By Shawn Patterson Jr. and Michael E. Mann
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 crowd.In light of these non-violent, disruptive protests the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) investigated the impact these actions have on public perceptions of climate change.
Over two surveys, we attempt to answer three questions. First, does the public approve of using tactics like shutting down traffic or gluing oneself to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earing to raise attention to climate change? Second, do these tactics affect public beliefs surrounding human-driven climate change? And third, do the framing of these tactics influence that support?
Overall, we find that the public disapproves of non-violent, disruptive climate protests. A plurality of respondents (46%) report that these tactics decrease their support for efforts to address climate change. Only 13% report increasing support. There are important sub-group differences in this measure of support – White respondents and Republicans were both more likely to report that these efforts decrease their support compared with Black or Hispanic and Democratic respondents.
Second, through a survey experiment, we find that priming these protest efforts does not affect respondents’ beliefs toward climate change. Specifically, we find that asking about non-violent, disruptive protests before asking whether respondents believe human use of fossil fuels creates effects that endanger public health does not influence respondents’ answers.
And finally, we find that these effects are not predicated on the framing of the tactics deployed. We find no difference in support for these efforts when we vary whether respondents are asked about “damaging pieces of art” or “pretending to damage pieces of art.”
These results shed some light on the potential effectiveness of efforts to raise awareness and support for climate activism.
Question 1 – Does the Public Support for Non-Violent, Disruptive Protest?
CLI1. 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 damaging 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?
[IF INCREASE OR DECREASE]:
CLI2. Do they (only slightly [decrease/increase]), somewhat [decrease/increase] or (greatly [decrease/increase]) your support for efforts to address climate change?
Figure 1 presents the distribution of combined responses to the questions above. A plurality of respondents (46%) say that disruptive non-violent actions decrease their support for efforts to address climate change. Nearly as many (40%) say that these do not affect their support one way or another, while only 13% say that these actions increase their support.
Figures 2 and 3 highlight significant demographic differences in support for these tactics. 69% of Republicans report that these non-violent, disruptive protests decrease their support for climate action, compared to only 27% among Democrats. It is noteworthy however that even Democrats are more likely to report a decrease (27%) than an increase (21%) in support. Moreover, independents, who might be critical in establishing majority support for aggressive climate policies express strong disapproval of the tactics, with 43% reporting a decrease in support and only 11% reporting an increase.
White respondents and men are also significantly more likely to report a decrease in support, compared to Black, Hispanic, or Other Race respondents and Women, respectively.
In comparison, Democrats are significantly more likely to report that these tactics increase their support for efforts to address climate change in comparison to Republicans or Independents. Similarly, Black and Hispanic respondents are more likely to report increased support than white respondents. However, in contrast with Figure 2, there is no significant difference between men and women in their likelihood to report increasing support from these non-violent, disruptive protests.
While a plurality of the population appears opposed to such tactics (46%), the public could also be viewed as indifferent. These actions only slightly decrease (6%), slightly increase (2%), or have no effect (40%) on individual’s support for efforts to address climate change for 48% of respondents.
Question 2 – Do Non-violent, Disruptive Protests Affect Views on Climate Change?
CLI0. Please indicate if you believe the statement below is true, false, or if you aren’t sure.
Human use of fossil fuels creates effects that endanger public health
To address whether these tactics effect people’s perceptions of climate change, we embedded an experiment in the survey by randomly asking the above question to half of the respondents before asking about disruptive protests, with the other half being asked afterwards. This allows us to test the potential priming impact of these actions on support for climate action.
To test this systematically, Table 1 presents the estimated effect of treatment (receiving the question about disruptive protests before asking the above question) on respondents’ beliefs that human use of fossil fuels creates public health dangers. The treatment indicator is a binary variable (treated or untreated) and the outcome is a five-point scale ranging from Definitely false (0) to Definitely true (1), with respondents reporting to be “Not sure” placed at the mid-point (.5). We control for pre-treatment covariates (age, college education, gender, party identification, and race) to account for any potential imbalance that occurred in the randomization.
As the first model coefficient demonstrates, while the treated group was very slightly less likely to agree with the above statement, the differences were not statistically significant. These results suggest that hearing about these protest efforts did not affect respondent’s views on the public health dangers of fossil fuels.
Question 3 – Does the Framing of Protest Tactics Affect the Levels of Support?
ORIGINALCLI1. 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 damaging 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? [Emphasis Added]
NEWCLI1. 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? [Emphasis Added]
The final question we address in these surveys is whether the framing of tactics deployed by these activists affects public support of these efforts. For example, The New York Times’ ran an article titled “Climate Activists Throw Mashed Potatoes on Monet Painting,” further describing it in the subtitle as “the latest attack on widely admired art.” However, it is not until the fifth paragraph that the article notes that “the food did not cause any damage to the piece.” This raises the question, does the public differentiate between “damaging pieces of art” and “pretending to damage pieces of art” in their views of these non-violent, disruptive protests?
To test this question, we conducted a second survey where respondents randomly received one of the two above questions. Was the public responding to the particularities of the tactics, we would expect to see greater support (or less opposition) in the “pretending” condition. As we can see from the distribution of responses in Figure 3, there does not appear to be such an effect. Respondents provided similar distributions of responses regardless of whether the actions were presented as “damaging” or “pretending to damage” pieces of art.
Overall, the public expresses general disapproval of non-violent, disruptive protests to raise attention to the dangers of climate change. A plurality (46%) report that such efforts decrease their support for their cause.
However, these efforts have minimal effects on people’s perceptions of the dangers of climate change. Priming these efforts had no effect on people’s belief that human use of fossil fuels creates effects that endanger public health. Moreover, the framing of the actions appears to also have a small impact – respondents did not differentiate “damaging” and “pretending to damage” pieces of art in their appraisal of such actions.
Both studies were conducted by SSRS on its Opinion Panel Omnibus platform. The SSRS Opinion Panel Omnibus is a national, twice-per-month, probability-based survey. All SSRS Opinion Panel Omnibus data are weighted to represent the target population of U.S. adults ages 18 or older.
Data collection for the first study was conducted from October 21-24, 2022 among a sample of 1031 respondents. The survey was conducted via web (n=1001) and telephone (n=30) and administered in English (n=1006) and Spanish (n=25). The margin of error for total respondents is +/-3.5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
Data collection for the second study was conducted from November 4-7, 2022 among a sample of 1025 respondents. The survey was conducted via web (n=995) and telephone (n=30) and administered in English (n=1000) and Spanish (n=25). The margin of error for total respondents is +/-3.7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
Analyses of the results were conducted by Ken Winneg, APPC’s Managing Director of Survey Research and APPC Research Analyst, Shawn Patterson Jr., Ph.D.