Turn up the heat: Climate change activists are gearing up for a sizzling summer of dissent

Sunrise Movement Climate Protest Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Sunrise Movement Climate Protest Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Renata Pumarol still remembers the energy and beauty of the moment when climate activists took a stand against New York City's most important bank.

Pumarol is a seasoned activist, her experience spanning from housing reform to improving the lives of working class women. Today she is deputy director of Climate Organizing Hub, an organization that assists protesters throughout the world under the name Climate Defenders. Pumarol has participated in hundreds of protests and been in the climate movement for more than a decade, but that autumn night stands out in her memory. It was September 2023, and she had joined hundreds of others protesters in New York City's Upper East Side to shut down the New York Federal Reserve.

"It was right after the march to end fossil fuels; we were also one of the organizing organizers of that march," said Pumarol. "We also planned, after the march, a series of disruptions, one of which was in front of Citi headquarters. You could just feel the energy. It was a beautiful moment, with dozens of people getting arrested for blocking the doors of Citi headquarters." They blocked activity at the headquarters for more than three hours. "The energy outside was just like in that plaza; it was beautiful. I think for me, that seems like one of the highlights in recent years."

Climate Organizing Hub and other climate protest groups intend for there to be many more protests like that one, all with the intended goal of drawing attention to one of the biggest existential problems of our lifetimes. As the protest group Climate Defiance recently posted on Twitter/X in response to a study on rising sea surface temperatures, "Disaster is nearing. Mass displacement. Mass starvation. Mass death. It is all imminent. Do you understand?"

Climate change has been shattering temperature records since the beginning of 2024, and did so after 2023 closed with broken records for global surface temperature, ocean heat content and ice melt. Summer 2024 is expected to be the hottest ever recorded, complete with heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and tropical storms.

None of this was inevitable; it is happening because humans continue burning fossil fuels at unsustainable levels, thanks to Wall Street and fossil fuel companies. This means that future disasters can be either avoided or mitigated if only humans exercise the collective will to make necessary economic reforms. That is why the literal summer of heat is being turned into the Summer of Heat protest movement.

"We have a series of many events," said Pumarol. "We are planning direct actions throughout the summer."

For three months starting on June 10th, they plan on shutting down the headquarter of Citibank, a financial institution that helps fund fossil fuel exploration. They also plan on staging a protest where humans dress as orcas, the iconic cetaceans that have been targeting yachts at least since November. "I think it's been a source of inspiration for many activists. We're also going to have a day where scientists are going to get arrested in front of city headquarters, and we're going to have a day where elders are going to bring their rocking chairs into city headquarters and also plan to get arrested. Next week is going to be packed with activities."

Protests may seem exciting, but they're also potentially dangerous. People spending too much time outside in hot weather risk suffering from dehydration, heat stroke, exhaustion and any other number of medical issues. Fossil fuel companies are also known to work hand-in-glove with law enforcement to squash dissent, particularly when it comes to climate change.

"We are being advised by a lawyer," said Pumarol. "We have meetings for everyone to be prepared for the direct actions. People are assigned roles, so anyone is welcome, even if they're not willing to take a risk." Civil disobedience, or non-violent law breaking as a form of political protest, inherently involves risk, so participants are given legal advice.

"Our movement is strictly non-violent, and everyone involved is made aware and trained on our principles," said Pumarol. "We’ve never had agitators in our past climate protests, but if we do there are people assigned to de-escalate any potential conflict."

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter Lab Notes.

The scientific community recognizes the importance of protesting. In addition to being good for your mental health, protests can also lead to constructive results by galvanizing public opinion and pressuring bad actors. Major social changes from ending segregation and granting women suffrage to ending the Vietnam War and creating the Environmental Protection Agency all occurred because of organized protest activity.

"Protest is an important form of expression," said Dr. Michael E. Mann, a professor of earth and environmental science at the University of Pennsylvania. "It always has been. I was part of the protests in Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley in the mid-1980s that ultimately led to the collapse of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. This is relevant to today's fossil fuel divestment campaign." At the same time, Mann is concerned that purely antagonist actions — such as climate change protesters who throw tomato soup on classic works of art — cause more harm than good.

"[I've] criticized certain disruptive public actions that I believe have been unhelpful in garnering public support for climate action," said Mann. "Protesters must be smart, and think carefully about who the real target is, and whether this is well communicated through the actions being undertaken. How will it play in a photo and a caption, if that’s all that most people see. Always think about that."

Dr. Peter Kalmus, a NASA climate scientist who made it clear he is speaking only for himself, said that "these evil banks that are killing the planet are headquartered on Wall Street." He notes that the climate groups now coalescing to organize this campaign hope to "shed light on how they are contributing to the irreversible destruction of the habitability of the only planet in the universe known to have life." After encouraging people to go to the Summer of Heat website, Kalmus added that "the more people who join in the protests, the more we will get done! We're planning a protest party that should last for most of the summer."

Yet participants should also make sure to be mindful of their physical and mental health. This is, after all, predicted to be the hottest summer ever recorded in human history. Kalmus' advised protesters to keep these things in mind even as they do not lose sight of their mission.

"Drink water, stay cool, don't exert too much in very hot and humid weather, watch out for each other, and protest the morally bankrupt bankers and fossil fuel folks who are profiting from making extreme heat worse and worse every year," said Kalmus.

Stevie O'Hanlon, who works as communications director for the climate change activist organization Sunrise Movement, said that protesters ultimately believe they can mobilize public opinion in their favor as temperatures continue to mount and natural disasters keep piling up.

"We are holding politicians and Big Oil accountable for the lives lost and homes destroyed by disasters," O'Hanlon said. "We want people around the country to understand that these are not natural disasters, they are climate disasters, and they are going to get worse if we don't take bold action. We want to send a message to politicians like Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis who are banning water breaks and the mere mention of climate change — if you continue to care more about pleasing your oil and gas donors than the lives of people in your state, you are gonna be out of a job."

Additionally O'Hanlon said, "We are demanding our government sue Big Oil and that President Biden declare a climate emergency to use every resource at his disposal to stop the climate crisis and save lives."

Amidst the stress of this campaign, however, there are still moments that can inspire. Pumarol identified how this can happen when speaking to Salon about the diverse group of people backing the protest movement.

"We are building such a wide and diverse coalition," said Pumarol. "We have over 94 organizations that have already endorsed the Summer of Heat. We are partnering with communities of color in New York City and partnering with folks in the Gulf South that have been facing the brunt of the climate crisis. We just want to build a wide and diverse coalition, and we think that would be more effective in pressuring Wall Street to stop funding fossil fuels."