Climate activist dies after setting himself on fire in front of Supreme Court

A friend called the self-immolation "a deeply fearless act of compassion to bring attention to climate crisis"

Published April 26, 2022 12:00PM (EDT)

The US Supreme Court in Washington, DC (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
The US Supreme Court in Washington, DC (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

An environmental activist set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court on Earth Day to protest climate change.

Wynn Alan Bruce, 50, died in the hospital from injuries suffered from self-immolation 24 hours after being airlifted out of the DC plaza by the National Park Service. Capitol Police, Supreme Court police, and DC police were all among those who responded to the Apr. 22 incident.

Dr. Kritee Kanko, Zen Buddhist priest and climate scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, tweeted she was a friend of Bruce and the act had been planned for over a year. "This act is not suicide. This is a deeply fearless act of compassion to bring attention to climate crisis," said Kanko.

In an interview with "The New York Times", Kanko said Bruce's intentions weren't clear and that "what I do not want to happen is that young people start thinking about self-immolation."

Bruce was a Colorado photojournalist who belonged to Shambala, a Buddhist organization in Boulder. He often shared quotes by Buddhist masters like Chögyam Trungpa and Thich Nhat Hanh on social media. The act is thought to be an imitation of Vietnamese monks who burnt themselves alive in the 1960's to protest the Vietnam War, famously idolized by Thich Nhat Hanh who recently passed away in January.

"The press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest," Thich Nhat Hanh wrote. "To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with utmost courage, frankness, determination, and sincerity."

Bruce left a cryptic Facebook message on Apr. 2 as a comment to an October 2020 post warning of the irreversible nature of climate change. The comment includes the date of his planned act along with a fire emoji, allegedly alluding to his death.

Bruce's Facebook page has since been flooded with sympathetic messages from friends and climate activists. Others are more critical of the act, labeling it as a suicide and questioning Bruce's mental health.

This is not the first-time a climate activist has gone to such extremes to raise awareness about the dangers of global warming. In 2018, David Buckel, 60, died by self-immolation as a protest against fossil fuels in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Buckel sent an email to media outlets before his death which detailed an explanation of the act.

"Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves," said the note.

A vigil to honor Bruce's life is said to be organized for later in the week.

By Meryl Phair

MORE FROM Meryl Phair

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Climate Change Earth Day Supreme Court The New York Times Vietnam War