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.”