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Soup, roadblocks and superglue: Understanding Europe's disruptive climate activism

World leaders are gathering in Egypt as COP27 begins on Nov. 6. At the same time, climate activists across Europe have been upping the ante with demonstrations. But do these attention-grabbing approaches risk alienating people?

As COP27 nears, some activists are upping the ante to bring attention to the climate emergency

Two protesters threw canned soup at Vincent Van Gogh's painting Sunflowers and then glued themselves to the wall at the National Gallery in London on Oct. 14. (Just Stop Oil/The Associated Press)

The annual United Nations Climate Change Conference — COP27 — is due to begin on Nov. 6 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. 

But as world leaders gather to discuss the climate emergency, the need for swift action is more urgent for some. 

Activists across Europe have been making headlines in recent months as their methods of protest have become more disruptive. Actions by groups such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion have included throwing food at famous works of art and disrupting traffic.

While such actions have drawn attention to the climate crisis, some have argued that these kinds of protests are divisive and risk stoking anger rather than encouraging awareness. 

On this week's episode of Nothing is Foreign, host Tamara Khandaker was given inside access to a climate protest with an Extinction Rebellion (XR) chapter in Berlin.

Urgency as motivation

In September, Khandaker met Gilbert Rossier — a supporter of XR's German chapter — during a protest in Berlin. 

While Rossier had been involved in climate activism for a number of years, it was only recently that he became more willing to involve himself in acts of protest. He says he lost his career as a teacher due to his activism, and that event led to him becoming more committed. 

Climate activists with the group Extinction Rebellion display a banner while one of them has his hand glued to the ground during a protest blocking a street in the government district of Berlin on April 6. (John MacDougall/AFP/Getty)

"This is a problem, it's even bigger than the energy crisis," he says. "You just can't do anything else: you realize we have two years, three years max, to really do what we have to do."

For Rossier, the urgency of change motivates his activities, in spite of the potential setbacks to his life.

Risks vary

Colin Davis is a professor of psychology at the University of Bristol. He studies how people respond to different kinds of climate protests. He also happens to be a climate activist. 

During his activism, Davis has been arrested several times. He argues that his experiences on the front line of protests has only hardened his resolve. 

"We are very constrained in what we do, not just by the law, but also by social norms, boundaries," he says. 

A person sits on the ground in RCMP handcuffs after the environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion blocked the road to Vancouver International Airport on Oct. 25, 2021. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"But when you get in the police cell and you find it isn't actually so bad … And that's kind of a reinforcement of one of the things about being an activist, which is that you are expressing a willingness to go beyond the bounds of social convention because of a commitment to the principles of what you think is right."

Yet still, some people who are passionate about these issues may not want to put themselves at risk.

Giordano Cioni, a member of XR, told Khandaker that some members choose not to engage with potentially illegal protests as they are more vulnerable in the eyes of the law.

"Some other activists in my local group, are not in a position because of their visa or because of whatever other reasons," Cioni says. 

"Some of them are people of colour. We know police are more aggressive towards people of colour." 

Because of this differentiated level of threat toward individuals, XR has a tiered system that designates activists at different levels. 

Public pushback

But the protesters who take part in these actions make up a tiny fraction of the climate movement. 

Despite pushback to recent more brazen actions, such as Just Stop Oil activists throwing soup at a Vincent Van Gogh painting in London, Davis argues these tactics are necessary where others have been ignored.

The annual United Nations Climate Change Conference — COP27 — is due to begin on Nov. 6 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Sayed Sheasha/Reuters)

"To be perfectly realistic and frank about the situation, so far, everything has failed," he says. "So it's not that there is some superior strategy that we're aware of and some people are choosing to ignore that strategy, it's just that we simply don't know what works." 

Instead, Davis insists that negative public perception is only dangerous for climate activism when it leads to more restrictive policing of protests. 

"It doesn't necessarily matter for the protesters if the public ends up viewing them negatively, what is potentially problematic is if this leads to greater repression of protest generally."

Nothing is Foreign, a podcast from CBC News and CBC Podcasts, is a weekly trip to where the story is unfolding. It's hosted by Tamara Khandaker.

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