Lena Nicoletti is a first-year student studying International Social and Political Studies with a specialism in law and Japanese as her major language. She has interned at the Superior Court of Santa Clara County in California and the District Court of Mayen in Germany.
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the opinions of its author(s). They do not represent the views of UCL's Diplomacy Society, Diplomacy Review nor The Diplomat.
On 20 November 2023, the United Nations published its annual Emissions Gap Report. The report is damning – it shows that even if countries successfully enacted only the unconditional Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of the Paris Climate Agreement (PCA), the world will face a temperature rise of between 2.5 and 2.9ºC. There is broad scientific consensus that an increase of 3ºC above pre-industrial levels marks a tipping point at which destruction of and damage to our climate becomes irreversible. The UN report states that in order to limit global warming to 1.5ºC, which is the ultimate goal of the PCA, global emissions would have to be cut by a staggering 42%. Considering that global emissions reached a record high just last year, this goal is unlikely to be realized by 2030.
Though these figures are dire, the urgent need for comprehensive climate action has been common knowledge for some years now. Many climate activists and groups, such as Fridays for Future, have long advocated for curbing the global temperature rise in line with the PCA.
Among these groups is The Last Generation (Die Letzte Generation) – most famous for gluing themselves to pavement and stopping traffic to raise awareness for the climate crisis. Just Stop Oil is another group which has taken disruptive protests to the next level, notably by throwing soup at a Van Gogh painting and – an example near and dear to UCL – spray-painting the Portico pillars orange.
There is no doubt that Just Stop Oil and The Last Generation have been successful in attracting vast amounts of media attention. Still, we may ask ourselves: is this an effective way to protest? In light of the UN report which highlights the distinct urgency of addressing the climate crisis, are Just Stop Oil and The Last Generation helping or hurting the youth climate movement?
First of all, it may be helpful to explore what principally constitutes a successful protest. By definition, a protest which aims to change social conditions or policy must be disruptive. Otherwise, it does not challenge the existing power paradigm in any way. If a message can be easily accommodated within a certain system, this means that, fundamentally, it does not threaten to change the existing system. Therefore, the protest cannot achieve its goal. Put it this way: no one in history has ever achieved longstanding, fundamental social or political change by asking meekly and quietly.
Equally, protest which attracts vast amounts of negative attention, or even debates about its legality, must be questioned in regards to its effectiveness. Protests by Just Stop Oil and The Last Generation may draw attention to the impending threat of climate change, but have they substantively achieved anything? The UN report 2023 rather grimly suggests: no. Not only has there been an increase in emissions from 2021 to 2022, but there is no indication that a single government has reacted directly to the demands of these groups, other than to debate potentially prosecuting them.
Perhaps even worse than not helping, many argue that Just Stop Oil and The Last Generation are actively hurting the climate activists’ movement. For instance, in Germany, the
term “Klimakleber” – meaning “climate glue” – has become a running joke for what is perceived by some to be a ridiculous and perhaps even nonsensical means of protesting. In fact, the word is so widely used that “Klimakleber” has its own Wikipedia page.
However, a silly joke does not tell the whole story. The transpiring grievances towards and annoyance with disruptive climate protests have resulted in the emergence of hateful rhetoric and increasingly violent actions towards the protestors. A brief social media search will reveal thousands upon thousands of comments labeling The Last Generation as “the downfall of civilization” and “domestic terrorists” who are deserving of violence and even murder. Though frustration and grievances may well result from blocked streets during rush hour, death threats directed at and assault of protestors are blatantly unacceptable. It is deeply disturbing to see widespread backlash over a movement geared towards saving the planet and our collective futures – though the means through which this is being advocated for may be questioned – whilst openly bigoted and malicious far-right movements, such as the “English Defense League,” are rarely criticised en masse with the same vigor.
As such, we might ask ourselves whether those calling for the detainment of climate protestors truly care about climate justice, or whether they use the controversial means of protesting as a convenient pretext to criticize a movement they are already opposed to. It is notable that those who scream the loudest following a protest of The Last Generation or Just Stop Oil are markedly silent when a climate catastrophe occurs. If this is the case, engaging in long-winded discussions about the validity of these protests is a grave error – instead, our focus should be on the demands of the protestors in light of the impending climate catastrophe facing our planet.
On the whole, it seems less important to position ourselves in the debate about Just Stop Oil and The Last Generation than to engage in whatever climate advocacy each of us can. Whatever our view of these groups may be, action must be at the forefront of our minds when discussing climate change. We should be debating how to effectuate change, rather more than how to advocate for said change. Put simply, things are so dire that we cannot afford to sit around, having high-brow discussions about the morality of protesting – especially when these discussions are often in bad faith, instigated by people not genuinely concerned about the climate in the first place. The UN report 2023 clearly demonstrates that we simply do not have the time for this.
So the next time you read a headline involving a “Klimakleber” protest, direct your anger not at the protestors on the street, but at the politicians in their offices who have the power to save our futures and actively choose not to.