The Controversial Climate Change Movement: Why Peaceful Demonstrations Trump Extreme Protests


Mia Jong

Climate change activists faced public outrage after vandalizing a priceless painting at the London National Gallery and demanding that the government prevent the production of fossil fuels. Extreme forms of protest such as this have become increasingly common among advocates for climate action as they generate publicity. However, such acts only serve to distance people from the true purpose of the movement.

Vandalizing property. Shutting down traffic. Disrupting the public space. 

These extreme forms of protest are tactics used by some climate change activists to garner attention for their cause, but these acts only serve to turn public opinion against their movement. 

For instance, in October 2022, climate change activists from the environmentalist organization Just Stop Oil overturned cans of soup onto Vincent van Gogh’s famous painting Sunflowers, according to ABC News. In a media interview, the activists claimed the stunt was designed to generate publicity and spark debate. A public outcry of criticism quickly followed the dramatic demonstration, according to the University of Pennsylvania Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media.

This incident is part of a series of extreme activist protests that have drawn the media’s attention in recent years. 

Although extreme actions generate publicity for a cause, they erode public support and alienate people from the core values of the climate change movement as the public draws negative associations with climate advocacy. 

Dramatic tactics are often irrelevant to the true purpose of the cause. Senseless acts that do not correlate with the environmentalist movement’s ideals wrongfully target potential allies in the climate battle.

Instead of participating in disruptive demonstrations that stir a public uproar, climate change activists should strive to protest in meaningful ways that positively impact the community. For instance, an alternative solution is to peacefully protest social injustices. 

According to Britannica, peaceful forms of protest such as sit-ins do not disrupt the general public and effectively generate good publicity for the cause. Britannica reports that the nonviolent sit-in movement of the civil rights era was impactful because it evoked sympathy for the demonstrators and resulted in the desegregation of many local businesses.

According to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, the peaceful 1955 Montgomery bus boycott against the racially segregated public transport system in Alabama effectively led to political changes during the Jim Crow era. As a result of the boycott, the Supreme Court ruled segregation on public buses unconstitutional, eliminating barriers to transportation access for the Black community and propelling the civil rights movement forward toward its end goal of equality.

Writing letters to elected officials is another protest method that can be used to effectively raise awareness and accomplish the goals of the climate change movement because it brings the issue to people in power who have the ability to make change happen. Impactful pleas do far more to help the movement than extreme and irrational protests, according to the American Sociological Association.

Social media is also a critical tool for the widespread communication of climate action ideas. Social media activism creates opportunities for grassroots movements to take shape on a large scale. The #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements were brought into the public spotlight primarily due to the rapid flow of information on the internet.

Supporters of radical protests argue that protesting in an extreme fashion is likely to grab the attention of the media and bring about change, claiming disruptive protests raise awareness about social causes, despite generating bad publicity. 

However, researchers at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management conducted a series of six studies investigating the effect of extreme protest actions and found that the participants were more likely to develop an unfavorable view of the cause when a protest used extreme measures. The studies found that a social movement loses popular approval through disruptive actions, so bad publicity only harms the very causes activists fight for.

Ultimately, engaging in extreme behavior to garner attention for a cause is simply unnecessary. Instead, peaceful sit-ins, writing letters to people in power and social media activism are far more effective forms of influential protests that can push causes toward their intended result.


Sorry, there was an error loading this poll.