By Radhya Comar, December 20 2022—
On October 14, 2022, two young climate change activists threw a can of soup at Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” The two United Kingdom born activists, Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland, are a part of the group Just Stop Oil which aims to end the UK government’s continual support to the development and production of fossil fuels. The two also posed the question, “what is worth more, art or life?”
While climate change activists, art aficionados and average citizens around the world have still not been able to answer this question, all shared a feeling of shock. There was outrage at the defacement of a work of art that reflected the beauty of nature and gratitude for it. Others applauded the bravery of the two young people for creating an impactful metaphor — if we cannot accept the destruction of a beautiful painting, how can we accept the destruction of our natural world?
Yet, for those who have followed the activities of young climate change activists for years, the actions of Plummer and Holland can only be justified by the longstanding ignorance to their cause. They should not be perceived as right or wrong, but rather inevitable.
Arguably, the last time many experienced shock in response to the actions of a young person lobbying for change in the global response to the climate crisis was in 2019. At the United Nations Climate Summit in New York, a 16-year-old Swedish activist by the name of Greta Thunberg appalled the international community with her emotional speech calling out the empty promises of world leaders. Thunberg had only started protesting the year prior. She started skipping school to protest alone outside of Swedish parliament after watching a documentary about the worldwide impacts of climate change. As her cause attracted media attention, Thunberg made these strikes a regular occurrence by kickstarting “Fridays for Future.” Slowly, students across the globe joined her cause. It was reported, in November 2018, that more than 17,000 students in two countries had staged walkouts from school. Thunberg was then invited to speak at several international conferences and events, one of which being the summit in New York.
The summit was meant to address global concerns and inject new momentum into actions taken by countries across the globe. Thunberg’s speech was to be pivotal in this as she attempted to represent younger generations who will be dealing with the direct consequences of the climate crisis. “You have stolen my dream and my childhood with your empty words,” stated Thunberg. Many praised her for the profound emotion she displayed during her speech and the unreserved way in which she addressed world leaders. Others however, painted Thunberg’s passionate speech as hysterical and ridiculed her. One conservative commentator even went as far as to liken her methods of those with promoters of Nazi Propoganda. Her “disturbing” speech was also seen as counter-intuitive to the goals of climate change activists as it painted them as radical and overly emotional.
Despite the attention Thunberg’s speech attracted — both good and bad — her supporters were still disappointed with the policies that were initiated following the summit. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi echoed her sentiments but did not announce any plans to limit the use of non-renewable energy sources. Germany’s former chancellor Angela Merkel disclosed plans to end Germany’s coal-mining by 2038 — a timeframe many environmentalists believe does not reflect the urgency of action needed. Some nations, like China, did not announce any new initiatives to combat the climate crisis.
In the years since then, Thunberg has continued her activism but the inter-governmental responses to the climate crisis have remained fairly similar to 2019. Yet, the global warming crisis and climate change-related disasters continues to grow more dire.
As such, the actions of Just Stop Oil and their army of young activists cannot be completely condemned or praised. They only reflect the increasing desperation of young environmentalists as their complaints fall on deaf ears. Yes, it is fair to say that the actions they took on Oct. 14 raised much awareness for the cause. They shed light on the many new licenses the UK government had given out to drill near the North Sea. Yet, it is also justified to express anger over the near destruction of a piece by one of history’s most beloved artists. Many are right when they claim that art is a form of solace for common citizens and thus any attempt to destroy it is inherently wrong. Nonetheless, as governments continue to fail to meet their goals of lowering emissions and putting forth policies that take immediate actions against climate change, such instances of activism shall continue to persist and increase in both regularity and extremity.
This article is a part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.