, and thus, includes no mechanism for offsetting the costs it imposes on working people.

In sum: You are not going to make the typical voter in Britain or the U.S. more acutely aware of climate change than they are of their household energy bills. And in the absence of other policies, obstructing fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure risks increasing those energy bills, thereby creating political opportunities for the least climate-conscious parties and actors in Western societies. This does not necessarily make new fossil fuel development projects good. But it does make blocking them a poor priority for climate action, especially since securing the permitting reforms necessary for building the green energy economy may, in the U.S. context, require abetting some fossil fuel projects. 

In hindsight, the problem with climate philanthropy circa 2009 might have had less to do with its prioritization of technocracy over movement building than with its focus on carbon pricing over industrial policy. It is much harder to manufacture a mass social movement out of philanthropic dollars than it is to subsidize nascent industries with federal ones. And the latter strategy not only helps overcome technological obstacles to decarbonization, but also erodes political barriers: The larger the green sector of the economy grows, the more power it has to pressure the government “from below.” Creating workforces that owe their livelihoods to public investment in green technology, and capitalists who stand to profit off green policy, changes the political economy of climate in a way that astroturf green groups can only pretend to. Of course, green capital cannot be trusted to lobby for a just transition. Nonprofit advocacy groups have a role to play in helping marginalized communities make their voices heard. And organized labor is indispensable for ensuring that green jobs are good jobs. But industrial policies can change the politics of climate at a greater scale than nonprofits can.

Most critically, an approach to decarbonization centered on promoting the development and deployment of green technology reduces the tension between climate action and energy price stability, while activism focused on limiting fossil-fuel extraction does the opposite. This makes the former a more politically sustainable means of weaning the world off fossil fuels. If public policy can make carbon-free energy as cheap and broadly accessible as oil, fossil-fuel assets will be stranded. Contrary to the presumptions of a climate strategy that prioritizes “keeping it in the ground,” fossil-fuel infrastructure does not induce its own demand. When oil prices cratered during the COVID pandemic, refineries were abandoned.

Nevertheless, a large percentage of philanthropic climate funding remains dedicated to awareness raising and anti-fossil fuel extraction activities. Such activism is not wholly without merit. But its popularity with donors does not derive from its present necessity.  

There is little reason to believe that Just Stop Oil’s plan of attack is the most equitable and effective way of combating the climate problem. We need more climate-conscious young people to dedicate themselves to tackling the technological barriers to decarbonization and formulating industrial policies that erode the political ones. For the moment, it is less clear that we need more people to obstruct London traffic or throw soup at paintings. Philanthropists should allocate funds accordingly.

Throwing Soup at Paintings Won’t Save the Climate