Why Van Gogh’s Climate Protest Wasn’t Smart

meIn mid-October, a couple of climate activists from the “Just Stop Oil” group drew a lot of international media attention when they tossed tomato soup via Van Gogh sunflowers at the National Gallery in London. “Are you more concerned with protecting a painting or protecting our planet and people?” they asked the shocked and visibly distraught crowd of onlookers.

Now I have dedicated much of my time and effort over the past few decades to the cause of significant climate action. and like someone who also studies what makes climate communication effective, I was concerned that events like this could harm the cause to which I (and so many) have dedicated my life. I thought about how the media would frame the event: the viral spread of a terrible photo of what certainly appears to be the defacement of an iconic and priceless work of art, accompanied by damning headlines of wonton destruction.

My fears came true. Characteristic of much media coverage, the New York Times published an article titled “Climate Protestors Throw Soup On Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’” and features the offending photo of the soup-splattered painting. Only if you got to the end of the sixth paragraph did you learn that the painting was protected by a glass panel and was not damaged.

Public outrage was palpable. The reliably progressive Dan Rather, a staunch supporter of urgent climate action, opined: “It’s destructive to protest the destruction of our planet by trying to destroy fine art.” Activists complained that Rather was wrong: that the painting was not actually destroyed. But the vast majority of the public, who, like Rather, were subject to only a photo and a headline, wouldn’t know it. They would only see a damning headline and photo. That could and should have been foreseen by the architects of the protest. me weighed in twitterA: “If you’ve lost Dan, maybe you’ll reconsider your strategy guys.”

However, advocates of disruptive nonviolent direct action have argued that I and other critics were wrong. We just didn’t get it! Our criticism was tantamount to attacking the youth themselves! Some compared the intervention to the famous acts of civil protest by Gandhi and Martin Luther King (while admitting that a favorable opinion of the protest depended on knowing that the painting was not actually damaged).

But those actions at least made sense. Anti-war protests were held on college campuses among the youth being recruited. The sit-ins at the lunch counter were protesting whites-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 disaster than soup-spattered paint.

That’s how it went? That’s what we’re trying to assess using a recent public opinion poll on this and similar protests. We asked respondents three questions. First, does the public approve of the use of tactics like shutting down traffic or apparently defacing rare works of art to draw attention to climate change? Second, do these tactics affect public beliefs about man-made climate change? And third, does the framing of these tactics (for example, whether or not the art was actually damaged) influence that support?

The survey confirmed what many had suspected. The public, in general, just don’t like this kind of thing. 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 very decrease your support. Only 13% reported increased support.

Some might suspect that the negative response is driven by older, disengaged people reacting negatively to the actions of “young snappers.” It is true that younger respondents (18-29) were less likely to decrease support (39%) than older respondents (65+) (53%). But all age groups showed a decline in support.

Some observers have expressed disbelief that a nonviolent protest could lead someone who cares about the future of the planet to stop doing so. It’s just not rational, they point out. And they’re right, it’s not rational. Because people are not always rational. Presumably, these actions, at least for some individuals, create an affective rather than a cerebral response, generating negative associations with climate activists. And that negative association translates into decreased support for your cause.

Read more: The Selfish Case for Climate Justice

Given today’s political polarization on the climate, it may not surprise us that Republicans report the largest decline (69%) in support. However, it should be noted that even Democrats were more likely to report a decrease (27%) than an increase (21%). And independents, who could be critical in establishing majority support for aggressive climate policies, expressed strong disapproval, with 43% reporting a decline in support and just 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 the academic defenders of these protests criticized and fired our findings, insisting that the survey questioning was somehow loaded or misleading.

The reader can judge for himself. We first used a benchmark question to gauge respondents’ views on the climate crisis, asking them whether or not they agreed with the statement: “The human use of fossil fuels generates effects that endanger public health.More than 62% of those surveyed answered in the affirmative, indicating that the group was generally predisposed to worry about the burning of fossil fuels and climate change.

Then they were asked:To raise awareness of the need to address climate change, some activists have engaged in non-violent disruptive actions including shutting down morning traffic and pretending to damage artwork.. Do these actions decrease your support for efforts to address climate change, increase your support for efforts to address climate change, or do not affect your support in one way or another?

By describing the protesters as “intending” to damage art, we are giving them the benefit of the doubt; we inform the respondents, first, that the art was not really damaged. If anything, that should have set up an overly favorable response.

Critics of our study were quick to point to another recent (online) UK survey that supposes a level of support of 66% to the nonviolent protests. They insisted that it contradicts our findings. But that survey asked “Would you support direct non-violent action to protect UK nature?It did not even describe the disturbing acts in question, which means that respondents were not confronted with negative images of those acts. Furthermore, respondents were prepared to give a positive response by promising them in some way that these protests would “protect nature in the UK”. If only environmental protection were that simple!

Substantial motivated reasoning is needed to accept the findings of the UK survey and reject the findings of ours. And unfortunately, as with climate change denial, there seems to be overly motivated reasoning on the part of advocates when it comes to the issue of nonviolent disruptive climate protests.

And what about the issue of whether or not the art was damaged. Did people care? To investigate whether that mattered to respondents, we split our survey sample. Instead, half of the sample were asked a slightly different version of the question, where “intend to damage works of art” was changed to “damage works of art”. The results were virtually identical, suggesting, somewhat surprisingly, that knowing that the art was not actually damaged was not a mitigating factor with respect to public opinion. It did not matter. Presumably, it was the “thought” rather than the “act” that really counted.

So our results suggest that nonviolent protests by climate advocates and activists have no role? No. There are bad actors and villains in the climate space: fossil fuel companies involved in greenwashing campaigns, plutocrats financing climate denial and retardation campaigns with dark money, gas-guzzling vehicle manufacturers, and the list goes on. A public opinion poll earlier this year by researchers at Yale University and George Mason found that direct actions that target bad actors (for example, flying billionaires private jets that consume a lot of fossil fuel) gain substantial support.

Read more: Do you want consumers to make smart climate decisions? stop greenwashing

But actions that subject ordinary commuters to delays just trying to get to work in the morning, or subject art gallery visitors to the ugly and apparent destruction of iconic works of art, are simply choosing the wrong targets. They are alienating potential allies in the climate battle. And protests that simply don’t make any sense when boiled down to a photo and a headline, which is what the vast majority of the public will see, are potential PR disasters.

The young protesters have their hearts in the right place. But the organizations behind these protests must do the right thing by being smart in designing any public intervention. That means, among other things, choosing sensible actions and appropriate goals. If we want to win the battle against polluters and their enablers, we’ll need public opinion to be 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 factcheck.org. It was as part of a larger project examining public opinion on climate change and human health. Voting was carried out by SSRS, the same company that made the latest CNN polls that contradicted the “red wave” wrongly predicted by many other pollsters in the recent midterm elections. Analysis of the results was conducted by Ken Winneg, APPC’s general manager of survey research, and APPC’s research analyst, Shawn Patterson Jr. (details can be found online).

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