October 21, 2022 From Tomato Soup to Fossil Fuel Divestment—Why the Youth Climate Movement Is Evolving

Climate protesters hold a demonstration as they throw cans of tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers" at the National Gallery in London, United Kingdom on Oct. 14, 2022. Credit: Just Stop Oil / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Climate protesters hold a demonstration as they throw cans of tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers" at the National Gallery in London, United Kingdom on Oct. 14, 2022. Credit: Just Stop Oil / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Andrew Chu had, of course, heard about the tomato soup incident. Who hasn’t?

Last week, two young and irreverent climate activists walked into the National Gallery in London and splattered tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s famous “Sunflowers” painting. The publicity stunt, they said, was meant to draw attention to society’s ongoing complacency when it comes to addressing global warming, and the painting itself was unharmed because of its glass covering.

But while that moment quickly garnered international attention, Chu was busy with his own act of defiance, albeit one that flew mostly under the media’s radar. Last Wednesday, the Harvard University freshman joined dozens of other students to interrupt an ExxonMobil recruitment event on campus aimed at luring prospective Harvard graduates into a career in the fossil fuel industry. The day before, a separate protest held by a dozen students at Brown University targeted a similar Exxon event at that college.

The demonstrations were part of a growing movement among college students who are demanding that their schools cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry because of its ongoing role in fueling the climate crisis. And while Chu’s protest didn’t make the same kind of splash as the London publicity stunt, the increasing pressure students are putting on their educational institutions to play an active role in fighting global warming could have significant and lasting ramifications for the effort to curb rising greenhouse gas emissions.

In the last two years alone, a surge of student pressure has prompted at least 20 colleges and universities in the United States to promise to divest their endowments of fossil fuels. That includes Harvard University’s massive $42 billion endowment, which as of last year had an estimated $838 million in fossil fuel holdings. Globally, colleges and universities holding more than $6 trillion in investment power have made similar pledges, according to a list maintained by environmental groups.

Emboldened by those victories, students have since expanded their demands, urging their schools to no longer accept money from fossil fuel companies and their interest groups to pay for research, and to ban the industry from promoting itself or attempting to recruit students on campus. Students from five leading U.S. universities have also sued their schools, arguing they are in violation of a somewhat obscure law that requires colleges to invest in a manner consistent with their “charitable purposes.”

“The relationships between oil and gas companies and universities are communicated through money, whether that’s through recruiting students for longterm careers or funding climate research,” Chu, who organizes with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, told me in an interview. “So it’s really important that we shut those channels down in order to maintain independence for universities, to make sure that our research and policy is not being colored by the business interests of the industry.”

But last week’s events—including the now viral incident involving tomato soup—also offered a glimpse into the evolution of the youth climate movement since it exploded into mainstream public discourse in 2019, when millions of students around the world marched through the streets in what remains the single largest climate change protest in history

While the youth climate strikes of 2019 helped to elevate global warming as an issue that the world’s political and financial leaders could no longer ignore, many young people have grown increasingly frustrated since then, believing their governments, financial institutions and the broader business world have failed to follow through on their promises to become part of the solution. 

Climate scientists have said several times this year that the world is acting far too slowly and incrementally to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and stave off the worst consequences of global warming by the end of the century. Some researchers are even calling on the broader science community to take up activism and risk arrest over the issue. And research has generally shown that the vast majority of countries are off track to meet their pledges under the Paris Agreement, an issue that has only grown worse amid historic global inflation and the Russian war in Ukraine.

Even in areas where progress is being made, such as the massive growth in global renewable energy development that has been spurred by government policies, including in the U.S., those efforts are being undercut by a simultaneous surge in new fossil fuel production. The non-partisan International Energy Agency said last year that new fossil fuel development must immediately halt if nations want to achieve their stated climate goals, but an analysis released this month found that for every 90 cents going into renewable sources, a dollar is being spent on fossil fuels.

As a result of that lack of progress, we’re now seeing the “natural evolution” of the youth climate movement, said Dana Fisher, a University of Maryland sociology professor and social movements scholar who has focused her work over the last three years on the youth climate movement.

After the 2019 climate strikes, Fisher told me, the youth climate movement ran into the same hurdles every other major political movement ran into—namely that vested interests are fighting to maintain the status quo and stifling progress for the kind of systemic changes social movements often seek.

“What I think we’ve seen now is a continuation of young people being extremely concerned about the climate crisis … because institutional politics is not working,” Fisher said. “You can say the exact same thing regarding the early waves of the civil rights movement, where you get a couple of concessions” but haven’t yet won systemic changes, like “giving Black people the right to vote.”

In that sense, she said, the tomato soup incident and the growing pressure students are putting on their schools are examples of how members of the youth climate movement are “honing” their tactics, and in some cases, turning to more extreme measures. In fact, Fisher added, the climate movement in general is now going in that direction.

Chu agrees with that characterization. And when I asked him if he believed the youth-led marches of 2019 acted like “a bludgeon” that forced governments and businesses to take the issue of climate change seriously, he agreed with that assessment, too. Unfortunately, he said, what followed was a bunch of promises that turned out to be “greenwashing”—lip service from those in power to pacify young people while they continue to make money from fossil fuels.

“That has forced a lot of activists, including us, to rethink our strategy,” he said. “We can’t just use the bludgeon anymore.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

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