A growing number of scientists around the world are stepping out of their labs and onto the streets to demand greater action to curb global warming, some even risking arrest as they chain themselves to banks and other institutions that they say aren’t taking the climate crisis seriously enough. As rising greenhouse gas emissions continue to drive up sea levels and exacerbate storms, wildfires and droughts, it’s putting increasing pressure on the scientific community to depart from its typical role as a neutral information provider and pick up the torch of activism.
Last week, an estimated 1,000 scientists in more than 25 countries staged demonstrations to demand that world leaders do far more to reduce climate-warming emissions, including a handful of researchers who were arrested for locking themselves to the gate of the White House and to the front door of the JPMorgan Chase bank in Los Angeles, as well as blocking traffic on the I-395 highway in Washington, D.C.
The events were part of a growing movement dubbed the “Scientist Rebellion,” a coalition of researchers around the world who seek to “expose the reality and severity of the climate and ecological emergency by engaging in non-violent civil disobedience.”
“I personally feel very strongly that we have a moral responsibility to do everything we can to wake up the public now, especially since it’s very clear that for decades, only residing within the peer reviewed literature has not worked at all,” Peter Kalmus, a NASA climate scientist who was arrested with three others in Los Angeles on April 6, told me in an interview. “Scientists are people too, and we’re citizens, and we’re parents, and we also have a right to speak out like this.”
The demonstrations came after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the third part of its latest landmark climate report, which warned that the world would likely reach the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere needed to push global temperatures past an average rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in just five or six years. After that threshold is crossed, scientists say, some of the worst consequences of climate change will become irreversible, including significant sea level rise, drastic biodiversity loss and even populated parts of the planet eventually becoming unlivable for humans due to persistent drought and extreme weather and heat.
The average global temperature has already risen more than 1 degree Celsius, and climate scientists worry that if far more isn’t done in the coming years, the most ambitious goals of the Paris climate accord could be lost before this decade even comes to a close. Despite growing public outcry to tackle the climate crisis, carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise, the report found, with emissions in 2019 being about 12 percent higher than they were in 2010 and 54 percent higher than in 1990.
“It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” Jim Skea, co-chair of one of the report’s working groups, told ICN’s Bob Berwyn last week. “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”
For Kalmus, who said he’s worried what kind of world he’s leaving behind for his two teenage sons, he’s urging his political leaders to stop the funding and expansion of fossil fuels—something he calls “insane,” given the recent scientific reports. Last week, Kalmus and more than 250 other scientists wrote a letter to President Biden, calling on the administration to immediately halt all new development of oil and gas infrastructure and extraction in the United States.
In reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has exacerbated global energy costs, the Biden administration recently agreed to increase U.S. exports of natural gas to help European countries wean off their dependence on Russian fuels. Increasing exports would also likely mean building new fossil fuel infrastructure, which many environmentalists fear will only deepen the nation’s dependence on the industry at a time when scientists say the world needs to be moving toward renewable energy instead.
Until politicians start taking those threats seriously, Kalmus said, he’ll keep calling on other scientists to join the cause, including putting themselves at risk of arrest for civil disobedience. “This is bigger than any one of us, it’s bigger than our careers. It’s bigger than our lives,” he said. “I know there are a lot more scientists out there who are starting to think that they need to take a stand.”
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