Some environmental protesters are earning salaries from new nonprofit groups that believe taking it to the streets is more important than ever.
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.
They’ve taken hammers to gas pumps and glued themselves to museum masterpieces and busy roadways. They’ve chained themselves to banks, rushed onto a Grand
Prix racetrack and tethered themselves to goal posts as tens of thousands of British soccer fans jeered.
The activists who undertook these worldwide acts of disruption during the last year said that they were desperate to convey the urgency of the climate crisis and that the most effective way to do so was in public, blockading oil terminals and upsetting normal activities.
They also share a surprising financial lifeline: heirs to two American families that became fabulously rich from oil.
Two relatively new nonprofit organizations, which the oil scions helped found, are funding dozens of protest groups dedicated to interrupting business as usual through civil disobedience, mostly in the United States, Canada and Europe. While volunteers with established environmental groups like Greenpeace International have long used disruptive tactics to call attention to ecological threats, the new organizations are funding grass-roots activists.
The California-based Climate Emergency Fund was founded in 2019 on the ethos that civil resistance is integral to achieving the rapid widespread social and political changes needed to tackle the climate crisis.
Margaret Klein Salamon, the fund’s executive director, pointed to social movements of the past — suffragists, civil rights and gay rights activists — that achieved success after protesters took nonviolent demonstrations to the streets.
“Action moves public opinion and what the media covers, and moves the realm of what’s politically possible,” Ms. Salamon said. “The normal systems have failed. It’s time for every person to realize that we need to take this on.”
So far, the fund has given away just over $7 million, with the goal of pushing society into emergency mode, she said. Even though the United States is on the cusp of enacting historic climate legislation, the bill allows more oil and gas expansion, which scientists say needs to stop immediately to avert planetary catastrophe.
Sharing these goals with the Climate Emergency Fund is the Equation Campaign. Founded in 2020, it provides financial support and legal defense to people living near pipelines and refineries who are trying to stop fossil fuel expansion, through methods including civil disobedience.
Strikingly, both organizations are backed by oil-fortune families whose descendants feel a responsibility to reverse the harms done by fossil fuels. Aileen Getty, whose grandfather created Getty Oil, helped found the Climate Emergency Fund and has given it $1 million so far. The Equation Campaign started in 2020 with $30 million from two members of the Rockefeller family, Rebecca Rockefeller Lambert and Peter Gill Case. John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil in 1870 and became the country’s first billionaire.
“It’s time to put the genie back in the bottle,” Mr. Case wrote in an email. “I feel a moral obligation to do my part. Wouldn’t you?”
Belief in the transformative power of extreme civil disobedience is not universal, and some actions by the groups, particularly those backed by the Climate Emergency Fund, have irritated the public.
Australia’s leap forward. The country’s Lower House of Parliament passed a bill that commits the government to reducing carbon emissions by at least 43 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, and reaching net zero by 2050 — a dramatic shift for Australia, long seen as a laggard on climate change. The new Labor government is expected to push the legislation through the Senate in a few weeks.
Extreme heat in Britain. A heat wave that demolished records in Britain in July, bringing temperatures as high as 104.5 degrees Fahrenheit to a country unaccustomed to scorching summers, would have been “extremely unlikely” without the influence of human-caused climate change, a scientific report found.
Natural gas consumption in Europe. As rising temperatures sent electricity demand soaring and the war in Ukraine continued to upend the global energy market, European Union energy ministers hammered out a deal to curb natural gas consumption among member countries by 15 percent between now and next spring.
Wind power. Contentious plans to build a wind farm off the coast of Catalonia, a part of Spain that is still highly dependent on fossil fuels, would generate urgently needed renewable energy. But critics are pushing back against the plan, saying it would fundamentally alter the character of a region that has changed little since the 20th century.
Protesters have been screamed at, threatened, labeled eco-zealots and dragged off by angry commuters. Research from the University of Toronto and Stanford University also found that while more disruptive protests attracted publicity, they could undermine a movement’s credibility and alienate potential support.
But Ms. Salamon and activists backed by the Climate Emergency Fund said pushback was inevitable. They pointed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, according to a Gallup Poll, had a 63 percent disapproval rating in the years leading up to his death.
“We’re not trying to be popular,” said Zain Haq, a co-founder of the Canadian group Save Old Growth, which blocks roads to thwart the logging of ancient forests in British Columbia and received $170,000 from the Climate Emergency Fund. “Civil disobedience historically is about challenging a way of life.”
There is some evidence that newer climate protest groups have gotten traction. Researchers found that Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement had played an outsize role in increasing awareness and driving climate policy. In terms of cost effectiveness, the protest groups often bested traditional “Big Green” nonprofit environmental groups in helping drive down greenhouse gas emissions, according to the findings.
For the Equation Campaign, stopping further oil and gas expansion has a quantifiable impact. The cancellation of an extension of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, following years of resistance from tribes, farmers and local ranchers, prevented the release of as much as 180 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year, by one estimate. The Equation Campaign is funding campaigns against a host of other fossil fuel projects and helps activists who are often targeted with what the group’s executive director, Katie Redford, described as exaggerated charges and false arrests.
“For the climate and literally for humanity to win, we need them to win, and to stop the industry from building more stuff that puts greenhouse gases into the environment,” Ms. Redford said.
Climate activists receive far less funding than major environmental groups, particularly from philanthropic interests, which give just a fraction of their spending for climate issues worldwide. According to the ClimateWorks Foundation, less than 2 percent of global philanthropy funds in 2020 went to mitigating climate change (though its share is growing), a sliver of which was dedicated to grass-roots activity and movement building.
Both Ms. Redford and Ms. Salamon said their groups had financed only legal activities, such as training, education, travel and printing and recruitment costs. Grant recipients must confirm that the money has not been spent on activities prohibited by law.
They also contested any suggestion that paying activists made their actions less authentic, noting that recipients had already been working around the clock as volunteers, often draining their bank accounts in the process. “This is their passion,” Ms. Salamon said.
“It’s not fair to continue to ask Indigenous people, Black, brown and poor people who live on the front lines to do this work for free simply because they have been doing it in their ‘spare time,’” Ms. Redford said.
Activists on the receiving end described the money as a godsend. Some had dropped out of classes to devote themselves to full-time climate activism, driven by a sense of urgency and moral duty. Others juggled several jobs to pay the bills.
Miranda Whelehan, of the British group Just Stop Oil, said members had been overworked and stressed until the Climate Emergency Fund gave them close to $1 million and helped cover salaries for 40 organizers and activists.
“Obviously, you can only do so much as volunteers,” Ms. Whelehan said. “Huge oil companies have millions, if not billions.”
Over and over, the activists said that they didn’t want to engage in civil disobedience but that more traditional efforts had yet to stave off widespread climate disaster. “We’ve tried everything else,” said Louis McKechnie, a Just Stop Oil member who has been arrested about 20 times.
Winona LaDuke, the executive director of the Native environmental nonprofit group Honor the Earth, said her organization had spent seven years fighting the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, attending every regulatory meeting and hearing, and for naught.
She said she had been arrested and charged with trespassing despite being on public property and was endlessly grateful that the Equation Campaign, which has given her group more than $400,000, had held firm in its support.
“We put our bodies on the line because we had no other legal recourse — we had nothing,” Ms. LaDuke said. “We knew we were going to get arrested.”
For some activists, civil disobedience has proved to be unexpectedly gratifying.
Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist who works for NASA, said he had spent 16 years trying to compel corporate executives, government leaders and the public to act on the climate emergency. Ultimately, he concluded that he and the environmental movement were losing badly.
In April, Mr. Kalmus was one of roughly 1,000 scientists in 25 countries who blocked traffic and chained themselves to, among other targets, the gates of the White House and doors of bank branches as part of the Scientist Rebellion. The participants weren’t paid, but the group received $100,000 from the Climate Emergency Fund for organizer and consultant wages, space rental and travel costs.
Afterward, Dr. Kalmus — who noted he was not speaking for NASA — said feedback had poured in from around the world saying that he had made a difference and had left people inspired.
“I get messages every day from people who said it had given them hope,” Dr. Kalmus said. “It seemed to communicate that urgency far more than anything else.”
For others, protesting has come at a personal cost. Mr. McKechnie said he had been kicked out of Bournemouth University because of his climate activism. In March, he embarked on perhaps his most public action yet, using a zip tie threaded with metal to tether himself to a goal post during a Premiere League football match. He said he had felt the “hate and menace” of everyone in the crowd and had been kicked and lunged at as he was being escorted out. Mr. McKechnie was arrested, and he said he had received so many death threats that he had deleted his social media accounts.
But he was also unmoved in his resolve. “Even if 1 percent of the crowd looked up who we are and what we’re doing, it would’ve been a massive win,” he said.
Not long afterward, Mr. McKechnie was at a Just Stop Oil meeting, where everyone in attendance was asked what had brought them there. One fellow raised his hand, Mr. McKechnie said, and “he said, ‘Well, I was at a football game, and a wanker locked himself to the pitch.’”
“I hate having to do any of this,” Mr. McKechnie continued. “But the only way to get them to listen and to protect the future of my own generation is to make an annoyance so loud that even with their heads buried in the sand, it will drown it out.”
Mr. Case said that it was too early to tell whether the Equation Campaign had achieved its aims but that he and Ms. Lambert were committed to spending “at a high rate” until 2030.
The next few years are crucial. Climate scientists say nations must cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 50 percent by the end of this decade to avoid the most severe effects of a warming planet.
In an email, Ms. Getty said her belief in the effectiveness of activism was unshaken, especially with time running out. Civil disobedience was meant to serve as an alarm, she said, and discomfort caused by disruptive protests paled in comparison to what might well lie in store.
“Let’s not forget that we’re talking about extinction,” Ms. Getty wrote in an email. “Don’t we have a responsibility to take every means of trying to protect life on Earth?”