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Why Greenpeace Activists Put Gas Masks on London's Famous Monuments

Recipients included Nelson, Boadicea, Oliver Cromwell, and Winston Churchill.
April 18, 2016, 2:40pm

It's been a busy day for Greenpeace's climbing wing. This morning, activists scaled some of London's most iconic statues and attached "air pollution masks" to their faces. Recipients included Nelson, of Nelson's Column fame, as well as Oliver Cromwell, Winston Churchill, and Boadicea.

The aim was to bring visibility to what tends to be an invisible problem: air pollution. And it did. But, of course, there are a lot of unanswered questions. What was the view like up there? Is someone going to take the masks down, or will London's monuments be defaced forever? Where do you buy a mask that fits Oliver Cromwell's giant bronze face?


Inevitably, many of the climbers involved are now in police custody. But the man who masked Eros on London's Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain ran free and into my arms. His name is Paul Morozzo, and this is what he had to say.

VICE: Why did you put a pollution mask on Eros today?
Paul Morozzo: We wanted to put pollution masks on a whole range of statues around London, and Eros is one of the better-known statues in London. What we're trying to do is make what is an invisible problem visible in interesting ways. We thought it would be nice to put masks on these iconic statues as way of drawing attention to the huge problem that is air pollution in London.

What's going on with the air?
We have a huge problem with NOx (nitrogen oxide) emissions in particular. Roughly nine thousand five hundred people a year are dying early because of air pollution. It's affecting lung development in thousands of children. Mainly, the problem is diesel and petrol cars and vans. Mainly diesel. But there's also a problem with buses and taxis. It's one of these problems that is extra tragic because the solutions are to hand. You'd have to be brave, but it wouldn't be massively difficult to solve these problems. We're calling for a clean air zone for London. At the moment, Boris Johnson has put forward a proposal for an ultra-low emission zone, but that only covers the area of the congestion zone, which is a very small area in London. So we're calling for a clean air zone to cover a much larger area of London to be brought in sooner than 2020. We're saying at least by 2019, and we need it to be stricter, to protect the lungs of most Londoners—not just a few of them.

How many activists were involved in the protest?
Something like thirty.

And it got some press attention.
Yeah, it's definitely had a bit of media coverage, which is great. But the next thing is that we want the next mayor to consult on a much expanded, cleaner air zone within the first one hundred days of their office. We just think, nine thousand five hundred people a year—that's a lot of people. Although it's a problem countrywide, air pollution in London is the worst in the country. And of the thirty thousand annual deaths, nearly a third of them are in London, despite the fact that only a sixth of the population is in London—so it's a very serious problem. It's a kind of health emergency. So it's incumbent on the new mayor to do something about it.


Some people are pissed off because the emergency services had to stand on "please don't fall and die" duty while Greenpeace activists scaled Nelson's Column. They could have been attending some real emergencies. What do you have to say to those people?
Well, we make it absolutely clear that we are self-sufficient, and we don't need the ambulance services to be around. And that, if we needed to, we'd call them. But there's absolutely no need for them to be there. I think the way it works is if they get a call for something serious, they go and deal with it. They don't just stand around when they're needed somewhere else. So I don't think that's really the issue. As for the police, again, if something serious comes up, they're gonna deal with it. There's no suggestion that somehow they're being diverted from other things because, if they get the call, they go and deal with those other things. You know, if it were really serious, we would just come down, so they could go and do it—like if something terrible happened.

So how would you come down from Nelson's Column? Were there ways to communicate with climbers?
Yeah, we had radio contact and phone contact with them.

Are you a trained climber?
Yeah. Obviously anyone who works at heights for Greenpeace has to be trained, because obviously we've got a very strong safety protocol. We're not gonna put anyone in danger, so everyone's who works at height is trained, yeah.


Did you have to get the air pollution mask custom made for Eros?
We commissioned an artist called Chris Kelly to make each mask individually. And each mask spoke to the character of the statue. So, for example, the Eros mask had two hearts daubed into it. The Nelson mask had Nelson's medal, as well as one of the filters. The Churchill mask had a kind of radio speaker and a bobble hat as part of the mask. So if you look at the photos, you'll see that each mask is slightly different. We wanted it, one to speak to the character of the statues, and two to be a little bit more interesting. You know the more thoughtful you are, the more you can speak to the issue in a kind of profound way.

Some of your colleagues are in police custody at the moment—do you have any idea what's happening to them?
Well, they'll be released later in the day. And then they'll either be charged or set free completely. And if they get charged, they'll have to return to court in a few weeks.

The idea of potentially getting charged doesn't put you off campaigning?
Yeah, that's right. You know when an issue's as serious as air pollution, when the solutions are as to hand as they are, we want to create change, and sometimes you just have to face a few consequences if you wanna choose that.

Have Greenpeace activists got any more actions lined up?
Yep, we definitely have, but as you can imagine, I probably wouldn't go into that. We have got a lot more stuff planned for sure.

What would you say to kids who are thinking about climbing Nelson's Column?
Come and get involved with the Greenpeace climb team. But I would say it's definitely not something to do on spec. I think if people are concerned abut air pollution, they should put pressure on the mayor to implement a clean air zone, and they should get involved in the debate. Under EU law, you're allowed to have a certain amount of air pollution each year. You have a kind of annual allowance. But London broke its annual allowance, I think, in the first two weeks of January. Not the whole of London, but just parts of London. So you can tell how serious it is. That's an important statistic.