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OPINION: Is radical climate activism effective?

Farrah Rodriguez

An image of climate protesters standing on a burning world by Farrah Rodriguez.

Political activism comes in many different forms. It can be violent, gentle or even a bit bizarre. However, activism in the climate space has taken on a new form as of late, with advocates protesting the lack of action on the subject of climate change by defacing historical art pieces. 

The attack on art is a relatively new phenomenon in the world of climate protesting, with activists making headlines by throwing soup at a Van Gogh painting, gluing one’s head to the frame of a Vermeer painting and vandalizing a classic Monet with mashed potatoes

This type of activism has many people talking. It’s new, it’s radical and if nothing else, it’s certainly interesting. But is it effective? As a purveyor of weird drama, I’m inclined to say yes, but I spoke with a few climate activists from the University of Arizona to get their take on the issue. 

In a conversation with the co-directors for Students for Sustainability, a student-run organization that promotes sustainability on the UA campus, Co-Director Samantha Wallace discussed her frustration with the food protests and their effects of obscuring the real directive: to raise awareness about climate change as a whole. 

Wallace said about the mashed potato protest, “now a lot of the dialogue is about whether or not they should or should not have thrown the mashed potatoes at the painting, which kind of distracts from the real issue.” 

This sentiment is not only shared by Wallace. Nicole Collins, waste-reduction chair for Students for Sustainability, mentioned that radical activism such as this won’t change climate policy overnight.

“Understanding that it takes time to do a lot of the things we want to do is important for not getting super frustrated by administration or people in the University not working with us immediately,” Collins said.

Yet, what we have seen so far in the realm of climate activism just hasn’t worked. Despite worldwide interest in climate change activism surging after climate poster child Greta Thunberg’s speech at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, not much has changed in the world of climate policy (although bonus points to the U.S. for the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act recently). Meeting the goals the Paris Climate Agreement set out — that is, limiting global temperature rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius — is still a long way off. This is unfortunately not surprising, but disheartening all the same. 

Climate activists have worked nonstop to advance their goal of making somebody, or anybody, listen and act. Arizona Divest, an on-campus organization working with the university to lessen UA’s enormous investment in fossil fuels, had a rally on Sept. 23 to make their voices heard. 

According to Ellie Standifer, community outreach co-chair and secretary for UAZ Divest, the hardest part about climate activism is engagement; in a conversation about the effectiveness of climate protesting, she told me that “you can’t make somebody care.” 

Perhaps a more cynical viewpoint on the nature of climate activism, but Standifer’s point is an important one on the topic of climate activism. Advocates for change may host all the rallies in the world, but they will go nowhere if there is a lack of interest. 

RELATED: OPINION: The Inflation Reduction Act is a big win, but we can still do more

So how do you ignite an interest in climate activism in a community? The answer might just be radical activism. Hurling food at historical art pieces is likely not the first form of protesting you think of when it comes to radical activism, but it begins a conversation that encourages anyone and everyone to get involved, which may help rally a community together to fight for something bigger.

In our conversation, Standifer underscored the community aspect of climate change.

“One of the really important parts of climate protests is that it shifts the narrative from climate action being an individual initiative to being a collective initiative,” Standifer said.

Community movements can inspire change, from college clubs advocating for climate action from their university to defacing art pieces for the sake of conversation. 

Climate activism, even in its weirdest form, is still worth pursuing because awareness leads to action, and action leads to change. The world can’t wait anymore for us to save it, and if that saving comes in the form of tomato soup, then so be it. 

Follow Sophie Applin on Twitter

Sophia Applin 
Sophia Applin 

Sophie Applin is the Opinions Editor for the Daily Wildcat. She enjoys reading, writing and having strong opinions.

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