We operate in a media landscape which is quick to paint activists and protestors with an unflattering brush; especially when calls to action threaten the status quo or aim to disrupt powerful structures. Climate activists continue to be smeared using a variety of defamatory slurs—from virtue signallers, to rioters, extremists, even terrorists, and are increasingly the recipients of intimidation, coercion and police brutality.
In this context, creative, nonviolent grassroots action can disrupt dominant discourse using clever symbolism and pop culture references. With this in mind, we want to celebrate the cute and quirky ways in which we change the narrative.
In recent years 350.org has been engaged in countless climate actions around the world, employing tactics that demand attention and bring about concrete outcomes. One of these has been successfully employing the services and pop-culture clout bestowed by two unlikely climate champions: T-Rex and Pikachu.
Peek the Pikachus
In June 2019, Japan hosted the G20 Summit where world leaders gathered to discuss global sustainable development. In an effort to underline Japan’s hypocrisy in hosting the summit while continuing to fund fossil fuel projects around the world—particularly coal-fired power plants—activists decided to call on the country’s most popular, wholesome and recognizable export: the electric-type Pokemon companion, Pikachu.
As 350 Asia’s Regional Director Norly Mercado explained at the event, “Pokemon’s enduring popularity stands as proof of Japan’s capacity for technology, innovation and creativity, which is why we believe the country can evolve into a world leader in climate action and renewable energy”.
Pokemon became a pop culture phenomena throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, and remains a source of immense affection for millennials around the world. For those generations that came before or after Pokemon’s golden years, the undeniably quirky and eye-catching images the event produced sparked a conversation and opened up an opportunity to explain the metaphor: Pokemon undergo a series of evolutions over the course of their lives – levelling up and getting stronger in the process. Similarly, the climate crisis requires us all to evolve and level-up, refining only the powers that facilitate the success of our species. Pikachu, being an electric-type Pokemon, makes it the perfect embodiment of our need as a collective to evolve into renewable electricity producers.
350 Pilipinas volunteer Lynne Brasileno explained that Pikachu is also the personification of a companion—even a champion—who you could always count on, and who taught about empathy, friendship and respect for nature, qualities which helped to endear so many young people to him.
In June this year, Pikachu made an appearance in Bangladesh with partner organization #FridaysForFuture while the G7 conference was taking place. Activists gathered to protest Japan’s funding of the Matabari Phase 2 coal plant project in the climate-vulnerable country – a project which has displaced communities in violation of the state’s Land Acquisition Act of 1982 and taken away the livelihoods of many who relied on the agricultural land.
Image: Fridays For Future Bangladesh
Estimates predict that the power plant will be responsible for 14,000 premature deaths due to air pollution — the third leading cause of mortality in the country — which ranks the highest globally for the worst air pollution. 350.org and partners are calling for Bangladesh to enact a Green New Deal, which would see the halting of all coal power projects. Activists are also calling on Japan to cease funding for the Matabari Phase 2 coal plant and invest in renewable energy infrastructure in Bangladesh.
Pikachu was also spotted at another action last month in Manila, where activists led by the Asian People’s Movement on Debt and Development gathered to protest the annual meetings of Asia’s leading fossil fuel financiers including Sumitomo Corporation. Among their demands were that Sumitomo, who owns a number of coal mines and contributes to the development of coal-fired power plants across Southeast Asia, align its investments with the targets set out in the Paris Agreement.
T. Rex’s Timeline
Another unlikely ally, who has turned out to be an effective and reliable bearer of the climate-action flag in recent years has been the friendly Tyrannosaurus Rex. In various contexts and countries in the last four years, T. Rexes have come out in the multitudes.
The message is clear: the dinosaurs represent the fossil fuel industry, and they will be responsible for our collective extinction unless they evolve beyond coal, oil and gas.
One of the first times T. Rex appeared on the scene — in arguably the most fitting circumstances that could be imagined for his activism debut — was to protest the confirmation of Rex Tillerson, former head of Exxon/Mobil, as former US President Donald Trump’s Secretary of State in January 2017.
Protestors gathered outside Tillerson’s Senate confirmation hearing and led by 350.org marched through the streets of Washington D.C. With a name like Rex, it would have been wrong not to include T. Rex in the protests – but furthermore, T. Rex served to underline the disastrous impact that Exxon/Mobil has had on both people and the climate – and that #ExxonKnew about the impacts the company’s activities would have on the climate decades ahead of time, rendering Tillerson’s nomination to Trump’s cabinet offensive and irresponsible.
The following year in July 2018, climate activists led by 350 Pilipinas as part of the #RiseForClimate action protested three major companies in the Philippines who they argue stand in the way of modernizing the country’s electricity infrastructure which continues to generate 50% of its power from coal.
Calling out DMCI Holdings, San Miguel and Meralco, the country’s largest coal operators, activists donned T. Rex costumes and called for the companies to show leadership in the country’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy in order to limit carbon emissions and mitigate climate disaster.
Chuck Baclagon, 350.org Asia’s Finance Campaigner put their demands plainly: “No new fossil fuel projects and a fast, just transition to 100% renewable energy”.
Baclagon added: “We want fossil fuel dinosaurs to evolve into renewable energy champions, because their failure to evolve also means our collective extinction”.
The action was intended to build momentum in the lead up to the global climate movement’s #RiseForClimate day of action on the 8th of September that year, when thousands of cities across the world participated in actions calling for a fossil free world and for leaders attending the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco to take hard action.
Perhaps inspired by the appearance of T. Rex at several global climate protests, in September 2019 during the #GlobalClimateStrike, Manchester Museum in the UK showed their solidarity with #ArtStrike by putting their actual, “real life”, 65 million year old in-house T. rex — named Stan — on strike. Cloaked in a black robe, and removed from the public’s view, Stan participated in the global day of action through withholding his presence to the dismay of museum-goers while the Manchester Museum drew a comparison between the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs and today’s fossil fuel burning, tweeting “Dinosaurs thought they had time too… ACT NOW!”
Dinosaurs thought they had time too… ACT NOW!
Today Stan our T. rex is ON STRIKE, removed from public view & cloaked in black in solidarity with the #GlobalClimateStrike #ArtStrike #ClimateEmergency #ClimateStrike @UKSCN @UKSCN1 pic.twitter.com/m0eVV3Vxpp
— Manchester Museum (@McrMuseum) September 20, 2019
Fast-forward to February 2021, and activists from 350 New Hampshire are staging an installation outside a Liberty Utilities facility in Manchester in solidarity with the No Coal No Gas campaign in New England. They aimed to secure a concrete shut down date for the coal-fired Merrimack Generating Station in Bow, NH, using cardboard dinosaurs to make the point that fossil fuels are antiquated and should go extinct.
Finally, just last month on June 16th, climate activists from 350.org wore T-Rex costumes to protest against fossil fuels at the Asia Clean Energy Forum in front of the Asian Development Bank in Ortigas City, Philippines.
The dinosaurs held signs calling for the ADB to go fossil free, reading: “Don’t be a fossil-fool, evolve beyond oil and gas!”.
The Asia Development Bank in May released a draft energy policy called “Supporting Low Carbon Transition in the Asia and the Pacific”, prohibiting the bank from funding any new oil, gas, coal mining, drilling or extraction projects. However, it will continue to provide conditional funding for natural gas projects and has so far not ruled out indirect financing for fossil fuels.
350.org is calling on the ADB to provide a concrete timeline to fully phase out financing for all existing fossil fuel projects, emphasizing that in addition, an expedited, just transition towards renewable and community-owned energy development is required.
Shout out to creative campaigners
Climate justice activists assert that along with the glaring need to transition to renewables for the sake of the planet, energy companies ought to make the transition to renewables for the sake of their own longevity — the energy landscape is shifting rapidly, and if they refuse to evolve with it, they risk being left behind. While the financial sector continues to shift their investments towards renewable energy and away from coal, companies must follow suit.
Individuals and organizations working for climate justice face myriad obstacles in getting their messages out and having their voices heard when up against the fossil fuel industry’s deeply embedded structural power. It’s not an easy feat to convey complex issues in a compelling way, while at the same time acting as sources of hope for many who feel that the stakes are just too high, and those in power are just not taking bold enough action.
This surely won’t be the last time Pikachu and T. Rex show up to support climate action — but until we spot them again, we thank them for their enduring support.