Climate Extremists: Evolving Tactics and Targets
By TorchStone Senior Analyst, Bob Huettner
In 2015, after observing dwindling support for the Occupy movement, a group of extremists in England seeking to overturn the global order realized that they would have to radically change their approach and tactics if they were to remain relevant. As a result of those planning sessions, the Extinction Rebellion (XR) campaign was launched in 2018.
The founders of the XR campaign adopted an apocalyptic grievance narrative focused on climate change intended to broaden its appeal and attract more people to the movement. The baseline premise of the movement is that the current social, political, and economic systems caused the current climate crisis that is going to result in mass genocide (extinction); therefore, they are guilty of committing crimes against humanity and nature and must be stopped.
The broad appeal of the XR message has spawned other campaigns in the climate change movement including Climate Defiance, Letzte Generation, Just Stop Oil, and many others who follow the basic tenets and tactics outlined by XR.
Personalizing the Grievance
The climate activists have repeatedly publicized their baseline grievance, their hook, and have moved on to denouncing entities. These activists identify companies, financial firms, and political leaders who are either in direct opposition to the stated goals or are not moving fast enough to satisfy them. The result has been numerous protests outside of government buildings, and company offices, slow marches in the streets, and interruptions of public events. These protests have been directed at government and private institutions and their policies, delivering a message to the public highlighting the pending catastrophe, those whom the activists hold responsible, and the message that these activists are trying to save the whole of humanity from the evils of government, fossil fuels, and capitalism.
Climate Defiance and Letzte Generation have taken it upon themselves to single out individuals involved with fossil fuels. This public denouncement criticizes and ridicules individuals, placing the blame for what may come upon them. These public denouncements are often framed as an “us versus them” equation and coupled with a hypothetical question of whether the person being singled out wants to be on “the right side of history.”
The criterion for selection for denunciation seems to be personal wealth, investments, and business affiliations. Activists in the U.S. have targeted members of both political parties, including the current administration, for failing to follow through on previously set “Green goals” or failure to act upon campaign promises. Climate Defiance has been able to gain access to what should be “invite only” events and confronted political leaders, investors, and campaign donors in allegedly secure areas including private homes.
At the Federal Reserve’s Jackson Hole Symposium, held on August 30th, climate protesters swarmed a restaurant where a number of investors were eating. They had a single spokesman, accompanied by a handful of supporters. In his speech, the spokesman outlined the basic grievance and stated that the diners were complicit in aiding the crisis by investing in fossil fuels. His supporters unfurled a banner as he spoke and began to chant once the spokesman was escorted out of the restaurant by staff. Of interest is the woman holding the banner, she was also at the protest at Congressman Hoyer’s event a few days later.
Climate Defiance singled out Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland at his home while he was celebrating his birthday with family, staff, and supporters. In this case, the woman who was holding the banner and chanting at Jackson Hole was the spokesperson. She was appropriately dressed for an event to be held at the home of a political leader. She was wearing a name tag, as were many of the guests; implying that she had gained access through legitimate methods, or they had done enough research to bluff their way through security. As she interrupted the Congressman’s speech, she was filmed by at least one other member of the organization.
Similarly, activists confronted Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey at a fundraiser held at a private residence on Nantucket on 21 August. There were approximately half a dozen activists who were able to gain entry from a public road. Here, they aggressively confronted guests, accusing them of being “climate criminals” and complicit in what would be “mass genocide.” Security was present at the event, but insufficient to stop them from getting onto private property.
Activists also singled out Tommy Beaudreau, Acting Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of the Interior, who was attending conferences during Climate Week in New York City on the 21st of September. They confronted him five times that day, denounced him as a “climate criminal” and issued a veiled threat in their post stating, “We will do this to anyone who stands between us and the world we seek to build. Respect us or expect us.” In this case, the activists were able to get into Secretary Boudreau’s personal space, shoving a microphone in his face as they waited for his response to their accusations. They followed him to his vehicle as he was leaving the event. They ran after his vehicle as it drove down the street. In a sophisticated messaging operation, they claimed to have “chased the climate criminal out of New York.” They knew his itinerary and were prepositioned to intercept, indicating a high level of intelligence, preparation, and rehearsals.
At the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in NYC, protesters singled out Henry Kravis, a businessman, investor, and philanthropist because some of the money he donated was made from investments in fossil fuels. The activists occupied the MoMA on September 15th with several dozen protesters and prevented people from entering or leaving the facility for a period of time. They railed against the MoMA displaying art that was either donated or funded by Mr. Kravis and tried to shame MoMA for showing art that was procured with funds linked to the oil and gas industry. While Mr. Kravis was not there, they confronted museum personnel as well as guests. Again, the activists had done enough research to determine what was in his portfolio, to whom he donated, and how that donated money was used.
In Germany, Letzte Generation, in solidarity with other organizations, was protesting the building of a migrant processing center. They see the migrant processing center as a tool of colonialism and exploitation of both people and natural resources. They were supported by a number of activists, including pro-Palestinian groups. They specifically named one of the investors for their investment in the construction company and for his contributions to a medical school connected to Big Pharma. They encouraged others to find more investors and single them out. These groups have named their targets as “climate criminals” who are also acting as oppressors of marginalized peoples and that they should be punished. Since no crime has been committed by the targets, these groups are hoping to shame them into divesting and making some sort of public statement regarding the “crimes” they have committed.
This incident highlights how climate change activists are broadening their scope to include all sorts of social issues associated with left wing politics. Because of this these activists may begin impact organizations and individuals who may have no connection to the oil and gas industry.
Potential Turn to Violence
While it is still early in this new phase of climate activism, none of the individuals targeted thus far have submitted to the demands of the activists. Climate activists have stated that those who have been targeted deserve “no peace” until their demands are met. If those targeted persist in their refusal to bend to demands, it will likely result in frustrating the activists.
As we have seen in past environmentalist and animal rights campaigns, as extremists are thwarted in their efforts, some of them may become even more extreme and begin to adopt more spectacular, or violent, methods. Climate activists have already identified critical infrastructure and are contemplating actions to disable them. They have identified high-profile individuals and demonstrated that they can gain access to them with relative ease. They may have already contemplated scenarios where they can force said individuals into making public apologies or confessing to their “crimes.”
As referenced in Part 4 of our Extinction Rebellion Series, the activists associated with these campaigns may tend towards violence if they fail to see progress in achieving their goals. XR and Just Stop Oil campaign activists have been holding closed seminars to discuss the morality of certain types of direct action that would cause damage to the infrastructure and lead to substantial jail terms for those involved. They discussed the morality of a hypothetical bombing of a pipeline and the probable jail sentence associated with it. The keynote speaker seemed to indicate that the crisis was dire enough to warrant such action.
Part of the dilemma facing the activists is how to physically damage infrastructure without injuring people or harming the environment, though they may determine that there is a certain level of collateral damage that is acceptable. They are also addressing the fact that they themselves may face physical injury either during the act or in the subsequent detention. While the movement was ostensibly founded on the principle of non-violent protests, the fact that some ideologues are now discussing the possibility of violence—when combined with frustration over the lack of progress being achieved by their current tactics—is likely to result in some individuals or affinity cells deciding to undertake violent action.
In other discussions, some activists have stated that they intend to use passive resistance to frustrate both law enforcement and the general population. By doing so, they are hoping to initiate a heavy-handed response which they can then use as proof that the authorities and “uneducated citizens” are attacking “peaceful and lawful” demonstrations, making them the victims. They hope to gain the “moral high ground” by using such tactics. The desired “heavy-handed” response has been documented several times in many countries including the United States, England, Germany, and Portugal.
Heavy police responses also serve to give activists the needed impetus to respond with increased levels of violence themselves, since in their minds and messaging, they are merely responding in kind. Typical detention maneuvers and holds used by law enforcement are referred to in their videos as “torture holds;” those filming, under the pretense of “press,” are often exacerbating the situation by saying, “Stop hurting them,” or, “Why are you arresting them?” while simultaneously degrading the officers. Those who are being detained often grossly exaggerate the level of discomfort, implying that they are being physically abused.
The internal messaging among activists further encourages such actions and labels these people as victims/heroes in the fight against climate change and the capitalistic system that brought it about. Since they see themselves as the victims of state-sponsored violence, they can justify responding with violence.
The campaigns also use the arrests of activists to help in their fundraising efforts. They heavily promote activists’ arrests on social media, track their legal procedures closely, and appeal for legal defense funds to help get them out of jail.
It stands to reason that we will see these trends continue. Climate extremists and their “allies,” will continue to push their narratives and work in support of each other where feasible or advantageous such as the large, nearly daily, demonstrations in the Netherlands where numerous activist groups pushed through police barricades, physically pushing aside the police lines, and blocked a major highway to the Hague. Smaller actions will be directed at individuals, singling them out, making them feel unsafe (“uncomfortable” in activist parlance), and publicizing their “crimes” against society.
As has been already demonstrated, small groups have been effective in gaining access to individuals and their private property. As these activists become more frustrated, and continue to speak openly about escalating violence, it is only a matter of time before they take more aggressive and possibly violent action against individuals whom they decry as “climate criminals” guilty of “genocide.”
Mitigating the Threat
The current domestic political tensions in the U.S. and Europe, exasperated by wars in Ukraine and Israel, increase the likelihood that climate extremists, allied with other far-left groups acting in solidarity, will likely intensify their attacks on individuals. The role of executive protection has subsequently become more difficult; the list of potential targets has grown from just political and industrial leaders to anybody the activists perceive to have gained personal wealth through investing or supporting those already targeted.
Corporations and financial institutions have been the traditional focal points for attack, but now the board members, investors, and even common workers are targets as well. As the activists become more frustrated with the perceived lack of progress in their cause, they will expand to more aggressive and spectacular events.
Spectacular events need not be large-scale; a small incident, with precision targeting, can have an effect much larger than the event itself. For example, the head of a major oil corporation, publicly apologizing for harming the climate, exploiting natural resources, taking advantage of minority populations, being a major contributor to the predicted mass extinction, and denouncing the current economic and political institutions, will have more impact that any number of slow marches or vandalized works of art. Climate activists and their allies realize this and are developing methods to exploit the potential presented.
The activists have crossed the line between protesting on public land to intrusion on private property, thereby increasing the footprint of potential engagement areas. In the pre-9/11 days, some protesters threw pies at public figures as a form of protest. These incidents highlighted the vulnerability of these figures and served as a learning point for others in the field of executive protection. Their concept is the same, the method of execution has expanded to involve things like eggs, glitter, and paint.
To counter these changing dynamics, potential targets of activists should take additional steps to increase security. Physical assessments should be conducted on residences and offices to identify potential unauthorized points of entry around private property and steps taken to mitigate noted weak spots. This includes properties owned, but not currently occupied; that second vacation home is an attractive propaganda target to an extremist.
Cyber Security must also take on a more prominent role. The accounts of potential targets must be protected, and they need to be made aware of potential threats from extremists as well as normal cyber threats. Business accounts need to be secured and messages sent to business associates need to be written with the understanding that they may be hacked, and the information therein made public. Personal accounts, including social media, are a treasure trove of information for those who may intend harm. Personal information available online, including that of family members, needs to be limited. Plans about upcoming personal trips or events do not need to be posted.
Be aware that these extremists are extraordinarily well versed and comfortable in the cyber world, in some cases more comfortable than they are in the real world. They are fully capable of culling and exploiting information from open source and social media. Steps should be taken to protect financial transactions to the greatest extent possible since the climate protesters have weaponized them.
Additionally, potentially targeted individuals should take great care in who they donate to and how the money they donate is distributed. A review of charitable giving may take a bit of time, but clients need to understand that they may be indirectly funding the very activists who intend to harm them.
Insider threats should be considered as well. An employee may have another agenda, personal or professional, other than supporting their employer or the company. A thorough vetting and periodic (and random) review of employees may be required to protect the client and their interests.
Given the recent targeting of private events, a review of social events may be prudent, to see who is invited to them and who else may be a potential target or potential extremist. The extremists might be looking for a specific target, but they will settle on a target of opportunity.
Climate change extremists have now started targeting political parties as well as individuals who, in the past, were considered “allies” of the activists. Relationships between the clients and political parties should be reviewed for potential risk.
The above methods are effective but predominantly passive in nature. We know what is important to our clients, but more importantly, do we know what is important to the extremists? Through studying them, Executive Protection will understand their objectives, their methods, and their true, deep motivating drivers; in other words, we can understand what they want and what makes them tick.
Once we understand what is important to them, we can develop and implement measures to deny them what they so desperately need to feed their narrative, thereby breaking the cycle of escalation. Protective intelligence is needed to monitor social media of the various groups and track their targets and methods, providing the client the knowledge to be able to avoid an issue ahead of the event itself; literally being “left of boom.” By doing so, targeted individuals and companies have the option to either proactively engage the threat or mitigate the effects of any potential damage done by the extremists.
The current political and economic environment is such that it is highly unlikely that the environmental protesters will fade quietly into the night. Those who are tasked to protect others must be ready to encounter more protests and more aggressive protesters.