Rose Abramoff drove from her home in Knoxville, Tennessee, to the nation’s capital last week to chain herself to the gate of the White House.
The climate scientist was one of seven protesters arrested (and later released) on April 6. Their motivation: the dire warning that time is quickly running out to meet the world’s climate goals, as detailed in a major report last week from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Two days later, Abramoff was back — this time marching with a group of climate activists across I-395 during rush hour. The group was arrested again, but not before blocking traffic on one of Washington’s busiest highways.
In both cases, their demands were clear: faster, stronger climate action from world governments and an end to burning fossil fuels.
“It was my first experience of civil disobedience for any reason,” said Abramoff, a climate scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who emphasized that her activism is conducted on her behalf and does not reflect the views of her institution. She also spoke to E&E News only on her behalf.
In the past, she had participated in marches and worked with nonprofits, community groups and educational programs on issues related to climate change. But most of her past activities “fitted that mainstream mold of scientists as mostly impartial and non-activist,” she told E&E News. “This was my first real departure from that.”
A growing revolution
Abramoff took part in last week’s demonstrations as part of the climate movement “Scientist Rebellion” — a loosely-woven, international organization of scientists advocating stronger climate action through nonviolent protests and acts of civil disobedience. (Abramoff is one of the organizers for contestants in the US and Canada.)
Scientist Rebellion started a few years ago as a small, largely European movement, according to Abramoff. It has recently attracted more attention from scientists around the world. Last November, it held its first coordinated international campaign with demonstrations in Glasgow, Scotland, at a major UN climate conference.
Most recently, participants staged demonstrations in cities around the world following the release of the IPCC 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 of a Chase bank. In Germany, scientists demonstrated outside the Ministry of Economy and Climate Protection. In England they protested outside the headquarters of Shell PLC. They pasted documents on government buildings in Mexico, occupied the headquarters 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 scientists in 25 countries took part in last week’s demonstrations, often wearing 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 climate activist group Declare Emergency and Indigenous activist groups Honor the Earth and Camp Migizi. 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 scientists from around the world, Scientist Rebellion describes itself as a group of “scientists and academics who believe we need to expose the reality and gravity of the climate and ecological emergency by engaging in with nonviolent civil disobedience. Unless those best placed to understand act as if this were an emergency, we cannot expect the public to do so.”
The group has, as a sort of slogan, the phrase “1.5C is dead. Climate revolution now!” It is a reference to the Paris climate agreement goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, if possible, or ‘well below’ 2 C.
The world has already warmed more than a degree Celsius, which means that both goals are quickly approaching. And the release of the latest IPCC report has cast doubt on the world’s ability to meet the 1.5C target at all. Global emissions should peak within the next few years, fall by nearly half over the next decade, and reach net zero by the middle of the century.
While it may be possible to bring the Earth’s temperature back below 1.5 C later on by physically removing carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere, many experts believe that exceeding the target – at least temporarily – at this point moment is very likely.
“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 findings.
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. Organizers describe the movement — and its emphasis on scientists’ participation — as an effort to draw more attention and credibility to climate activism.
“There is a persistent public perception that activists are extremists who exaggerate the problem and overreact by breaking the rules,” the organization’s website says. “Scientists becoming more involved in activism, especially when it comes to arrestable crimes, increases the credibility of civil disobedience. As one of our members puts it, ‘They can’t just pass us off as a bunch of hippies.’”
‘Clear and present danger’
The scientific community has historically expressed mixed opinions about the extent to which scientists should also become activists on topics related to their own work. But in recent years, a growing number of scientists have begun to advocate for more climate change activism.
“There’s really a paradigm shift going on among scientists about this idea of neutrality and staying unbiased,” Abramoff said. “I really think this shift is just an acknowledgment of the inherent humanity of scientists and the fact that we have feelings — and inalienable rights to express those feelings.”
Some scholars have occasionally put forward controversial suggestions for activism.
In December, a trio of environmental scientists published an op-ed in an academic journal calling on climate scientists for a global strike. Scientists should refuse to conduct any more climate research — at least in areas where they “just” document the effects of global warming — until governments agree to stronger climate action, they suggested.
The paper received mixed reviews from other scientists who expressed their views on Twitter. While some sympathized with the authors’ frustrations, others argued that scientists have an ethical responsibility to continue their research and should work for social change in other ways.
Most activists do not advocate a moratorium on scientific research. But a growing contingent of scientists around the world are calling for greater participation in climate activism and environmental justice movements.
“It makes no sense for scientists to remain silent when their science informs them of existential risks of an obvious and present danger that is increasing very, very rapidly,” said Peter Kalmus, a NASA climate scientist. Kalmus also stressed that his activism and his interview with E&E News are conducted on his behalf only and do not reflect the views of his employer. “I think that all scientists should speak up and take action,” he said. “Not only that, scientists also have a moral responsibility to do that.”
Kalmus also took part in a demonstration last week as part of the Scientist Rebellion campaign. He and three other scientists donned lab coats and gathered in LA’s Pershing Square, where they chained themselves to the entrance of a JPMorgan Chase & Co. bank, calling for an end to fossil fuel burning. According to Bloomberg, JPMorgan Chase is the world’s largest financier of the fossil fuel industry.
On the door behind them, they hung a forest green sign that read, “We are nature defending itself.”
“The scientists of the world have been ignored, and it has to stop,” Kalmus said in an emotional speech as he stood chained to the door of the bank. “It’s 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 healthy air.”
Police eventually arrested all four scientists after they refused to clear the area. They were later released.
It was Kalmus’ first experience of risking arrest while involved in civil disobedience, he told 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 wants to “risk everything” to ensure a livable planet for his children.
“I feel really desperate and terrified,” he said. “I can see so clearly where we are going in terms of climate change, and I don’t feel any momentum or any intention on the part of world leaders to really really care for this planet and solve this problem, that really requires as soon as possible an end to the fossil fuel industry.”
To meet the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, the IPCC has warned that global emissions should peak by the year 2025. As that milestone approaches, Abramoff said, she expects more activism from concerned scientists around the world.
“Now that we’re kind of a growing movement, I think you’re probably going to see more and more actions happening around the world,” she said. “I think you’ll see a steady stream of action, hopefully a slow-growing tidal wave of action as the clock ticks towards 2025.”
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environmental professionals.