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Throwing food on artwork in climate protests may backfire, study finds

High-profile climate protests like throwing soup or cake at famous paintings makes the public — Democrats and Republicans alike — less likely to support climate action

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Two protesters who have thrown tinned soup at Vincent Van Gogh’s famous 1888 work “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London.

Two protesters who have thrown tinned soup at Vincent Van Gogh’s famous 1888 work “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London.

Just Stop Oil via Associated Press

High-profile climate protests like throwing soup or cake at famous paintings makes the public — Democrats and Republicans alike — less likely to support climate action, a new study from the University of Pennsylvania found.

Shawn Patterson Jr. and Michael E. Mann conducted this survey in response to recent high-profile protests. In recent months, two people glued their hands to Van Gogh’s painting “Peach Trees in Blossom,” the “Mona Lisa” was smeared with cake and activists threw Heinz soup on Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.”

While these protests were widely covered by the press and drew social media attention, Patterson and Mann’s survey suggests that these types of protests may actually make the public less likely to support climate action. Whether Democrat or Republican, Patterson and Mann found that a plurality of respondents said that these forms of protest made them less likely to support climate action.

An overall 46% of the public said these protests made them less sympathetic to the cause. The survey also found that people’s perceptions of climate change did not shift as a result of the protests.

According to Pew Research, the majority of Americans (66%) believe that the U.S. is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change. While there is a significant political difference between Democrats and Republicans regarding personal efforts to reduce climate change effects, reducing effects of climate change has bipartisan support.

In a recent opinion essay for the Deseret News, Benji Backer called the protests “performative” and criticized the group behind several of them, Just Stop Oil, saying that the U.S. isn’t in a position to stop using fossil fuels and that the activists have less nuance in their messaging than the stated positions on their website. He wrote, “While Just Stop Oil activists may have the right intentions, their message sends all the wrong signals. Climate activists should be willing to work with industry to have the cleanest practices possible while still providing much needed energy to the world.”

Writing for The Guardian, Andy Beckett defended the disruptive protests, saying that criticisms of the group were distracting from their purpose. He said, “Underlying all these criticisms is a strong but unstated desire not to engage with the activists’ main argument: that the climate emergency is so huge and urgent that modest changes to our lifestyles and conventional political action ... are no longer enough.”

Mann told Yahoo News that questions around support for these protests differ from the general question of whether or not people support nonviolent protests. “But it doesn’t capture the very off-putting nature of the recent simulated art defacement actions, which seem to cause widespread revulsion by a large cross section of the public, in part because there’s no logic or connection there,” Mann said. “People wonder, what did Van Gogh do to deserve this wrath?”

Even though Mann said that he believes that young activists’ “hearts are in the right place,” he believes that they should choose “actions where the targets make more sense.”