Are young people’s climate protests working?
Attacks on priceless paintings and works of art, highway blocks, obstacles to the construction of infrastructure, tunnelling: these are just some of the actions undertaken in recent months by climate activists, young people who fight against the indifference shown by the institutions towards the climate change.
By Gloria Malerba
Translation: Chiara Carra
At this point, we must ask ourselves whether or not the various protests carried out recently by climate activists are leading to an approach to the set goal.
Recent British developments seem to tell us no.
Indeed, the UK is in the process of debating a new bill developed specifically to criminalize climate activism. The bill, called the Public Order Bill, was proposed in May 2022 and is expected to come into force only for England and Wales.
Among other things, the acts criminalized by the law are: tying to structures with the aim of causing serious inconvenience to people or organizations, hindering the construction and maintenance of transport infrastructures and being responsible for the so-called tunneling practice. The latter consists in building improvised tunnels under the sites to be blocked, in order to prevent the police from removing the activists, barricaded inside; it is a protest practice already widespread in the 1990s, which poses serious risks for the demonstrators who practice it.
In order to condemn such acts, the law provides for an increase in the powers of the police, allowing them to carry out searches and seizures, with the prior authorization of a higher-ranking officer, even without there being a well-founded suspicion. Just as there is the ongoing discussion about the possibility for the police to block the possible expansion of the protests even before they develop. Likewise, an increase in penalties has been announced: from 6 months in prison for participating in protests, up to 3 years in prison for the most serious crimes, such as tunneling. Furthermore, there is the possibility of issuing fines that do not have a specified amount in advance, but this will be decided on a case-by-case basis. Finally, the bill provides for the possibility for the authorities to resort to an order for the prevention of serious incovenience: a measure which allows for restrictions to be placed on activists, not following a conviction, but as a means of prevention against individuals already involved in other arrests or protests.
The measures listed are certainly worrying, as it is feared that they may have an anti-democratic drift. The same protest groups, while not intending to be stopped by these new measures, have declared that they are frightened by the possibility that the government has of exploiting climate activism to question certain fundamental rights that should be guaranteed by a democratic state .
Still, these positions are far from unpopular in the UK. According to a recent survey, 53% of citizens are convinced that restrictive measures created specifically for climate activists are needed. If the objective of the latter is to make the population aware of the problem of climate change and, consequently, to push governments to implement measures to try to stem this phenomenon, apparently the means used are not working and it could be necessary a review of these proceedings.
An example of this could be the use of counter-advertising. This practice consists in developing parodies of the advertisements made by large corporations and multinationals, with the aim of contesting the propaganda messages conveyed by them. To do this, the images used by these entities are placed in different contexts and, in this way, their message is totally reversed.
This is what happened in the context of the European Motor Show, the car show held in Brussels between 14 and 22 January 2023. Some movements, such as Brandalism and Subvertisers International, joined the environmental group Extinction Rebellion and, together , have created and disseminated in various European countries signs imitating the advertising campaigns of various car brands. The central element of the cartels remains a certain car, but this is placed in relation to totally negative messages. Although they were only advertising signs, which did not create any material damage to the car manufacturers present, the image of the latter was still affected. In fact, several companies have decided to respond to the accusations of the activists. For example, Toyota has emphasized that it has been working for years to try to reduce its environmental impact, just as BMW has established that eco-sustainability is one of the central values that the group pursues.
Therefore, it is true that, to be effective, protests must always be strong enough to stir the consciences of individuals and governments. Still, it seems that more radical doesn’t necessarily mean better. It is necessary to find a way to get as many people as possible to approach the issue and not the other way around, because only by increasing the awareness of all individuals will it be possible to stop the anti-environmental drift of recent years.