John Leo Algo

Published: February 22, 2024

Topic: Insights

Some people believe that bad publicity is still good publicity. I am not one of those people.

There has been a recent trend of activists, including young people, targeting famous artworks to raise public awareness about urgent climate and sustainable actions. The latest of these incidents saw the ‘Mona Lisa’, arguably the most famous artwork in the world, have a close call as two activists threw soup at it as a protest for the “right to a healthy and sustainable food”.

As a climate analyst, advocate, and activist, I fully understand the sentiment behind these actions. It reminded me of what happened years ago, when billionaires quickly responded to restoring Notre Dame yet the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest did not get as much interest or support.

We are also coming off of the heels of another round of UN climate negotiations in Dubai that, while historic in a few aspects, does not bring us close enough to sufficiently addressing the climate crisis. Projections say that 2024 could become the hottest in recorded history.

Sufficient awareness and understanding of the climate crisis remain low in many developing countries. For example, most countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including some of the most vulnerable in the world, have less than half of their populations having enough knowledge of the climate crisis. While their citizens recognize how it threatens current and future generations, a lack of deep understanding of its impacts would likely hinder many people from meaningfully participating in solutions.

But these activists fail to understand that their actions are more likely to alienate the public than rally them to their cause. As individuals and groups that are more knowledgeable and understanding of the discourse on addressing the climate crisis, it is our responsibility to reach out to different sectors and empower them to take action against this global threat in their own capacities.

Shaping public opinions have always been a vital part of fueling paradigm shifts in society. We have seen it in numerous parts of our global and national histories, and the case of the climate crisis is no different. With many governments and businesses still refusing to do what is needed, public opinion becomes even more vital for successful climate advocacies and campaigns to occur.

Bad publicity is bad publicity

Focusing such actions on art pieces works to capture the attention of many eyes for a few minutes, but it is unlikely to make them see the desired vision. Museums serve as institutions that benefit society in many ways, from preserving historical and cultural artifacts to providing a space for education, leisure, and appreciation for many people.

Neither the Notre Dame nor the Mona Lisa are as significant to our very existence as the well-being of our planet, but that does not mean that cultural heritage is not important in its own right. They capture the imagination and attention of so many in our world that they come across as relatable. While the climate crisis is becoming more relatable to more people, there is still some work to be done in removing the technical and abstract image that it initially gives to many people.

While it is known that fossil fuel companies provide financing to museums, much of the general public do not have this knowledge, let alone a prior understanding of any direct link between famous paintings and the cause these activists are fighting for. As a result, such acts instead come across as unnecessary disruptions that threaten the quality of these artworks and even the safety of visitors.

It also worsens the existing stigma on activism in general, which is prevalent in many parts of the Asia-Pacific region. This could enhance the difficulties that we face in our work, from declining inclusion in decision-making to outright threats to human rights.

Addressing a complex, long-term issue like the climate crisis requires long-term interventions, including on communicating its impacts and solutions. Any strategy involving climate communications should accomplish at least two objectives: to make the issue relatable to the targeted audience to inspire them to participate, and to make it clear the root cause of the issue and how to address it.

Staying focused

Like the thin glass panel that protects paintings from tomato soups and oil splatters, we can see that the root cause is the continuing dependence of the global economy on fossil fuels, and the reluctance of policymakers to accelerate solutions like just energy transition or ecosystems-based adaptation.

If we as the climate movement truly want to play our part in speeding up these processes, we must make it clear to every member of our society who the culprits of this crisis are. Our words and actions must be directed towards pressuring fossil fuel industries, their leaders, financiers, and other allies to stop their activities that pollute our environment and threaten our present and future.

In a world facing multiple potential and existing threats to individual and communal safety, it has never been important for these efforts to be seen by the public as peaceful, relatable, and necessary for their own well-being.

Communicating the climate crisis is never going to be an easy task. Not with fossil fuel industries and their allies actively delaying actions or still denying the reality of the common threat we are all facing. Not with many people still tending not to think in the long run, especially for those simply looking to figure out how to put food on their families’ tables on a daily basis.

Yet communicate, educate, and inform we must, if we are going to build a climate-resilient and sustainable world for all. Art attacks are simply not the way to do so.

John Leo is the National Coordinator of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas and the Deputy Executive Director for Programs and Campaigns of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines. He is also a member of the Youth Advisory Group for Environmental and Climate Justice under the UNDP in Asia and the Pacific. The views expressed by him in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of any of his affiliations.