Category: News

Michael Mann Receives Humanist of the Year Award

Originally published April 25, 2023 by Penn Arts & Sciences


Michael Mann, Presidential Distinguished Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science and Director of Penn’s Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media, has been named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association.

The honor, established in 1953, recognizes “a person of national or international reputation who, through the application of humanist values, has made a significant contribution to the improvement of the human condition.” Previous awardees include Anthony Fauci, Gloria Steinem, and Salman Rushdie.

“Mike is a distinguished scientist committed to truthful, open dialogue about climate change, stemming from his now-iconic hockey stick graph, which showed how significantly humans have affected global temperatures,” says Steven J. Fluharty, Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences and Thomas S. Gates, Jr. Professor of Psychology, Pharmacology, and Neuroscience. “In receiving this honor, he joins many others who have pushed boundaries in the name of improving the world.”

For more than three decades, Mann has studied human-induced climate change. In the late 1990s, he and colleagues mapped temperature changes for the past 1,000 years, determining a dramatic uptick around the year 1900—a jump that aligned with increases in the emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases. The finding, which pointed clearly to the part humans were playing in a warming planet, put Mann at the center of the climate change debate, a role he didn’t take lightly.

Today, he’s an outspoken advocate for accurate depictions of climate science in the media, actively debunking misinformation pedaled by climate deniers. His current research involves modeling climate systems to better understand what triggers an ice age to begin and end, how changes in climate are affecting extreme weather, and much more. He has authored more than 200 peer-reviewed and edited publications, numerous op-eds, and commentaries, as well as five books: Dire Predictions, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, The Madhouse Effect, The Tantrum that Saved the World, and The New Climate War.

Climate change activists claim responsibility for deflating the tires to ‘over 11,000 SUVs’

Originally published April 24, 2023 by Ben Adler for Yahoo! News

A group of climate change activists who deflated the tires of 43 gas guzzling SUVs in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood last Wednesday night told Yahoo News that they think their aggressive action is necessary to draw attention to carbon emissions.

“We’ve generated media coverage in the 17 countries we’ve been active in, as well as other countries we haven’t been active in yet,” a spokesperson for the Tyre Extinguishers, a grassroots organization operating in several countries, told Yahoo News in an email. “We’ve been featured in newspapers, radio, TV — we have generated quite a lot more media attention than quite a lot of formal climate groups.”

Tyre Extinguishers claimed responsibility for the vandalism in a Thursday post published on its website; it explained that the group was motivated by concern for the outsize greenhouse gas emissions of SUVs. The larger class of vehicles have been increasing in popularity and size in recent years, which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. is blocking progress in reducing planet-warming pollution from cars and trucks.

An SUV tows a boat on the heavily traveled 405 Freeway in Los Angeles
An SUV tows a boat on the heavily traveled 405 Freeway in Los Angeles. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“The group took this action to render the large greenhouse gas emitting vehicles unusable, directly preventing the outpouring of emission from the vehicles into our atmosphere which further contribute to climate change and air pollution,” Tyre Extinguishers wrote in a statement. The group was founded in the U.K. in March 2022 and is active in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and several European countries.

The activists believe that taking such forceful measures generates more attention than holding traditional rallies and marches and therefore has a greater effect on public opinion.

Some climate change experts have questioned the effectiveness of this approach. A survey conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania last November found that disruptive protests for climate action tend to make the public less supportive of the cause.

Following on a spate of incidents in which activists in Europe defaced the plastic cases of famous paintings in museums and blocked roads to stop traffic, the survey asked more than 1,000 Americans what they think of those tactics. The result? Forty-six percent said the activism reduced their support for measures to address climate change, while only 13% reported increasing support and 40% said it had no effect on their views.

Michael Mann, one of the world’s leading climate change experts and the Penn professor who oversaw the research project, told Yahoo News in an email that this likely means the public reaction to deflating tires would be similar.

The deflated tires of SUVs in Boston.
Climate protesters claimed responsibility for deflating the tires of SUVs in Boston. (Pat Greenhouse/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

“Based on our study, I would speculate that this particular disruptive action is damaging to support for climate action,” Mann said. “Just as with the actions that we considered (defacing or appearing to deface rare art, disrupting the morning commute) the target, rather than the bad actors e.g. fossil fuel interests, who are behind the problem, is the very people — ordinary citizens operating within a still largely fossil fuel-driven world — that we are trying to win over.”

In an email interview, a spokesperson for the Tyre Extinguishers, who declined to give any details about their identity, said that other evidence suggests that disruptive protests are a more powerful motivator for climate action. They pointed to a series of London-area protests in 2019 by Extinction Rebellion, a grassroots climate group that used civil disobedience tactics such as blocking streets and occupying monuments and an oil tanker. News coverage mentioning climate change spiked as a result.

The Tyre Extinguishers noted that polls showed a subsequent surge of concern about climate change among the British public. However, the polls did not ask about what motivated respondents and pollsters said it’s possible that the shift occurred for other reasons.

“Attention-grabbing protests actually increase support for climate action,” the Tyre Extinguishers spokesperson wrote. “The same was true of Extinction Rebellion’s protests in 2019 — it increased climate change concern to its highest level ever, despite lots of moaning from the political right.”

Ironically, Extinction Rebellion declared earlier this year that it would no longer engage in disruptive protests, while other groups responsible for the attacks on paintings such as Just Stop Oil have recommitted themselves to it.

Extinction Rebellion demonstrators
Extinction Rebellion demonstrators in Whitehall, London on Monday. (Jordan Pettitt/PA Images via Getty Images)

One segment of the public is certainly unlikely to look on climate activism more favorably due to tires being deflated: the owners of the SUVs. “You know, I’m all for taking action to save the environment, but I just don’t know that destroying people’s personal property or damaging people’s personal property is the way to go about doing it,” the daughter of one couple whose tires were deflated told a local Boston TV news channel.

The Tyre Extinguishers, however, puts the blame squarely on the consumers who have bought those vehicles.

“Ultimately, politely asking and protesting for these things has failed. It’s time for action, so there is little point in calming down SUV owners,” the spokesperson added. “They cannot be reasoned with. They know the climate science, yet they continue to own SUVs. The only thing that we can do is make it impossible or extremely inconvenient to own one.”

The Tyre Extinguishers hope that the threat of more eco-vandalism will deter people from buying SUVs.

“So far, we have deflated over 11,000 SUVs,” their spokesperson wrote. “This is likely to be an underestimate as people don’t always tell us when they’ve taken action, and we only find out because we get angry emails from a particular city or area!”

Newly planted trees aim to help combat effects of climate change

originally published here


CAMDEN, N.J. (CBS) —  As the Philadelphia region faces unseasonably hot weather Thursday and Friday, climate experts say this is a direct result of climate change.

Hotter temperatures mean more stress to people’s bodies, and scientists say that stress is felt the most in under-served communities.

It’s why dozens of people gathered along Dudley Road and Westfield Avenue in Camden Thursday morning to plant new trees in the neighborhood.

PowerCorps Camden, a group of young people who help tackle pressing environmental challenges in the area, was among several organizations that participated in the planting.

The group’s program director, Darron Thompson, said it was important for his organization to be a part of the planting.

“To plant trees, wherever, assists Camden with flooding issues,” Thompson said. “It brings more oxygen into the air, and it beautifies the area as well.”

Anthonique Murray, a member of PowerCorps Camden, helped dig a hole for one of the trees.

“I really love planting trees and flowers. That’s the best time,” Murray said. “I love to smell the flowers, and it’s different types of flowers. Some of them don’t have all the smells, but they’re really cool, and I like to get my hands dirty!”

University of Pennsylvania professor and climate expert Dr. Michael Mann said the new trees can absorb carbon emissions, which contribute to climate change and the new trees can help keep people cool.

“Especially when it comes to under-served communities, it’s really critical that we provide ways of adapting to some of this increased heat that we’re already seeing with climate change,” Dr. Mann said.

According to federal data, Camden has a total tree canopy of less than 3%, compared to more affluent areas like Cherry Hill, which has a 26% total tree canopy.

“We should have programs, in fact, that help incentivize this,” Dr. Mann said. “Especially in urban environments where people are already dealing with extreme heat stress from the effects of climate change.”

Murray’s glad she’s doing her part to help blunt the effects of climate change.

“For me, I feel happy because it’s not a lot of trees around the city,” Murray said.

Extinction Rebellion Shifts Away From Public Disruption

Originally published PBS on January 20, 2023

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

By Ethan Brown for PBS

On December 31, 2022, Extinction Rebellion (XR) — a UK-headquartered global environmental organization founded in 2018, known for acts of civil disobedience — posted a piece on its website with the headline “WE QUIT.” This is a good thing.

To be clear, XR isn’t quitting in the sense of shutting down. Rather, the group has learned an important lesson: Climbing oil tankers, gluing themselves to famous paintings, and tweeting that hard-working climate writers such as myself are trying to “delay meaningful action” will not inspire a single person to think more favorably about climate action. To XR’s credit, its webpost outlines a new strategy for the organization, one which “prioritizes attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks.”

It’s certainly frustrating that it took this long for XR to adopt these values. But — and I do mean this sincerely — better late than never.

XR’s original tactic of “civil” (but expensive, annoying, and sometimes illegal) disobedience hinged on the belief that a very small minority of a population can bring about change just by being loud enough. The XR website reads, “Historical evidence shows that we need the involvement of 3.5% of the population to succeed – in the UK that’s about 2 million people.”

Other environmental groups have referenced that 3.5% number too. It originated with Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth, who studied over 300 movements from the past 100 years, and found that a movement never failed if it could mobilize 3.5% of the population. If this actually is the case, these groups can contend that their environmental protests need inspire only a tiny fraction of the population to succeed, leaving them free to alienate the rest of us.

But there are a few problems with drawing this conclusion from Dr. Chenoweth’s research.

First, their data was limited to “maximalist” campaigns such as those which aim to overthrow dictators or achieve territorial independence. Because of their black-and-white nature, these causes are more easily termed successes or failures. Complex issues such as civil rights, women’s suffrage, and animal cruelty were not surveyed because their rate of success or failure is more difficult to determine. Thus, to apply the 3.5% rule to environmental movements would be premature at this stage.

Second, technology and social media have made it a lot easier to mobilize 3.5 percent of the population as compared to 50 or 100 years ago. Take for example the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which was considered a remarkable organizational success. Back then organizers managed to mobilize 250,000 people in Washington D.C. — a city whose population was 800,000 people at the time – by using only telephones and party lines. Compare that to today when a mid-level influencer can reach 250,000 people within an hour of posting a video on TikTok.

But third and most importantly, the 3.5% rule refers to 3.5% of the population protesting. Not everyone chooses to express themselves via protest. For example, in the summer of 2020, 67% of Americans supported the Black Lives Matter movement, but only 6% of the population participated in demonstrations. This means less than 10% of the movement’s supporters mobilized for public protests. And that’s not a bad thing for a movement — supporters can vote, donate, write, talk to friends and family, call representatives, post to social media, and take action in many other ways than taking to the streets. Without that large swath of the population engaging in alternative actions, disruptive protesters quickly become a fringe minority. (In fact, a 2021 YouGov poll indicates that only 19% of people in the UK hold a positive view of XR.)

Due to these fundamental misunderstandings about the 3.5% rule, XR has struggled not just with favorability, but also with positive impact. According to polling data from University of Pennsylvania researchers Shawn Patterson Jr. and Michael Mann, 46% of respondents reacted to non-violent disruptive protests by decreasing their support for efforts to address climate change. Increased support was the response of only 13% of those polled. Moreover, learning about the protests did not have a statistically significant effect on respondents’ views about fossil fuels.

The idea that annoying people into obedience was ever a legitimate tactic for the environmental movement is baffling. No rational person would disagree with the notion that a world with clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment is a better world to inhabit. Furthermore, climate solutions often have synergies with economic, health, justice, and national security goals. There will inevitably be disagreements on policy. But an environmental movement that follows science, embraces nuance, and fosters common ground could potentially inspire all of humanity.

XR may have a difficult road ahead as they attempt to form new relationships and, perhaps, earn back the trust of those they’ve antagonized. But as a climate writer whose calling card is cultivating common ground, I am encouraged to see XR joining our effort. I imagine building a larger coalition and not getting arrested all the time will be a welcome and rewarding change.

For more information, see the companion “Tip of the Iceberg” podcast episode here

Climate scientist Michael Mann makes a home at Penn

originally published by Penn Today

Known for his ‘hockey stick’ graph that hammered home the dramatic rise of the warming climate, the climate scientist is now making his mark on Penn’s campus, both through his science and his work on communicating the urgent need for action on the climate crisis.

Climate scientist Michael Mann joined the Penn faculty last fall. Ever since his research was criticized by climate deniers in the 1990s, he has “embraced the role” as an outspoken communicator around the reality of climate change and the need for action to address the climate crisis.

Perhaps you’ve seen him on MSNBC, CNN, or quoted in The Washington Post. Or you may be one of his 200,000-plus followers on Twitter, where he regularly and vigorously takes on climate deniers, battles misinformation, and highlights new science. You could be one of the fifty students in his first-year seminar on climate change science. Or maybe you’ve attended one of the events on his packed calendar, where he talks with politicians, engages with activists, and comments on depictions of climate science in the media.

Michael Mann has only been at Penn since last fall, but he seems to be everywhere.

The academic home of the renowned climate scientist is the School of Arts & SciencesDepartment of Earth and Environmental Science, where he’s a Presidential Distinguished Professor. A secondary appointment in the Annenberg School for Communication speaks to Mann’s passion for sharing science, combating misinformation, and raising awareness of the reality of climate change. And Mann’s Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media has offered a hub for lively debate and discourse around the topics of climate and the environment.

As he hit the six-month mark as a Penn faculty member after nearly two decades at Penn State University, Penn Today spoke with Mann about his climate- and communications-related research, how he keeps up his spirit in the battle against misinformation, and why he chose to join the University community.

What was your path into climate science?

I always had this curiosity about the natural world. That was true from a very early age. When it came to graduate school, I was studying theoretical physics and was very much on the physics and math track. It was only when I was halfway through my Ph.D. at Yale University that I decided that my heart wasn’t really in the problems I was being given to work on.

So I started looking elsewhere on campus to see what else was going on and saw that there was a professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, Barry Saltzman, who was using math and physics to model Earth’s climate system, and that sounded like a really interesting, big-picture problem where I could use the math and physics knowledge that I had to work on something that really matters.

My Ph.D. research focused largely on natural climate variability, not on climate change. And it’s only because of some forays that we made into the analysis of paleoclimate data proxies—like tree rings, ice cores, corals, and sediments—that the work ultimately led to these pretty deep implications for human-caused climate change—the hockey stick—and our findings regarding how unusual recent warming is in a long-term context.

Once we published the hockey stick in the late 1990s and that became this sort of iconic graph, I found myself at the center of the raging climate debate. And so it was this almost accidental career path that led me there, but, as you probably gathered, I’ve come to embrace the role and the opportunity that provided me to participate in this larger discussion.

You are known for being vocal and really taking on climate deniers. How have you found the fortitude to face that kind of scrutiny and even hostility in some cases?

I’m just glad I’m not a public health scientist! [laughs] I say that jokingly, but, in fact, you know, I’ve developed some friendships with scientists in in the public health arena who have been involved in the public messaging on COVID-19. They’ve been subject to the same exact kinds of attacks as the climate community because of the inconvenient nature of their findings to certain vested interests or to certain ideological communities.

And it goes back much further than that. Paul Ehrlich, Rachel Carson, scientists before me were attacked because their message was inconvenient. I consider myself privileged to be in this long lineage of scientists who have found themselves in that position. Understanding that historical context and knowing that there are powerful interests that would like to shut us up provides me with fortitude, absolutely.

Honestly, if they had let me alone I probably would have remained in the lab, spending all my time analyzing data, building models, and crunching numbers. I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. So in a funny and odd way, I thank my detractors.

Your research involves both observational studies of the climate as well as climate modeling. How are you pursuing those areas in your scientific work here at Penn?

The work we’re doing now falls very much in those categories. Judit Carrillo, a postdoc in my lab, is working on modeling the climate system. One of the things we want to understand is the factors that have driven the coming and going of the ice ages over the past million years, because it has implications for our understanding of this stability of the Greenland ice sheet and the Antarctic ice sheet today. There’s an obvious implication for climate-change impacts such as ice sheet collapse and sea level rise. But there’s some really interesting fundamental physical science to be done there as well, and that’s what we’re working on. My graduate student Chris Larson will probably be focusing on the specific role of the Greenland ice sheet.

Then with my other postdoc, Xueke Li, we’re continuing with a line of inquiry that began several years ago through a collaboration that I have had with scientists from Germany. That entails working toward understanding the impacts of climate change on extreme weather events and, in particular, some of the physics that we think is not well captured in current climate models that could be leading to an even greater impact on extreme weather events than the models predict.

One specific area of interest is nor’easters, coastal storms like the one that chilled the mid-Atlantic in early January 2018 and the infamous ‘Snowmageddon’ storm that left me holed in at a hotel off Rittenhouse Square when I was supposed to have given a talk at Penn in early February 2010. (Penn was closed down for three consecutive days and the interstates were closed.) These unusual storms feed off the relative warmth of oceans in winter and have some “tropical” characteristics. We’re interested in how climate change may be intensifying these storms, causing both heavy snowfalls and bitter cold temperatures from very strong northerly winds as the storm passes by.

In the past, journalists covering extreme weather events like hurricanes or other storms were careful to say that we can’t conclusively tie an individual event to climate change. Do you feel like that sort of statement is no longer valid?

Two summers ago I coauthored an op-ed in The New York Times with my colleague Susan Joy Hassol, the title of which is ‘That Heat Dome? Yeah, It’s Climate Change.’ In other words, we can now attribute events to climate change. It’s a statistical connection, but so is the connection between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer. The increase in occurrence is so great that we essentially attach a causal connection.

And when we say these extreme events wouldn’t have happened in the absence of human-caused warming, that doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t have been an extreme heat event—there might very well have been—but the magnitude and impact would not have been as great without the exacerbating effect of human-caused climate change.

What is the landscape of the research you’re doing in your secondary appointment at Annenberg?

We are excited to have just hired three postdocs and a research fellow in the science of climate communication to our center, in collaboration with the Annenberg Public Policy Center. We’re interested in identifying misinformation and disinformation and finding productive ways of addressing it. We’re excited about working with people like Emily Falk, who uses cognitive science to understand how ideas spread, and of course Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who, as the founder of, has really been at the center of studying misinformation and disinformation for decades.

Doom and gloom and despair are increasingly a real obstacle to climate action and, in fact, are starting to replace outright denial as the main obstacle. So understanding those influences is critical. We’re currently conducting focus groups with Penn students to better understand the underlying phenomenon of ‘climate anxiety.’

The new center has also been very active. How is it making connections on campus and beyond on the topic of climate change and sustainability?

We’re aiming to serve both the University community, but also the wider community in Philadelphia. Some of the work we’re doing touches on issues of climate justice that are very relevant to urban environments like we have here. And we’re trying to address the larger public discourse about climate change and climate action.

With our lecture series, for example, we’ve brought in people from the policy community like the former Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who is a political conservative but a climate advocate. We had U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse talk about the pernicious impact of dark money in our politics, with an emphasis on the obstacles to climate action. We recently hosted or participated in three Energy Week including an event with the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and the Wharton School on the importance of environmentally-conscious investment. We’ve also participated in previous Climate Week campus events. We’re trying to take advantage of the amazing partners we have at Penn by supporting interdisciplinary conversations about the climate crisis.

You’re also teaching a course on climate change. Is that focused more on the scientific end of the issue?

Yes, but I focus on how and why it’s critical to understand the science to appreciate the other dimensions of the climate crisis.

Just today, in fact, in class, we were talking about flooding and climate justice. I discussed a study by Marshall Shepherd, a climate scientist at the University of Georgia. He has done some high-resolution studies of how weather systems interact with the urban environment in Atlanta, leading to an intensification of rainfall in certain locations in the city. And guess what? Those locations are all low-income. It’s low-priced real estate because it experiences more flooding. It’s not a coincidence. Climate science can help us better under climate injustice.

Let me also note that this study that probably wouldn’t have gotten done if not for somebody like Marshall, who is African American and considered it really important to understand this. It underscores the importance of diversity and inclusion in science.

Can you share a little about the book you have coming out this fall?

Yes, it comes out in September and is called ‘Our Fragile Moment: How Lessons from the Earth’s Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis.’ It’s taking me back to my science roots. The last book, ‘The New Climate War,’ was very much on the policy debate, the politics of climate action, and where we stand in that battle. But, while the book is really focused on the science, I do take on the topic of climate doomism, something that has been weaponized by bad actors to lead people down a path of disengagement, to convince them it’s too late. A lot of good people have been taken in by that framing: It’s too late, we’ve triggered runaway warming and nothing we can do is going to stop it.

It turns out that such beliefs are based on misrepresentations of what the paleoclimate record tells us. So it’s important to understand the actual, best-available science and try to understand what it tells us. The paleoclimate record, if you look at it comprehensively, tells us that there is some resilience to the climate system, the natural mechanisms that tend to keep our planet within livable bounds. But it’s possible to exceed those limits. The challenge, now, is to stay within those limits—something that remains possible if we take meaningful action.

How does it feel to be at Penn now?

Frankly, I feel like a kid in a candy store. Penn is the right place for me to be at this point in my career, and not just because of my historical ties to the institution and the city (my grandfather, father, and uncle all went here). It’s because it allows me to bring all of my disparate interests together: My passion in still doing the fundamental science, but it’s also in communicating it and working with world-class people on the science, impacts, policy and ethical dimensions and communication challenges of the climate crisis. It feels to me that Penn is an institution that has collectively decided that it’s time to really elevate climate to the next level. It’s an exciting moment to be here, to be part of what I see as a University-wide effort to prioritize the defining challenge of our time.

Throwing Soup at Art Shifted People’s Views of Climate Protests—But Maybe Not In The Right Way

Originally published by Dr. Michael Mann for Time.come on November 15, 2022

Michael E. Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. He is author of the recently released book, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back our Planet.

In mid-October, a pair of climate activists from the group “Just Stop Oil” garnered substantial international media attention when they threw tomato soup across Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in London’s National Gallery. “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?” they asked the shocked and visibly distraught crowd of onlookers.

Now I have devoted much of my time and effort over the past several decades to the cause of meaningful climate action. And as someone who also studies what makes for effective climate communication, I worried that events like this could harm the cause to which I (and so many) have devoted my life. I thought about the way the event would be framed by the media—the viral spread of a terrible photo of what certainly appears to be the defacement of an iconic and priceless piece of art, accompanied by damning headlines of wonton destruction.

My fears were realized. Characteristic of much of the media coverage, the New York Times ran an article headlined “Climate Protesters Throw Soup Over van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’” featuring the offending photo of the soup-splattered painting. Only if you made it to the end of the sixth paragraph did you learn that the painting was protected by a glass pane and not damaged.

The public outrage was palpable. The reliably progressive Dan Rather, a consistent advocate for urgent climate action, opined: “It’s destructive to protest the destruction of our planet by trying to destroy beautiful art.” Activists complained that Rather got it wrong—that the painting wasn’t actually destroyed. But the vast majority of the public, who like Rather were subject only to a photo and a headline, wouldn’t know that. They would only see a damning headline and photo. That could and should have been predicted by the architects of the protest. I weighed in on twitter: “If you’ve lost Dan, maybe rethink your strategy folks.”

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Yet advocates of disruptive non-violent direct actions have argued that I and other critics were all wrong. We just didn’t get it! Our criticism was tantamount to attacking the youths themselves! Some compared the intervention to celebrated acts of civil protest by Gandhi and Martin Luther King (though conceding that a favorable view of the protest was contingent upon knowing that the painting wasn’t actually damaged).

But those actions at least made sense. Anti-war protests took place on college campuses among young people who were being drafted. Lunch counter sit-ins were protesting white-only policies. The painting protest, by contrast, seemed bizarre and pointless, with no obvious message about the climate crisis. Who was the target? Van Gogh? Oil paintings (get it)? From a communications standpoint, the protest seemed like an even bigger mess than the soup-splattered painting.

So was it? That’s what we attempted to assess using a recent survey of public opinion about this and other similar protests. We asked respondents three questions. First, does the public approve of using tactics like shutting down traffic or seemingly defacing rare art to raise attention to climate change? Second, do these tactics affect public beliefs surrounding human-driven climate change? And third, does the framing of these tactics (e.g. whether or not the art was actually damaged) influence that support?

The survey confirmed what many had suspected. The public, overall, just doesn’t like this sort of stuff. A plurality of respondents (46%) reported that these tactics decrease their support for efforts to address climate change. A whopping 27%, in fact, said they greatly decrease their support. Only 13% reported increased support.

Some might suspect that the negative response is driven by older, out-of-touch folks reacting negative to the actions of the “young whipper-snappers.” It is true that younger respondents (18-29) were less likely to decrease support (39%) than the oldest (65+) respondents (53%). But all age groups showed decreased support.

Some observers have expressed incredulity over the notion that a non-violent protest could lead someone who cared about the future of the planet to no longer do so. It’s just not rational, they point out. And they’re right, it’s not rational. Because people aren’t always rational. Presumably these actions, at least for some individuals, create an affective rather than cerebral response, generating negative associations with climate activists. And that negative association translates to decreased support for their cause.

Read more: The Selfish Case for Climate Justice

Given the political polarization that exists today on climate, we might not be surprised that Republicans reported the largest (69%) decrease in support. It is noteworthy however that even Democrats were more likely to report a decrease (27%) than an increase (21%). And independents, who might be critical in establishing majority support for aggressive climate policies expressed strong disapproval, with 43% reporting a decrease in support and only 11% reporting an increase.

The vitriol we experienced when we posted our findings on social media was perhaps not surprising given the anger toward critics at the time of the protests. But even academic proponents of these protests criticized and dismissed our findings, insisting the poll questioning was somehow loaded or misleading.

The reader can judge for themselves. We first used a baseline question to assess respondents’ views of the climate crisis, asking whether or not they agreed with the statement: “Human use of fossil fuels creates effects that endanger public health.” More than 62% of the respondents answered in the affirmative, indicating that the group was predisposed, overall, to be concerned about fossil fuel burning and climate change.

They were then asked: “To raise awareness of the need to address climate change, some advocates have engaged in disruptive non-violent actions including shutting down morning commuter traffic and pretending to damage pieces of art. Do such actions decrease your support for efforts to address climate change, increase your support for efforts to address climate change or not affect your support one way or another?”

By describing protesters as “pretending” to damage art, we granted them the benefit of the doubt; we informed respondents, a priori, that the art wasn’t actually damaged. If anything, that should have primed an overly favorable response.

Critics of our study quickly brandished another recent (online) poll in the UK that purports a 66% level of support for nonviolent protests. They insisted it contradicts our findings. But that poll asked “Would you support taking non-violent direct action to protect the UK’s nature?” It didn’t even describe the disruptive acts in question, which means respondents weren’t confronted with the negative imagery of those acts. Furthermore, respondents were primed to give a positive response by being somehow promised that these protests would “protect the UK’s nature.” Were that environmental protection was that simple!

It takes substantial motivated reasoning to accept the findings of the UK survey and reject the findings of ours. And unfortunately, just as with climate change denial, there seems to be way too much motivated reasoning on the part of proponents when it comes to the topic of disruptive non-violent climate protests.

And what about the issue of whether or not the art was damaged. Did it matter to people? To investigate if that mattered to respondents, we split our poll sample. Half the sample was instead asked a slightly different version of the question, where “pretending to damage pieces of art” was changed to “damaging pieces of art.” The results were virtually identical, suggesting—somewhat surprisingly—that knowing that the art wasn’t actually damaged was not actually a mitigating factor with respect to public opinion. It didn’t matter. Presumably, it was the “thought” rather than the “act” that truly counted.

So, do our results suggest that there is no role for non-violent protest by climate advocates and activists? No. There are bad actors and villains in the climate space: Fossil fuel companies engaged in greenwashing campaigns, plutocrats who fund dark-money climate denial and delay campaigns, makers of gas-guzzling vehicles, the list goes on. A public opinion survey earlier this year by researchers at Yale and George Mason University finds that direct actions that target the bad actors (e.g. billionaires who fly fossil fuel-guzzling private jets) garner substantial support.

But actions that subject ordinary commuters to delays when they’re just trying to get to work in the morning, or subject art gallery visitors to the unpleasant, wanton apparent destruction of iconic artwork, are simply choosing the wrong targets. They are alienating potential allies in the climate battle. And protests that simply make no sense at all when reduced to a photo and a headline—which is what the vast majority of the public will see—are potential public relations disasters.

The youth protesters have their heart in the right place. But the organizations behind these protests need to do right by them by being smart about the design of any public interventions. That means, among other things, choosing sensible actions and appropriate targets. If we are to win the battle against polluters and their enablers, we will need public opinion on our side not theirs.

Note: The survey was designed in consultation with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the founding director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) and founder of It was as part of a larger project examining public opinion on climate change and human health. The polling was conducted by SSRS, the same firm that conducted the late-breaking CNN polls that contradicted the “red wave” wrongly predicted by many other pollsters in the recent midterms. Analysis of the results was conducted by Ken Winneg, APPC’s Managing Director of Survey Research and APPC Research Analyst, Shawn Patterson Jr. (details can be found online).

Why activists are targeting famous art to protest climate change

Originally published by PBS News WHYY

December 10, 2022

Over the past few months, activists have targeted priceless works of art to call attention to the climate crisis. These viral moments are grabbing attention, but is the message getting through? We look at how these protests could be both helping and hurting in the fight against climate change.

Listen to the full story here.

Activist attacks on famous paintings decrease support for addressing climate change, study finds

Originally published by Yahoo News

November 17, 2022

The recent spate of high-profile protests by young climate change activists, such as throwing soup at famous paintings in museums or stopping traffic on busy roadways, makes the public less likely to support action to address climate change, according to a new survey conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Republicans, Democrats, independents: In every case, people reported that these actions made them less likely to support climate action,” Michael Mann, a professor of earth and environmental science at Penn and a co-author of the study, told Yahoo News. “People are turned off by it, and as a result they’re less likely to support the cause of the people doing the protests.”

The researchers asked more than 1,000 Americans whether they approve of using tactics like shutting down traffic or gluing oneself to a painting. “A plurality of respondents (46%) report that these tactics decrease their support for efforts to address climate change,” the researchers wrote. “Only 13% report increasing support.” Forty percent said such protests had no effect on their views.

The study was undertaken after activists from the British environmental group Just Stop Oil threw tomato soup at Vincent Van Gogh’s painting “Sunflowers,” which hangs in London’s National Gallery. Two activists then glued themselves to the wall next to the painting and shouted, “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?” The painting, which is encased in glass, was not damaged.

Throughout October and November, Just Stop Oil members also have repeatedlyblocked traffic on roads and highways in London.

Protests targeting art have also continued. In late October, a pair of activists from the climate action advocacy organization Last Generation threw mashed potatoes at a painting by Claude Monet that sold for $110.7 million in 2019 and glued themselves to the adjacent wall at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany. A few days later, a protester at a museum in The Hague, in the Netherlands, glued his head to the painting “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” by Johannes Vermeer. And on Tuesday the group Last Generation Austria tweeted a video of some of its members pouring a black liquid on a painting by Gustav Klimt at the Leopold Museum in Vienna.

Although there is no direct connection between these works of art and climate change, activists have used the paintings in an apparent bid to raise awareness about rising global temperatures. But protests have drawn criticism from many in the art world, and even some in the climate community.

Last week, the directors of 92 prominent art museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, signed a joint statement condemning the attacks on artwork and asking activists to stop. Although none of the works have been harmed as of yet, the directors warned that they could be. “The activists responsible underestimate the fragility of this irreplaceable work, which should be preserved as a world cultural heritage,” they wrote. “As museum directors who are entrusted with the works, we were deeply shocked by their risky endangerment.”

On Thursday, art historian and climate activist Lucy Whelan wrote in the Guardian that throwing things at art is counterproductive. “These attacks feel part of a helpless careering towards climate chaos,” she wrote.

The University of Pennsylvania survey results bolster that case. The findings, however, were not the same across all demographic groups. Republicans responded the most negatively to these climate protests, with 69% of them saying they decreased their support for climate action, while only 9% said they increased their support. Twenty-seven percent of Democrats said the protests decreased their support, while 21% said it increased it. Among independents, 43% reported a decrease in support and 11% reported an increase.

The researchers found that mentioning to respondents that the painting was unharmed did not have a statistically significant effect on survey results. Neither Just Stop Oil nor Last Generation immediately responded to requests from Yahoo News for comment.

Critics of the Penn survey countered that a recent online poll in the United Kingdom found that two-thirds of the British people support “taking nonviolent direct action to protect the UK’s nature.” But, Mann notes, not all direct actions are the same.

“It’s one thing to ask people if they support nonviolent protests generically,” Mann said. “But it doesn’t capture the very off-putting nature of the recent simulated art defacement actions, which seem to cause widespread revulsion by a large cross section of the public, in part because there’s no logic or connection there. People wonder, what did Van Gogh do to deserve this wrath?”

Some climate activists have applauded the recent protests. “This is exactly the type of activism we need more of,” Andreas Karelas, the founder and of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization, wrote in an op-ed in The Hill. Comparing the climate actions to civil disobedience by civil rights activists such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Karelas argues that “nonviolent forms of direct action are the most effective tools we have to change society.”

“I believe the climate crisis has progressed to the point where we must take disruptive action to try to change course on a planet that is becoming increasingly unlivable,” Aileen Getty, heiress to an oil fortune and an environmental philanthropist, wrote in the Guardian.

Mann does not disagree that the urgency of climate change necessitates direct action. But, he said, blocking commuters or defacing artwork lacks the connection to the problem that, say, civil rights protesters sitting at a segregated lunch counter had.

“These young folks’ hearts are in the right place,” Mann said. “They fear for their future, and rightfully.”

But, he argued, they should choose “actions where the targets make more sense.”

“There are bad actors and villains in the climate space: Fossil fuel companies engaged in greenwashing campaigns, plutocrats who fund dark-money climate denial and delay campaigns, makers of gas-guzzling vehicles, the list goes on,” Mann wrote Tuesday in an op-ed for Time magazine. “A public opinion survey earlier this year by researchers at Yale and George Mason University finds that direct actions that target the bad actors (e.g., billionaires who fly fossil fuel-guzzling private jets) garner substantial support.”

Climate Actions Like Throwing Soup at Art Dampen Support for Cause: Survey

originally published by  Common Dreams

November 14, 2022

Researchers found that “overall, the public expresses general disapproval of nonviolent, disruptive protests to raise attention to the dangers of climate change.”