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Why activists are targeting famous art to protest climate change


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Finally, tonight, activists are turning to a new form of protest to call attention to the climate crisis. Over the past few months climate protests have targeted, priceless works of art making for viral moments that grab attention. But is the message getting through. Tonight, we look at how these polarizing protests could be both helping and hurting the fight against climate change.

Visitors at the National Gallery in London stood stunned as two young activists glued themselves beneath an exhibit of Vincent van Gogh's sunflowers.

No Name Given: What is worth more, art or life? Is it worth more than food, worth more than justice?

Geoff Bennett: The protest went viral making international headlines. The environmental activists demand no new oil or gas licenses from the British government. Emma Brown, a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil, the group responsible says the shock factor is intentional.

Emma Brown, Spokesperson, Just Stop Oil: There is that moment of smugglers security and that kind of outrage that people feel is justified. It is shocking what we're doing. If we take action that people can ignore, you know, so if we stood in a park somewhere with some placards, and people didn't know about it, it didn't disturb them. They didn't even hear about it. That would be a completely ineffective form of protest.

Geoff Bennett: And these protesters are not alone, in the Australian capital of Canberra, activists scrawled blue marker across an Andy Warhol painting.

No Name Given: We're in a climate emergency.

Geoff Bennett: Outside Berlin, protesters flashed mashed potatoes across the work of Claude Monet.

And in Paris, one of the world's most famous artworks, the Mona Lisa smeared with cake. Each time bystanders were left in disbelief and headlines followed. But in the media coverage, most of the protests were reduced to acts of vandalism.

Emma Brown: I think is interesting because that artwork was not vandalized, it had a sheet of glass on it. So really what everyone was becoming so outraged about was a bit of soup thrown on a piece of glass. And unfortunately, there's no pane of glass protecting the life support systems that we need to survive, you know. There's no pane of glass protecting the people in Pakistan from the devastating flooding. There's no pane of glass protecting the 146 million people in Africa that are suffering like drought related starvation.

Geoff Bennett: Bill McKibben is an author and environmental activist who founded the organization's Third Act in He says the previous climate protests have been different. He understands the underlying message and these new demonstrations.

Bill McKibben, Founder, Third Act: We live in an incredibly beautiful world filled with almost unbelievable treasures, and we are desecrating and destroying those treasures every hour of every day. It doesn't seem in that context, quite so shocking, that people decide that they might throw a can of soup on the glass pane over a painting. I think it's way to try and get people to understand that much larger desecration that's underway. If you don't like one kind of protest and figure out another because left to its own devices, inertia and vested interest are going to win this existential fight.

No Name Given: Millions of people are dying.

Geoff Bennett: Others in the climate space questioned the effectiveness of these recent protests.

Michael Mann, University of Pennsylvania: Who's the target? Is it Vincent van Gogh? What did he do to create the climate crisis?

Geoff Bennett: Michael Mann is an author, professor and climate scientist who studies the effectiveness of climate communication.

Michael Mann: There just wasn't a sensible connection. The headline, you know, would say, you know, protesters throw soup on van Gogh's Sunflowers. Only if you got to paragraph six, did you learn that the painting wasn't actually damaged.

Geoff Bennett: In two recent surveys conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, Mann found that the protests set back public support for climate causes across the board.

Michael Mann: It played poorly with independents who were sort of a key swing vote in winning over more support for more aggressive climate action, and play bad with Democrats. Even people who are sort of generally overwhelmingly on board with climate action, it turned them off, even if they knew that the painting was preserved.

Geoff Bennett: But some scholars in the environmental justice field say that disruptive nonviolent protest has in some instances spurred dialogue and even change. Shannon Gibson, Researches Social Movements and Climate Governance at the University of Southern California.

Shannon Gibson, University of Southern California: We've had, you know, tons of examples in history of civil disobedience like these so they're drawing on predecessors for sure and I think that in some cases they are justified, right? We've had 30 years of climate negotiations and fairly little progress and they're saying we've done it your way for decades. And now it's time to be loud, it's time to be rally.

Emma Brown: We're going to be noisy. We're going to be disruptive. We're going to be uninsurable. We're going to be a pain in the ass until you listen to us.

Michael Mann: It would be tragic if these protests were instead driving people to the other side, to the side of the polluters. Let's make sure that the public is getting the right message.

Geoff Bennett: As advocates debate the merits of targeting great works of art to spur action on climate change.

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