Climate activists sprayed a superyacht this summer, banned private jets from taking off and patched holes in golf courses – as part of a stepped-up campaign against the emission-causing lifestyles of the super-rich.
Climate activism has increased in recent years as the planet warms dangerously, triggering increasing levels of extreme heat, flooding, storms and wildfires around the world.
Tactics became increasingly radical: some protesters taped themselves to streets, disrupted high-profile sporting events like golf and tennis, and even splattered famous works of art with paint or soup.
They are now turning their attention to the rich, after long targeting some of the world’s most profitable companies – oil and gas companies, banks and insurance companies that continue to invest in fossil fuels.
“We’re not pointing the finger at people, we’re pointing at their lifestyle and the injustice that it represents,” said Karen Killeen, an Extinction Rebellion activist who has been involved in protests in Ibiza, Spain, a popular summer spot for the wealthy . She said the group is protesting unnecessary emissions, such as the super-rich taking a boat to pick up a pizza. “In the climate emergency, that’s an atrocity,” she said.
Killeen and others from the climate activist group Futuro Vegetal – or vegetable future – have sprayed a $300 million superyacht owned by Walmart heiress Nancy Walton Laurie.
Protesters held up a sign that read: “Those who consume, others suffer.”
In Switzerland, around 100 activists disrupted Europe’s largest private jet sales fair in Geneva by chaining themselves to aircraft gangways and the fair entrance.
In Germany, the Last Generation climate group – which translates to “Last Generation” – sprayed a private jet on the holiday island of Sylt in the North Sea.
In Spain, activists plugged holes in golf courses to protest the sport’s high water demands during hot dry spells.
In the US, Abigail Disney, Walt Disney’s great-niece, was arrested along with 13 other protesters at New York’s East Hampton Town Airport in July for preventing cars from entering or exiting the parking lot.
It was the first of as many as eight promotions to be held in the exclusive Hamptons area. Activists also crashed a golf course, disrupted a museum gala and demonstrated in front of some luxury private homes.
“Luxury practices are disproportionately contributing to the climate crisis right now,” said University of Maryland social scientist Dana Fisher. according to a 2021 report by the non-profit organization OxfamIf all emissions that warm the planet are attributed to the people who cause them, the richest 1% will be responsible for about 16% of emissions by 2030. “It makes a lot of sense that these activists would denounce this toxic behavior.”
Richard Wilk, an economic anthropologist at Indiana University, said luxury travel is “the real culprit” for emissions from the super-rich.
He published estimates of top billionaires’ annual emissions in 2021, noting that a superyacht — with a permanent crew, helipad, submarines and pools — emits about 7,020 tons of carbon dioxide a year, more than 1,500 times more than a typical family car .
According to the non-profit organization Greenpeace, private planes caused more than 3 million tonnes of carbon pollution in Europe alone last year, equivalent to the average annual CO2 emissions of over half a million EU citizens.
But Pennsylvania State University climate researcher Michael Mann warned that the focus is shifting away from fossil fuel companies – which are responsible for at least 70% of all emissions – and towards the wealthy “straight into the hands of the fossil fuel industry and industry “ could play. With their “distraction campaign” they divert attention from regulation by putting the individual carbon footprint above the much larger footprint of polluters.”
“The solution is to get everyone to use less carbon-based energy,” whether they’re wealthy or low-income people, he said.
David Gitman, president of Monarch Air Group, a private flight charter operator in Florida, encouraged activists to think twice about taking the right approach.
“If their activism is aimed at some kind of actual support for real programs to bring about real change like sustainable jet fuel or carbon offsetting, I think that kind of activism can help achieve those results,” Gitman said. “Now if you go and spray paint a private jet at an airport in Europe, will that produce these results? In my opinion no.”
Fisher of the University of Maryland was also skeptical that activism would be effective in changing the behavior of the wealthy.
In some cases, governments have stepped in with regulations.
France is cracking down on the use of private jets for short trips, and earlier this year the Netherlands’ Schiphol Airport also announced plans to ban private jets.
But as the protests escalate, Fisher and Wilk say they could still tip the scales for behavior change.
“Public shaming is one of the most powerful ways to control people,” Wilk said. “It works in many different ways to embarrass people and make them more aware of the consequences of their actions.”