For the second time this year, climate researchers are urging their colleagues to risk arrest and commit acts of civil disobedience in an effort to pressure governments to take quicker, more substantial action on the climate crisis and to better convey how seriously the science community views the threats it poses to humanity and the environment.
In an article published Monday in the scientific journal Nature, a group of five climate scientists, joined by a political scientist who studies social movements, argued that it is both ethical and necessary for the broader science community to more forcefully advocate for “meaningful” policies that move society away from the burning of fossil fuels. Taking such action is justified, the group wrote, considering “time is short to secure a livable and sustainable future,” and inadequate government action has set the planet on “course for 3.2 °C of warming” by 2100, “with all the cascading and catastrophic consequences that this implies.”
The researchers, who hail from the United Kingdom’s Cardiff University and the University of Bristol, as well as Switzerland’s University of Lausanne, encouraged other climate scientists to participate in civil disobedience, such as “the bodily obstruction of investment banks enabling new fossil fuel exploration and the pasting without permission of scientific papers to government buildings.”
With the COP27 international climate talks just a couple months away, and with the world largely off track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, the Nature article is the latest sign that a growing number of scientists—many of whom have dedicated years of their lives to understanding climate change and are leading experts in their fields—are rethinking their role as neutral information providers as global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise to record highs. Back in April, around 1,000 scientists in more than 25 countries staged demonstrations to demand stronger climate action, including several researchers who were arrested for blocking traffic and locking themselves to bank entrances and the White House.
“Civil disobedience by scientists has the potential to cut through the myriad complexities and confusion surrounding the climate crisis,” the climate researchers wrote in Monday’s article. “Scientists have tried to sound the alarm through other means, but years of delay and obfuscation by decision-makers mean that severe consequences are already unfolding around the world, with little time remaining to avoid even more far-reaching and long-lasting harm.”
That message comes as much of the world experiences wildfires, drought, heat waves and flash flooding that scientists say are unprecedented in modern record-keeping, and which they expect to worsen dramatically in the coming decades if global emissions continue to rise at their current pace. Devastating and record-breaking heat waves, wildfires and floods this summer have killed dozens of people in the United States and thousands of people in Europe and Asia.
In Pakistan alone, a “monster” monsoon season, which experts say was made worse by climate change, unleashed massive flooding that submerged a third of the country underwater, killed more than 1,136 people since June, including 386 children, and washed away entire neighborhoods and critical infrastructure to the tune of $10 billion in damage.
Such extreme weather has only galvanized climate activists, who point to the summer’s events as further evidence that the world’s leaders aren’t moving fast enough to transform the global economy from one that runs overwhelmingly on fossil fuels to one powered by solar, wind and other renewable sources. Because of that, many activists are increasingly turning to acts of civil disobedience out of a sense of desperation, saying they no longer trust their governments or the world’s financial institutions to take the climate crisis seriously.
This summer alone, climate activists have blocked rush hour traffic, deflated the tires of SUVs, interrupted Congressional baseball games and Formula One races. Some have even glued themselves to famous works of art, including Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” and a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” to name a few. And in every case, the activists said their stunts were drawing attention to the lack of progress by their governments to reduce climate-warming emissions, while continuing to fund new fossil fuel projects.
“Many of our bodies in government are failing to act, businesses are failing to act. We are the last chance,” Just Stop Oil spokesperson Grahame Buss, whose advocacy group organized the Formula One protest and several of the actions where activists glued themselves to artwork, told me in an interview. “Civil disobedience is our last hope.”
In fact, history has shown that civil disobedience is an effective tool in creating broader societal changes, from the Women’s Suffrage movement in England to the civil rights movement in the United States. More recently, the Indigenous rights and anti-pipeline movement, which garnered national attention amid the 2016 Standing Rock protests in North Dakota, helped bring the issues of tribal rights and the dangers of fossil fuel development to the forefront of mainstream public discourse. Many also credit that movement in influencing President Joe Biden’s choice to make Deb Haaland the first Native American to head the U.S. Department of the Interior—a powerful cabinet position with broad control over federal lands.
In the science community, however, participating in activism has generally been frowned upon, Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, a prominent U.S. environmental advocacy and research center, told me in an interview. Primarily, she said, scientists have traditionally viewed themselves as unbiased observers and reporters of truth and try to avoid taking sides in political fights.
But that has started to shift in recent years, Curry said, as more and more scientists see it as their duty to point out the hypocrisies of politicians when it comes to facts about climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, both of which have been highly politicized in recent years. President Donald Trump, for example, often contradicted scientific facts about both climate change and the pandemic during his term in office, she said, making it difficult for experts to stay neutral.
Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, agrees. In April, Kalmus was arrested for locking himself to the front door of a JPMorgan Chase bank branch and has since urged other scientists to join him in protest, saying it’s their duty as experts to convey the weight of their findings to the public and convince elected officials to take proper recourse.
“For the sake of our children, for the sake of the future of humanity,” Kalmus said, “you have a responsibility to do everything you can to get that information out there.”
Kalmus told me that he’s “disappointed” that, so far, fewer scientists than he had hoped have joined in his call to action, but he sees Monday’s article as a positive sign and believes more researchers will join the movement—especially as extreme weather and other consequences of global warming accelerate in scope and severity.
“Scientists know that all the impacts of global heating are going to get worse and worse,” he said. “So, we have to be the adults in the room because no one’s coming to save us. I think scientists will get out there and engage in civil disobedience sooner or later. I just really hope it’s sooner.”
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That’s how much money the global economy is expected to lose by 2050 because of worsening droughts, storms and torrential rain, all exacerbated by climate change, a new report by Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters warned.