This Professor Just Got Arrested for Making Climate Change Graffiti

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Governments aren't paying attention to scientific research, but maybe crime will get people's attention.

Colin Davis, a middle-aged Bristol University psychology professor, was recently caught making graffiti drawing attention to climate change. He and seven other activists sprayed symbols and slogans on Bristol's environment agency’s headquarters last weekend. Police arrested him, put him in a cell and eventually released him, which he apparently didn't mind.

"I was allowed to take a couple of books in with me, and they brought me a cup of coffee and a blanket," Davis told me. "It was very quiet, which was nice. It reminded me a little bit of being in my office at university, but with no email, which was rather liberating!"

He may be facing criminal damage charges.

"Someone in HR apparently said there could be consequences if I were charged, but I'm not worried," he went on. "Colleagues have been supportive. A few probably think I'm off my rocker, but I haven't heard about it! "

It all goes to show that climate change activists are getting a bit desperate.

"Successive governments have made it clear that they won’t listen to scientists who write reports," wrote Davis in an article explaining the incident. "Perhaps they will listen to scientists who break the law to try and make their voices heard."

Davis was feeling something a lot of people in the environmental community have been feeling lately: that the "acceptable" choices for political engagement just aren't working.

Colin davis climate change activist
© Professor Colin Davis, a climate change activist. Courtesy of Colin Davis

"What should we do when our government is leading us off the cliff edge?" he continued. "I’ve tried the conventional things. I’ve voted in elections, signed petitions, and written letters to my MP. I’ve been on marches, and given money to organisations like Greenpeace and Avaaz. I’ve joined the Green party, and delivered leaflets and knocked on doors. I’ve started petitions, and had conversations with people about how the climate is changing. I’m not really sure that any of these things has had any positive effect, but I am sure that twelve more years of doing the same won’t be enough. By then we may have reached the point of runaway climate change. There isn’t time to wait for politicians to come to their senses."

After all, David doesn't think this is really about politics. He thinks it's about economics. The powers that be tell us to vote and write to local congresspeople and such, but these suggestions feel almost insulting at times. Government knows about climate change. But powerful businesses want to stay powerful, no matter how many petitions people sign.

"The problem is not so much which party is in power at any given time, but rather the fact that fossil fuel companies are always in power," he adds.

He acknowledges that his act may have been childish, but there's no arguing with the results.

"How do acts like this help the climate?" he asks. "Well, for one thing, it’s given me this opportunity to speak to fellow Bristolians about the most pressing issue humanity faces."

He's been getting positive feedback.

"What's been particularly gratifying have been messages from a couple of much younger protesters whose parents were initially very concerned about their involvement in illegal actions, but who changed their mind after reading the article," he told me. "'It really helped my mum understand why we did it, really quite amazing how much it changed her,' one person said."

Media outlets often need a weird hook to be able to bring up environmental issues (cough). A graffiti-ing professor certainly qualifies, which is why a local Bristol paper covered the story, which is why I'm covering the story.

Not that Davis came up with the idea alone. He's part of "Extinction Rebellion," a group that uses nonviolent civil disobedience to bring attention to climate change. Their methods "worked for Gandhi and Martin Luther King, for the suffragettes, and for countless campaigns and struggles around the world," Davis wrote. "There are no guarantees that it’ll work this time, but I think it’s the best option we have, and I don’t know what else to try."

The group is planning an international rebellion in April.

"I don’t know if this rebellion will be successful. But it feels good to be doing something, rather than becoming increasingly overwhelmed by powerlessness," he continued. "Unlike CO2 emissions, which stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years, the chalk spray we used can be removed quite easily, with water."