They have taken hammers to gas pumps and glued themselves to museum masterpieces and busy roadways. They have chained themselves to banks, rushed onto a GrandPrix 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.
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,” 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,” Case wrote in an e-mail. “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.
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 Salamon and activists backed by the Climate Emergency Fund said pushback was inevitable. They pointed to 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 cofounder 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,” 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 Redford and 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,” 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,’” 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,” Whelehan said. “Huge oil companies have millions, if not billions.”
Over and over, the activists said that they did not 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.
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. 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.