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Why are so many climate protests going viral? Organizers are torn over their efficacy

"I just wish we stopped discussing what mode of action is right or not and focused on the major issues happening right now."

Climate activist group, Just Stop Oil

Photo Credit: Getty Images

On Wednesday, a group of activists from the Just Stop Oil coalition sprayed bright orange paint across the storefronts of several luxury car dealerships in London. 

Videos of the act, which protested the U.K. government's use of oil and gas, immediately went viral. But the footage also sparked another question: Why have these types of demonstrations been happening more frequently?

In the past several weeks, there has seemingly been an increase in the number of climate activists staging dramatic public protests. 

On Sunday, German climate activists from Letzte Generation ("last generation") were arrested after throwing mashed potatoes at a $110 million Claude Monet painting. Just a week earlier, Just Stop Oil activists pulled off a similar protest, throwing tomato soup at a Van Gogh painting in London. Both paintings were reportedly unharmed. 

Both times, activists proceeded to superglue themselves to a wall — a similar tactic used by a Just Stop Oil protest this summer at London's National Gallery. 

It's possible that the apparent frequency of these protests is random, although some believe that they've increased due to the United Nations' upcoming COP27 Conference, where more than 190 nations will meet to discuss climate issues. 

There's also the fact that, as these protests gain millions of views and mass media attention, the activists behind them are encouraged to keep it up. An organizer with Letzte Generation told The New York Times that they were directly inspired by Just Stop Oil's "genius" tomato soup protest. 

Margaret Klein Salamon, executive director of the Climate Emergency Fund, which provides funding to Just Stop Oil, told The Guardian she found the Van Gogh protest to be a "breakthrough."

"In terms of press coverage, the Van Gogh protest may be the most successful action I've seen in the last eight years in climate movement," Salamon added. 

But as these protests ramp up, so does the debate over their efficacy. 

Speaking with The New York Times, several former activists said the art gallery protests would have little effect, as they lacked an overt connection to the climate crisis. And as CNN pointed out, there's some evidence that "moderate" protests — like marches and mass demonstrations — have a greater effect than extreme ones, like those at the art galleries. 

In the case of Just Stop Oil, observers have also questioned the group's motives, due to the fact that the group receives significant funding from oil heiress Aileen Getty

But others have argued that groups like Just Stop Oil and Letzte Generation are succeeding, as they're bringing mainstream attention to their causes. 

"Everyone shouting at Just Stop Oil protestors for campaigning 'the wrong way'… 50,000 people protested in London yesterday in the 'the right way' and the establishment and their media simply ignored them," columnist Mark Davyd wrote on Twitter. 

Speaking to "BBC Woman's Hour," activist Vanessa Nakate said that it's the climate crisis, not people's methods of protesting it, that should be sparking big reactions. 

"I just wish we stopped discussing what mode of action is right or not and focused on the major issues happening right now," Nakate said.

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