‘Like a public shaming’: Tire deflators target carbon-spewing SUVs | Car Emissions

OAfter a sweltering night in New York City, a group of activists in masks clutching sacks of lentils set out to stage the largest-ever blitzkrieg on a new target for climate activists in the US: the tires of SUVs.

The group — a mixture of ages and genders — split as midnight approached and walked the streets of the Upper East Side, lined by some of the world’s most expensive apartments and a gleaming parade of high-end, parked SUVs. This type of vehicle is the second largest cause of the global increase in CO2 emissions the past decade.

The tire extinguishers, as they call themselves, surreptitiously pass around bags of lentils for their raid (the legumes are wedged into a tire valve to let the air out slowly at night) and enlarge their prey.

A hulking Land Rover, with a parking permit for a Hamptons beach, is an obvious first target, but a loitering doorman at a nearby apartment complex makes the group nervous. They rush down the street, then turn back and settle for an Audi.

One of the group kneels, unscrews the valve cap from the tire, stuffs a lentil and puts the cap back on. The band immediately lets out a startled “pfft” sound, a brochure is slapped on the windshield and the group melts back into the night.

Since June, dozens of SUV and pickup truck owners in New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area and Chicago have discovered their vehicles with flat tires, along with a note on the windshield that reads, “Your gas guzzler kills.” The leaflet, complete with a Ghostbusters-esque photo of a crossed-out SUV, states that the massive amounts of planet-heating emissions generated by the vehicles are “nails in the coffin of our climate,” adding: “You’ll be mad. but don’t take it personally. It’s not you, it’s your car.”

America has embraced big SUVs like no other country, even in liberal, walkable areas like the Upper East Side, so activists face an uphill task to stigmatize the super-sized cars that now dominate American streets. But Tire Extinguishers’ burgeoning US operation has been awash with insults and even death threats. One message promised to “deflate your lungs”, while another critic, in a nod to the campaign’s British roots, wrote “damn, Redcoats!”

People walking on a sidewalk, seen from behind
Members of the Tire Extinguishers walked down a street in Manhattan’s Upper East Side last week. Photo: Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet/The Guardian

The death threats aren’t a big concern, Alex insisted. “People have been emailing ‘if you screw up my SUV, I’ll kill you,’ which honestly gives me a kick,” she said. “You’re not going to find me. It’s like, why are you so angry?”

Through a deluge of emails and text messages, Alex was thrown along with a handful of other Tire Extinguisher volunteers — the group has a central contact point on its website, but is purposely decentralized and shrouded in anonymity — for the latest salvo about SUVs. , that the Guardian observed.

Left: A shadow of a person at night.  Right: Deflating hands from a BMW tyre
Left: Shadow of a member of the tire extinguishers. Right: A tire extinguisher deflates a BMW tire. Photo: Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet/The Guardian

“The amount of damage from a flat tire is nothing compared to climate change,” said one member of the group as we walked away from the first deflation, Central Park looming in the dark. “Why do you need an SUV, especially in New York? It’s a vanity thing. You have freedom of choice, sure, but you have no freedom from consequences.”

An army of SUV owners in the US would probably disagree. Sedan cars have long reigned as the best-selling category in all of America, but SUVs caught up with them in 2015 and didn’t look back. If you count pickup trucks (like the fat Ford F-150, America’s best-selling vehicle since Ronald Reagan was president), large, truck-like vehicles now make up nearly three quarters of all car sales in the US.

Modern SUVs offer comfort with a dash of adventure and ruggedness, even for city dwellers – a pair of Toyota Sequoias, named for the towering trees currently found in a mountain range 5000 miles from New York doing well due to climate change, scattered on the streets of the Upper East Side. Americans have simply found the need or desire to drive huge cars. “We need a bigger vehicle because I have two sons who have special needs,” explained Quanda Ellis-Walker, who deflated her band in California. “It was terrifying to know that someone would come and do this to you.”

Hands with lentils
A member of the tire extinguishers holds a handful of lentils. Photo: Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet/The Guardian

However, because SUVs combine the weight of an adult rhinoceros and the aerodynamics of a refrigerator, they require more energy to move than smaller cars and therefore emit more pollution. As their popularity has increased, so has their impact on the climate crisis.

Over the past decade, SUV emissions eclipsed all shipping, aviation, heavy industry, and even trucks, usually the only vehicles they oversized on the road. The world’s SUVs emit 700 megatons of CO. from2 per year, approximately the entire production of the UK and the Netherlands combined.

While many U.S. cities don’t have decent public transportation options, “it doesn’t make sense that we should flood our streets with dangerous, oversized, glacier-melting SUVs when smaller and more efficient vehicles exist that can easily meet the needs of most motorists.” said Doug Gordon, co-host of the popular podcast The War on Cars and an avid New York cyclist. “If the tire extinguishers spark a conversation about the absurdity of driving a £6,000 Cadillac Escalade to pick up a £60 kid from football practice, good for them.”

View of legs walking on zebra crossing
Members of the Tire Extinguisher on a mission in the Upper East Side. Photo: Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet/The Guardian

As acts of petty sabotage increased last Wednesday, the activists had to invoke some self-imposed rules. No SUVs with disabled stickers were targeted, nor anything that appeared to be used for particular work. A vehicle was chosen for a deflate, only for the group to see that there was a “surgeon” sign in the window – the lentil was quickly removed before the tire deflated completely. Conversely, an SUV considered “so big, so gross” had two of its tires collapsed.

By early morning, 55 SUVs had been “disarmed,” as the group calls it. No one intervened, not even a group of rowdy drunken young people stumbling past an ongoing deflation. However, the group has been wary of security cameras as the NYPD has distributed grainy footage of a… previous deflation event in an effort to identify the culprits.

Tampering with random people’s property because they harm the environment is a departure from the standard climate protests, which usually involve mass signage marches, school strikes or direct action against large entities, such as Exxon or a bank. Tire deflation feels more like a sharp, personal judgment of a fellow citizen.

Left: Hands organizing flyers.  Right: Close-up of a tire with Audi logo
Left: A member of the Tire Extinguisher prepares documents to place on a car after the tires have been deflated. Right: An idler is placed on a belt. Photo: Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet/The Guardian

“It’s like a public disgrace,” said Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who has researched environmental protests since the 1990s. “It is very unlikely that the target of public shaming will change their mind about the shaming, so the question is what is the point? It’s an innovative, simple tactic to get the air out of someone’s tires, it’s not harmful, it’s just annoying. It’s like training wheels for something confrontational.”

Fisher said she had noticed climate activists becoming increasingly confrontational as frustration mounts at the slow pace of action to tackle the climate crisis. In the US, a summer of record heat waves, the Supreme Court intervening in the federal government’s response to the crisis and Congress again unable to enact climate legislation will likely only fuel impotent anger.

“There are a lot of people who care about the environment, who are very disappointed and are looking for a protest tactic,” Fisher said. “You have people flying in private jets and driving SUVs, so there are a lot of opportunities for bad feelings between people with different views on that. I wouldn’t be surprised if these actions are the start of something more confrontational and destructive. I see it on a explode at some point.”

A person, covered with a tree bark, rests a flyer on the windshield of an SUV
A tire extinguisher puts a document on a car. Photo: Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet/The Guardian

It was a blistering night, part of New York’s longest heat wave in ten years. By the time the group finished, the temperature was still near 30C (86F), another hot day on a warming planet, largely apparently on fire.

Earlier the same day, Joe Biden had donned his aviators and delivered a speech calling the climate crisis a “clear and present danger” and announcing measures that came close to addressing it.

Faced with existential disasters, we still largely respond with warnings and symbolic gestures, whether that be from the world’s most powerful man or a bunch of Gen Z activists poking the wealthy liberal hypocrisy in Manhattan.

“These SUV owners may be annoyed, but I’m not going to wait for the rich to realize they’re doing something wrong,” said one of the activists before walking to the subway. “I’m not just going to wait and be nice. We won’t let them hide anymore.”