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How radical should you be when you’re trying to save the planet?

“Die-ins,” Krazy Glue, and gridlock: The climate movement is embracing civil disobedience.

Protesters in a colorful crowd hold signs that read “planet over profit” and “choose eco, not ego” while marching down a New York street.
Protesters hold signs at the March to End Fossil Fuels in New York City on September 17, 2023.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

In the 2022 film How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a group of young climate activists get together to blow up a pipeline in Texas. The movie is fictional, but the book it’s adapted from is not. In the 2021 book, author Andreas Malm argues that sabotage and property damage are valid tactics to confront fossil fuel use and calls for an escalation in tactics.

We should “[d]amage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices,” Malm writes. “Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.”

Climate activists have yet to go that far, but they’re doing lots of other things.

Last week’s Climate Week events, timed to the UN General Assembly, drew thousands of protesters to New York. Over 100 people were arrested for blockading the entrances to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York while calling on financial regulators to stop funding fossil fuel companies. At the New York March to End Fossil Fuels, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told a cheering crowd, “We must be too big and too radical to ignore.”

Climate activists have heeded that call. In recent months, they staged a die-in at New York’s Museum of Modern Art to draw attention to a board member’s investments in fossil fuel projects, blocked the entrances to the Philadelphia-area headquarters of investment manager Vanguard, and dyed the water of Rome’s Trevi Fountain black. Demonstrators disrupted rush-hour commutes everywhere from Boston and Washington, DC, to Berlin and the Hague, and even snarled traffic on the road to Burning Man, creating miles of gridlock.

Dana R. Fisher, a professor at American University, studies climate policymaking and climate activism. Her forthcoming book, Saving Ourselves: From Climate Shocks to Climate Action (Columbia University Press, 2024), investigates this growing radical flank and uses data to explain the increasing use of civil disobedience within the climate movement.

Fisher spoke with Today, Explained host Noel King about what she has learned from spending time with activists and where she sees the movement heading. Read on for an excerpt of the conversation, edited and condensed for length and clarity, and listen to the full conversation wherever you find podcasts.

Dana, I think there’s a sense that climate activism is becoming more radical. Is that true?

Since the Biden administration took office, we’ve seen a growing radical flank, which is those people who are engaging in more confrontational and radical tactics around climate change.

These are folks who are doing something that’s against social norms, like, for example, throwing food on the covering of a work of art. We’ve seen people using Krazy Glue in all sorts of crazy ways in the past few years, and that’s become much more common, even recently with the activist who glued his bare feet to the stands at the US Open, as well as an activist who glued his hand to the lectern [at a televised debate] in Switzerland recently. Other types of radical tactics include blocking traffic and slow walking, which is a really interesting new tactic.

But these are all radical in that they’re outside the norm of the ways that the environmental movement and the climate movement have worked in recent years, which tends to be much more institutional and much more focused on working through the political system rather than outside of it.

I saw a video recently of some climate activists who were in Washington, DC, where I live, and they were blocking traffic. People were walking up to them and saying, “I need to get to work.” I mean, these people were really upset. Do these kinds of actions help or hurt the cause of climate activists?

The people who are actually doing this type of confrontational activism — which I’m calling in my new book “activism to shock,” and I use the term “shockers” to refer to these activists — these shockers are actually trying to shock the general public into paying attention to the climate crisis. Now, is it going to piss people off? Absolutely. And there’s lots of evidence of that. But one of the things that we know from the research is that while specific actions in specific groups that engage in these more radical tactics tend to turn off people, research shows that it does shine light on the climate crisis and actually draws attention to and support for more moderate groups and more moderate forms of activism. So in the broader movement, it may be quite effective, but for these specific activists and the tactics they’re using and the groups that they’re working with — and I know the groups that were blocking traffic recently here in DC — it’s completely unpopular.

Well, what would they say? If you asked them, “Was that successful when you guys blocked traffic?” Is the answer, “We got media attention”?

The answer, they would say, is, “Absolutely.” They really want the conversation to start with their activism and continue into the climate crisis. They’ll basically say, “We tried going to a legally permitted march, we tried carrying signs, we tried going to our elected officials’ offices.” And I can tell you from data I’ve collected that they do all of those things. And what they’ll say is, it doesn’t work. It’s not gotten the attention. It hasn’t helped change the conversation. But sitting on the street or gluing myself to the tarmac — when the media starts to talk about it, it helps us to start to have these conversations about what’s needed to address the climate crisis.

You spend a lot of time with these folks. Who is a typical climate activist?

Generally, the climate movement is very similar to the left-leaning movements that we’ve observed over the past five, seven years here in the United States. And that is they tend to be highly educated, predominantly white, and majority female.

Is there a type of person who becomes radical or becomes radicalized?

We don’t have a lot of data on the people who are engaging in the radical flank or participating in the radical flank. There’s anecdotal evidence, and a lot of the anecdotal evidence is people who have been engaged for quite some time and then became really frustrated with the lack of progress, and so started thinking, “We need to be more engaged and more confrontational to get more attention.”

Other movements have started out less radical and then radicalized over time, right?

In my new book, I actually talk specifically about the civil rights period and the civil rights movement, which was also this broad-based movement.

The civil rights movement started out as working through much more traditional institutional channels in the hope of ending Jim Crow and also to give Black Americans the vote. And younger activists or younger members of the movement got extremely frustrated with that and basically decided they needed to do more, and they decided to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience. So we saw sit-ins, and they basically would just go places and sit in and occupy and refuse to leave, which is nonviolent activism. It’s similar to blocking the street. In response to that, there were counter-movements that mobilized — we call them white supremacists today — as well as law enforcement, both of whom were relatively aggressive and in some cases violent against these nonviolent activists who are engaging in civil disobedience.

And it was that process that led to more radicalization of more activists because they saw predominantly Black young people being beaten up on national television.

But in addition to that, it also mobilized and motivated sympathizers to get involved in supporting the movement. And that is what a lot of scholars who study the civil rights movement say is the reason why the civil rights movement was successful, but also why we saw this big shift in policymaking in the United States.

I think that we could see something very similar happen around the climate crisis, but we’re going to see a lot more civil disobedience before that happens, for sure.

On violence, let me ask you about How To Blow Up a Pipeline. This is a book released in 2021 by the writer Andreas Malm. What is the argument that’s being made in this text initially that then gets adapted into a movie?

The nugget that’s still in this adaptation is about frustration with the process of addressing the climate crisis and the degree to which incremental change, which is all that has been possible through policymakers, through business efforts thus far, is absolutely insufficient to solve the climate crisis.

And then we go down this road of these young people who are going to literally try to blow up a pipeline, right, and why they’re doing it.

Right. So this is what I’m really curious about is, the book has the most provocative title in the world. It’s like The Anarchist Cookbook.

And it’s a beautiful orange cover. I’m looking at it right now.

Then it becomes a movie. And so, from where I sit as somebody who is not a researcher but a journalist, it’s like, “Oh, that has made it into the zeitgeist.” And so the thing I’m curious about is, when that book comes out, does anyone proceed to then blow up a pipeline? Is anything moving in that direction?

I mean, are there people out there in the United States and around the world who are thinking about how they need to form these eco-terrorist cells because the climate crisis is real and nothing’s being done about it? Probably. But I don’t think that they read Malm’s work and they said, “Oh, an orange book. Now I’m going to radicalize.” I think they were already there and they were already thinking we are nowhere near where we need to be.

The more frustration we see people having with businesses and the state and the government because it is insufficiently addressing the problem, we’re going to see more people who get fed up to the point where they mobilize. And the more people who are mobilizing, the more that radical flank is necessarily going to expand.

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