From tomato soup to fossil fuel divestment: why the youth climate movement is changing

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Climate protesters hold a protest as they throw cans of tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ at the National Gallery in London, UK, October 14, 2022. Credit: Just Stop Oil /Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Andrew Chu had, of course, heard about the tomato soup incident. Who does not have?

Last week, two irreverent young climate activists walked into the National Gallery in London and splashed tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s famous ‘Sunflowers’ painting. The publicity stunt, they said, was intended to draw attention to society’s current complacency in the face of global warming, and the painting itself was undamaged due to its glass covering.

But while the moment quickly caught international attention, Chu was busy with his own act of defiance, despite spending most of it under the media radar. Last Wednesday, the Harvard University freshman joined dozens of other students to disrupt an on-campus ExxonMobil recruiting event aimed at attracting future Harvard graduates to careers in the fossil fuel industry. The previous day, a separate protest organized by a dozen Brown University students targeted a similar Exxon event at that college.

The protests were part of a growing movement among students demanding that their schools cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry over its continued role in fueling the climate crisis. And while Chu’s protest didn’t make the same kind of splash as the London publicity stunt, the growing pressure students are putting on their educational institutions to play an active role in the fight against global warming could have significant and lasting ramifications for efforts to curb the rise. greenhouse gas emissions.

In the past two years alone, a surge of student pressure has prompted at least 20 colleges and universities across the United States to pledge to divest from their fossil fuel endowments. That includes the massive $42 billion endowment of Harvard University, which last year held about $838 million in fossil fuel assets. Globally, colleges and universities with more than $6 trillion in investment power have made similar pledges, according to a list maintained by environmental groups.

Emboldened by those victories, students have since broadened their demands, urging their schools to stop accepting money from fossil fuel companies and their interest groups to pay for research, and to ban the industry from promoting itself. or attempt to recruit students on campus. Students at five major US universities have also sued their schools, arguing they are in violation of a somewhat arcane law that requires colleges to invest in ways consistent with their “charitable purposes”.

“Relationships between oil and gas companies and universities are communicated through money, whether recruiting students for long-term careers or funding climate research,” Chu, who organizes with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, in an interview. “So it’s really important that we close those channels in order to maintain the independence of universities, to make sure that our research and our policy are not influenced by the commercial interests of industry.”

But the events of the past week, including the now viral incident involving tomato soup– also offered insight into the evolution of the youth climate movement since it exploded into mainstream public discourse in 2019, when millions of students around the world marched through the streets in what remains the biggest protest against climate change in history.

While the 2019 youth climate strikes helped make global warming an issue that world political and financial leaders could no longer ignore, many young people have grown increasingly frustrated since then, feeling that their governments, their financial institutions and the wider business community have failed. to keep their promises to be part of the solution.

Climate scientists have said repeatedly this year that the world is moving far too slowly and incrementally to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst consequences of global warming by the end of the century. Some researchers are even calling on the scientific community at large to mobilize and risk being arrested on the issue. And research has generally shown that the vast majority of countries are not on track to meet their commitments under the Paris Agreement, a problem that has only worsened amid global inflation. history and the Russian war in Ukraine.

Even in areas where progress is being made, such as the massive growth in global renewable energy development that has been spurred by government policies, including in the United States, these efforts are being undermined by a simultaneous increase in the production of new fuels. fossils. The nonpartisan International Energy Agency said last year that development of new fossil fuels must stop immediately if nations are to meet their stated climate goals, but analysis released this month found that for every 90 cents spent on renewable energy sources, one dollar is spent. on fossil fuels.

Because of this lack of progress, we are now seeing the “natural evolution” of the youth climate movement, said Dana Fisher, a University of Maryland sociology professor and social movement scholar who focused her work over the past three years on the youth climate movement.

After the 2019 climate strikes, Fisher told me, the youth climate movement faced the same obstacles as all other major political movements, namely that vested interests fight to maintain the status quo and stifle progress for the kind of systemic changes that social movements often have. look for.

“What I think we’ve seen now is that young people are extremely concerned about the climate crisis…because the institutional politics aren’t working,” Fisher said. “You can say the exact same thing about the early waves of the civil rights movement, where you got some concessions” but haven’t gotten systemic changes yet, like “give black people the right to vote.”

In that sense, she said, the tomato soup incident and the growing pressure students are putting on their schools are examples of how members of the youth climate movement are “honing” their skills. tactics and, in some cases, turn to more extreme measures. In fact, Fisher added, the climate movement in general is now moving in that direction.

Chu agrees with this characterization. And when I asked him if he believed the 2019 youth-led marches had acted as “a truncheon” that forced governments and corporations to take the issue of climate change seriously, he also disagreed. agreement with this assessment. Unfortunately, he said, what followed was a slew of promises that turned out to be ‘green whitewashing’ – empty words from those in power to appease young people as they continue to win. money from fossil fuels.

“It forced many activists, including us, to rethink our strategy,” he said. “We can’t just use the club anymore.”

That’s all this week for today’s weather. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

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