Researchers risk arrest for demanding news and research on climate action
Rose Abramoff drove from her home in Knoxville, Tennessee, to the nation’s capital last week to chain herself to the White House fence.
The climate researcher was among seven protesters who were arrested on April 6 (and later released). Their motivation: the terrible warning that time is running out fast to meet the world’s climate goals, as described in a major report last week by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Two days later, Abramoff was back – this time marching with a group of climate activists down I-395 during rush hour. The group was arrested again, but not before stopping traffic on one of Washington’s busiest freeways.
In both cases, their demands were clear: faster, stronger climate action from world governments and an end to the burning of fossil fuels.
“It was my first experience of civil disobedience for any reason,” said Abramoff, a climate scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who stressed that her activism was conducted on her own behalf and did not reflect the views of her department. She also spoke to E&E News only on her own behalf.
Previously, she had participated in marches and worked with non-profit organizations, community groups and educational programs on issues related to climate change. But most of her previous activities “fit into the usual form of researchers who are primarily party politically inactive,” she told E&E News. “This was my first real departure from it.”
A growing revolution
Abramoff took part in last week’s demonstrations as part of the climate movement “Scientist Rebellion” – a loosely composed, international organization of scientists who advocate stronger climate action through non-violent protests and civil disobedience. (Abramoff is one of the organizers for participants in the United States and Canada.)
Scientist Rebellion started as a small, largely European movement a couple of years ago, according to Abramoff. It has recently attracted more attention from researchers around the world. In November last year, it held its first coordinated international campaign with demonstrations in Glasgow, Scotland, during a major UN climate conference.
Most recently, participants staged demonstrations in cities around the world following the release of the IPCC’s climate report last week, demanding faster and stronger global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In Los Angeles, four scientists were arrested after handcuffing themselves at the entrance to a Chase bank. In Germany, researchers outside the Ministry of Economy and Climate Protection demonstrated. In England, they protested outside Shell PLC’s headquarters. They pasted documents on government buildings in Mexico, occupied the head office of an oil and gas company in Italy and threw fake blood on the facade of the National Congress in Spain.
Scientist Rebellion estimates that a total of about 1,000 researchers in 25 countries participated in last week’s demonstrations, often dressed in lab coats to identify themselves.
Many of them were joined by protesters from other movements and organizations. Abramoff was joined in Washington by protesters from the climate activist group Declare Emergency and the Indigenous activist groups Honor the Earth and Camp Migizi. The Extinction Rebellion, an activist movement calling for stronger government action against global threats to the world’s ecosystems and biodiversity, also staged a number of demonstrations around the world last week in response to the new IPCC report.
In an open letter signed by more than 150 researchers from around the world, Scientist Rebellion describes itself as a group of “scientists and academics who believe that we should expose the reality and seriousness of the climate and the ecological emergency by engaging in non-violent civil disobedience. “If those who are best placed to understand do not act as if this is an emergency, we can not expect the public to do so.”
The group has adopted, as a kind of slogan, the phrase “1.5C is dead. Climate revolution now! ” It is a reference to the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, if at all possible, or “well below” 2 C.
The world has already warmed up by more than one degree Celsius, which means that both goals are fast approaching. And the release of the latest IPCC report has questioned the world’s ability to meet the 1.5 C target at all. Global emissions would need to peak in the next few years, decrease by almost half in the next decade and reach net zero by the middle of the century.
Although it may be possible to lower the global temperature back to below 1.5 C later, by physically removing carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere, many experts believe that it is extremely likely to exceed the target – at least temporarily – at this time.
“It is almost inevitable that we will at least temporarily exceed 1.5,” said Jim Skea, an energy expert at Imperial College London and co-chair of the IPCC working group that prepared the report, in a virtual presentation of the results last week.
Scientist Rebellion shares many common goals and strategies with other climate activist groups, such as its cousin Extinction Rebellion, including an emphasis on nonviolent civil disobedience. The organizers describe the movement – and its emphasis on the participation of researchers – as an attempt to draw greater attention and credibility to climate activism.
“There is a lingering general perception that activists are extremists who exaggerate the problem and overreact by breaking the rules,” the organization’s website states. “Researchers are becoming more involved in activism, especially when it involves arrestable crimes, increasing the credibility of civil disobedience. As one of our members puts it, ‘They can not just dismiss us as a bunch of hippies.’
“Clear and present danger”
The scientific community has historically expressed mixed views on the extent to which researchers should also become activists in subjects related to their own work. But in recent years, a growing number of researchers have begun to advocate more activism on the issue of climate change.
“There really is a paradigm shift beginning among scholars about this idea of neutrality and remaining impartial,” Abramoff said. “I really believe that this change is just a recognition of the inherent humanity of scientists and the fact that we have emotions – and the inalienable rights to express those emotions.”
Some scientists have occasionally put forward controversial proposals for activism.
In December, a trio of environmental researchers published an article in an academic journal urging climate scientists to stage a global strike. Researchers should refuse to conduct more climate research – at least in areas where they “simply document” the effects of global warming on the planet – until governments agree to stronger climate action, they suggested.
The magazine was met with mixed reviews from other researchers who expressed their views on Twitter. While some sympathized with the authors’ frustrations, others argued that researchers have an ethical responsibility to continue their research and should work to bring about social change in other ways.
Most activists do not demand a moratorium on scientific research. But a growing contingent of researchers around the world advocates greater participation in climate activism and environmental justice movements.
“There is no point for scientists to be silent when their science informs them of existential risks from a clear and present danger that is increasing very, very rapidly,” said Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA. Kalmus also stressed that his activism, and his interview with E&E News, is only carried out on his own behalf and does not reflect the views of his employers. “I feel that all researchers should speak out and take action,” he said. “And not only that, but scientists have a moral responsibility to do so.”
Kalmus also took part in a demonstration last week as part of the Scientist Rebellion campaign. He and three other researchers donned laboratory coats and gathered in Pershing Square in LA, where they chained themselves to the entrance to a JPMorgan Chase & Co. bank and demanded an end to the burning of fossil fuels. According to Bloomberg, JPMorgan Chase is the world’s leading provider of financing to the fossil fuel industry.
On the door behind them, they put up a forest green sign that said: “We are nature defending itself.”
“The world scientists have been ignored, and it must stop,” Kalmus said in an emotional speech as he stood chained to the bank’s door. “It is time for all of us to stand up and take risks and make sacrifices for this beautiful planet that gives us life, that gives us fresh air.”
Police eventually arrested all four researchers after they declined to clear the area. They were later released.
It was Kalmus’ first experience of risking arrest when he engaged in civil disobedience, he tells E&E News. But he has been involved in various other forms of climate activism for at least 16 years. Kalmus has two teenage sons and says he is “willing to risk everything” to ensure a habitable planet for his children.
“I actually feel genuinely desperate and terrified,” he said. “I can so clearly see where we are going when it comes to climate change, and I feel no momentum or intention on the part of world leaders to really take care of this planet and take care of this problem, which really requires an end to the fossil fuel industry so fast as possible.”
To achieve the Paris Agreement’s climate goals, the IPCC has warned that global emissions should peak by 2025. As that milestone approaches, Abramoff said, she expects more activism from troubled researchers around the world.
“Now that we’re a kind of growing movement, I think you’ll probably see increasing frequencies of actions happening around the world,” she said. “I think you will see a steady mess, hopefully a slowly growing ground wave of action as the clock ticks down to 2025.”
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides important news for energy and environmental professionals.