Some climate activists have decided to throw soup at famous paintings to draw attention to their concerns about climate change and societal inaction. Protesters have long used a variety of ways to gain media attention, such as a giant rat trotted out by union members during strikes, a person in a chicken suit mocking oil spikers as “chicken little”, and many types of protestors up top without. Throwing soup like this makes a lot of sense as a tactic because it gets attention without harming anyone or anything, unlike blocking the subway like Extinction Rebellion did in London.
Unfortunately, that’s the only positive aspect of these protests, as shown in a recent NPR interview with Stop Oil’s Phoebe Plummer, a 21-year-old college student who threw tomato soup at one of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings. (Why tomato soup? Maybe an homage to Andy Warhol, or maybe its resemblance to blood. Or it’s cheaper than lobster bisque.)
“Don’t trust anyone over thirty” was a popular slogan of student protesters in the 1960s who, by an amazing coincidence, were under 30 (shocking, I know). It is true that older people are more invested in the socio-economic system than the young and are therefore more conservative, while young people can be more accepting of change (and risk) because they are less at risk.
But in addition, and this is important, young people often do not know history and politics. Most of Plummer’s arguments seem to be based on clichés and facts gleaned from the internet, and while he claims to listen to scientists, he doesn’t seem to practice what they preach, except selectively. (Note: Plummer identifies as them and I have followed that convention here.)
Plummer thus blithely talked about stopping oil while helping low-income people with their energy bills. They justified this by claiming that “…renewables are nine times cheaper…”. Which is absurd. The most prominent cost estimate pushing the superiority of renewables comes from Lazard Frere, who claims that wind and solar produce electricity at $26-50/Mwh and $30-41/Mwh, respectively, compared to gas turbines at $45-74/Mwh. . Even if these costs were considered exactly comparable, renewables are at best half the cost of conventional electricity, not one-ninth, and certainly the cloudy costs of solar in England are nowhere near the lower end of the range. Other problems with intermittency explain why renewables, while cheaper, require massive subsidies to be competitive in most places.
And Plummer inappropriately compares the lead times for oil and solar, saying: “The UK’s biggest solar farm was built in just six weeks, while these new oil licenses that the government is proposing – it takes 15 to 25 years for any oil to break even. get them out of the ground.” Ignoring the various pre-construction steps necessary to develop a solar farm is like saying that it takes one day to get an apple from a tree, but from the moment farmland is made available for purchase, a peach tree will bear fruit for six years.
And their apocalyptic alarmism is entirely in line with younger activists, especially those who are unfamiliar with the many similar alarms that have been raised over the years, from overpopulation to resource scarcity and the oil crisis. All of them included advocates who insisted that the problems were dire and required extreme political action in response. The predicted overpopulation did not bring about the predicted mass starvation, but instead saw an increase in obesity; yet alarmists like Paul Ehrlich are still praised by many of those who also warn of climate catastrophe. And resource scarcity, promoted by so many prominent scientists (real and self-described), has not enriched resource-producing countries, but caused enormous economic damage as commodity prices, despite supposedly being condemned to the dustbins of history, have reverted to the mean. Governments that spent their expected ever-increasing commodity revenues found themselves in debt, reducing economic growth and increasing poverty.
Plummer also says, “When are we going to start listening to the scientists?” he quotes David King as saying that what we do in the next three to four years “will determine the future of humanity.” David King, a prominent British physicist, previously addressed the issue of the oil break in the journal Nature, said oil has entered a “phase change” from cheap to expensive oil. He and his co-author essentially refuted the arguments of peak oil advocates without understanding their validity, suggesting that he is better at alarmism than understanding. The next three to four years could determine the future of humanity, but only in the same way that the last three to four years did.
Finally, a growing chorus of skeptics is increasingly focusing on the extreme claims of groups such as Extinction Rebellion and the soup-tossers, noting that while the IPCC claims that anthropomorphic climate change will mean increased deaths and economic losses, it is far from being the catastrophic model used language. from the likes of Plummer. Unfortunately, while many in the press (rightly) reject right-wing claims that climate change is a Chinese hoax, they are far more accepting of apocalyptic warnings that go far beyond what the scientific community accepts. This was also true of cases of voodoo science such as overpopulation warnings in the US Population bomb and lack of resources in Growth limitsnot to mention the many warnings of an oil bust that have rarely been challenged in the media.
Presumably, Plummer and their allies are focused on stopping oil, even though the world gets more than a quarter of its energy from much dirtier coal, because the oil industry is politically unpopular with their political cohort. And while there are many climate-friendly policies that could be adopted that would be economically and environmentally sound, we would be well advised not to take advice from the young soup-tossers.