At a point where scientists are warning that sea levels will rise by five metres by the end of the century no matter how much the world tries to adapt to climate change; where a new COP 28 is about to try and unite countries over ‘solutions’ to what UN chief António Guterres has described as a state of ‘global boiling’; at the tail end of a disastrous year on so many levels, particularly with regard to rising heat, Portugal’s climate activists have seemingly ‘gone rogue’.
In a series of initiatives designed to draw further attention to the condition of our precarious environment, they have ‘glued’ themselves to road surfaces, à la Extinction Rebellion, protested inside of a short-hop plane; cemented up the holes on a Lisbon golf course; thrown paint over a priceless Picasso (luckily, protected by acrylic glass), done the same to two government ministers; and used hammers to smash the front windows of the headquarters of REN (the company running the country’s electricity grid) and Lisbon’s exclusive Gucci outlet.
Most people could understand the logic behind the protests on Lisbon’s south circular highway; they might see the reason that short-hop flights could be considered ‘lunacy’, but the leap to targeting golf courses, fine art and luxury accessories is not quite so consequential.
And this is where the country’s climate activists appear to have ‘lost’ their target audience – if not the plot.
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, Left Bloc coordinator Mariana Mortágua and endless commentators over social media have shown themselves to be unimpressed by the tactics that have already seen a judge deliver ‘jail terms’ to be circumnavigated through the payment of stiff fines and everyday citizens perform a citizen’s arrest (on one of the latest ‘hammer attackers’ on Gucci).
It is not that society is unaware of the perils of climate change – and the challenges it poses. It is just that there is a way of carrying public support; and a way of repelling it. And for reasons unclear, Portugal’s Climáximo and Greve Climática Estudantil movements seem not to have worked this out.
Following the attack on finance minister Fernando Medina last Friday (he was squirted with green paint but continued valiantly with his intended speech – even managing a bit of self-deprecation), President Marcelo considered: “There are other ways to fight, other ways of criticising.”
Constantly interrupting events; spattering people in paint; breaking windows “is not very effective”, he said, while the groups’ insistence to mount an intervention on an almost daily basis recently has “lost the element of surprise (…) The first time, second time, third time, you could at least say there was the effect of surprise. But by the 10th time, there is no effect of surprise”.
At the opposite end of the political scale, Left Bloc coordinator Mariana Mortágua showed similar antipathy.
“The world needs a large transformative movement,” she agreed, (…) “the question is whether these kinds of actions contribute or do not contribute to creating this large transformative movement; a great social movement that brings these questions to the centre of the political debate. I have great doubts that they have contributed to this kind of attitude,” she said.
Social media commentators have been less diplomatic, with most admonishing the activists for being “spoilt children” who should ‘stop behaving badly and get a job’.
But some of the comments develop the path that the groups appear to be taking – suggesting they “have a much more ambitious plan than simply protecting the environment.
“I made the mistake of going to their website and reading a bit about their ‘plan’ for the country,” says one. “This is a radical group that wants to intervene in all areas of society…”
Arguing that the climate crisis is ‘being used to push an agenda’, this is perhaps a risk that develops in all crises. Pushing an agenda, however, is one thing; wielding hammers and destroying property another – and as one more charitable commentator has warned: “Violence generates violence. One day it could go wrong.”
“Down with the Rich!”
This is in essence the feeling behind some of the most recent ‘attacks’. The golf course, the Picasso, the Gucci shop window – they are all ‘examples’ of privilege that Portugal’s climate activists appear to believe has ‘contributed most’ to the planet’s state of environmental upheaval.
On the day of the attack on Gucci, Climáximo posted that “in the same country where many people struggle every day to pay their rent and everyday bills, the (ultra)rich spend hundreds of euros on bags, coats and shoes. These are the people who fly in private jets and have their yacht in the marina. These are the people the UN says must cut 97% of their emissions. Yet luxury consumption has never been higher. There can only be a fair life if the incomes of the 1% are taxed to create a national climate service.”
A couple of days later, the group began trailing a fundraising event to pay the fines handed out recently by a judge, stressing that “several activists have given their bodies and futures to break with this false sense of normality. Faced with genocide normalised by governments and companies, activists are resisting in order to centre the debate around climate realism. We must speak out!”
Meantime, another voice in Lisbon is equally concerned about the climate but has not thrown paint over any of the country’s politicians, mixed up cement to thwart aspirant golfers, or encouraged civil insurrection.
Luís Carriço – described as one of the country’s top scientists – has been speaking in the context of Tuesday’s International Day of Climate Action to stress that the crisis needs ‘urgent investment’ – which will need to come from the very people Climáximo et al are accusing of being the planet’s nemesis: governments and big business.
Climate change is “a crucial issue for humanity”, explains Carriço – the director of the Faculty of Sciences at Lisbon university. The “fight must be united and global”, he believes – in other words, not one involving paint, cement or hammers.