Confronting The Climate Crisis With Scientist Activism: The Essential Role Of Rule Breakers

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Our society generally agrees that in times of crisis, rules may have to be broken for vital causes by those willing to risk the consequences. But what of the climate crisis? What rules should scientists be breaking, repercussions be damned, to help solve it? How should the keepers of dire knowledge behave when the whole world is careening toward outcomes they can foresee and from which the world will not recover?

Society Needs Rule Breakers

If an unattended child is sweltering in a locked car, one should destroy a stranger’s property to get them out. If a stranger enters anaphylactic shock outside a shuttered drug store, one may justifiably break down the door for an EpiPen. A healthy society needs rules, as well as those willing to break them.

In the face of longstanding discrimination and abuse, Black Americans risked their freedom, families’ safety, and very lives to engage in the civil disobedience that grew into the civil rights movement. Society as a whole only acknowledged in hindsight the essential role of this courageous rule-breaking in driving the United States toward greater racial justice. Now we honor Dr. King’s strategy and vision with this week’s federal holiday. The willingness of these individuals to bear the consequences of their actions gave — and continues to give — civil disobedience and direct action their moral weight.

Today, members of the climate movement are using these tactics to drive climate progress. In the US, they tend to face far-lower personal stakes than their civil rights predecessors, though this cannot be said for less-privileged activists, especially Black, Indigenous, and other activists of color, and in the global South, people have been targeted and killed for their activism. Almost universally, the climate movement’s bolder activism is being met with society’s resistance and reprimand but members are persisting out of a sense of urgency and desperation. The mainstream dislikes and disavows specific actions, and that societal disapproval is precisely how these tactics derive their power.

Historically, scientists have not been a major force in this kind of bold, risky activism. But that is changing, as I think it must. Scientists from my organization have been arrested during climate protests. Members of my team ask with each new dire development, “Is it time to chain ourselves to something?” And we’re not alone in asking. Ricardo Salvador, UCS Food and Environment Program Director, arrested with Jane Fonda protesting climate change on Nov. 29, 2019.

Why Break The Rules: The Moral Dilemma Of The “Well-Behaved” Scientist

Science must be objective. But what of scientists? The magnitude of the climate threat, made clear by climate science, has cracked through a longstanding scientific culture that holds that science should exist outside of the political realm. These cracks were set off in 1988, many say, by the seismic — and arguably activist — Congressional testimony of James Hansen, George Woodwell, Suki Manabe, and Michael Oppenheimer, when they told Congress not only that global warming was underway and caused by human activity, but what needed to be done about it.

Today, most climate experts continue to operate in a business-as-usual manner, doing our jobs, attending our conferences, and playing by the social norms and rules (even as those “rules” continue to expand, thanks to the pioneering efforts of prominent climate scientists to responsibly but firmly tell it like it is; and, frankly, by the work and organizing of groups like UCS).

It’s understandable. We’re human, we have lives, we’re doing good work. Shouldn’t that be enough? As the accelerating climate crisis so clearly outpaces our efforts, no, what we’re doing and saying is not enough.

We need stronger words, more voices, and bolder action. We all know that business-as-usual is over for the climate and so experts face a moral dilemma that deepens each day: If you can see the devastating future of climate change — in the data and evidence and catastrophic events that continue to accelerate — when others cannot, how should you behave?

Four years ago, Greta Thunberg implored world leaders, “I want you to act like your house is on fire, because it is.” At last year’s UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in Egypt, UN Secretary General, António Guterres warned, “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.” And just this week, Vanessa Nakate and other youth leaders presented a “cease and desist” letter to fossil fuel companies at the World Economic Forum in Davos, citing scientists’ warnings that no new fossil fuel projects can be built if the world is to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C.

Climate experts provided them all with the scientific basis for their warnings. We proved the house is on fire. Yet beyond our inner angst and our climate-conscious lifestyles and decision-making, few of us outwardly follow their calls and behave to the world like the house is burning.

If climate experts are to play our most impactful role in solving the climate crisis, this will have to change. Many more of us are going to need to put our privilege and professional standing to use, put some skin in the game, have the backs of activists with less privilege, and break some rules.

Rule Breakers Vs. Rule Makers: Navigating The Tension That Bold Activism Requires

Activism comes in many forms, but direct action and civil disobedience are the tactics that often garner significant attention and have become increasingly prominent in the climate fight. These tactics are — and to be successful they require — forms of resistance. Resistance to direct action can come in the form of punishment, fines, censure, tags of illegitimacy — all unwelcome to be sure, but a system that doesn’t resist activism is probably not a system gravely in need of change, and an activist who doesn’t meet resistance is probably doing it wrong.

Scientists are more accustomed to resistance to their work (their methods and conclusions, e.g.) than their personal actions and choices, so embracing these forms of activism can be a leap. When scientists do engage in activism, they should expect resistance, but they may also face disproportionate repercussions — a chilling reality that must also change or we risk sidelining this important group of latent activists.

One recent example in the news is front of mind for many climate scientists.

Drs. Abramoff  and Kalmus briefly interrupting an AGU plenary session

Last month, at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), one of the largest annual gatherings of geoscientists in the world, two climate scientists broke some rules. Dr. Rose Abramoff and Dr. Peter Kalmus took to the stage in a plenary session, unfurled a banner reading “OUT OF THE LAB & INTO THE STREETS,” and, over the recorded presentation that had begun to play, called on participants to take action. Conference staff quickly pulled their banner away from them and ushered them off stage.

What followed is a set of repercussions that are predictable in some cases, shocking and arguably disproportionate in others. In keeping with AGU’s code of conduct, Abramoff and Kalmus were forced to leave the conference, the work they were to present was removed from the agenda, and they were told they would be arrested if they returned.

AGU’s response, though upsetting to many, is what made Abramoff’s and Kalmus’s action effective direct action. Though they may not have intended things to unfold as they did, AGU’s response brought attention and visibility to their effort and call to action, rather than it passing as a quite minor activist moment with little attention. Again, direct action requires resistance; AGU provided that by forcing them out. Abramoff, however, paid a far steeper price: she was fired from her job at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) for taking this action.

Since then, arguments have raged about the incident and the degree to which AGU’s and ORNL’s responses were fair or justifiable. We’re not in possession of all the facts but, on face value, a scientist losing their livelihood and suffering reputational damage for engaging in legal, non-violent activism in their personal capacity would be an egregiously disproportionate price to pay.

AGU’s stance at least has become somewhat clearer — their CEO issued a letter on January 11th acknowledging the incident, invoking their ethics policy and code of conduct as the basis for their action, and pointing to their track record of having “a very proactive stance on aggressively addressing the urgency of climate change.”

AGU does have a track record of supporting science advocates in valuable ways, and the CEO could have voiced support for the important role that scientists and the scientific community can play in climate advocacy — including through activism — but did not.

Our main concern is that, in the absence of a clear endorsement of the objective (not the means) of Abramoff and Kalmus’ actions, AGU’s response, coupled with Abramoff’s firing, may be seen by the scientific community as a strong, disapproving, and chilling signal to scientists to step back from climate activism—just when the world needs them to show up in new, courageous ways.

(An open letter to AGU in support of Abramoff and Kalmus shares these concerns and has over 1,300 signers at the time of this post.)

Rule Breakers To The Front

In this all-hands-on-deck decade, it will not be enough for climate experts to keep our heads buried in the science. Some critical mass of us will need to put our standing and privilege to new use because the climate crisis requires us to throw everything we have at it.

Most UCS staff scientists are not yet independently engaging in direct action or civil disobedience, and our organization hasn’t stepped into this sphere in a big way (besides participating in various marches). But how we can increase our impact, as individual scientists and as an organization, is increasingly on our minds. I don’t have a theory of change for how scientists help drive the societal wake-up that’s needed, but some essential elements my colleagues and I see are these:

It’s time for the scientific community to normalize scientist activism. Confrontational activism isn’t for everyone; nor does everyone need to act for essential change to happen. But the world of hurt hurtling toward the most vulnerable people demands that some of us with standing and security take greater risks. Given the severity and even brutality with which state and non-state actors can meet BIPOC and less privileged activists, not everyone can take these risks, but the scientific community needs to make room for direct action and civil disobedience among its willing ranks. The integrity of climate science isn’t compromised by the activism of its scientists, but at some point, is the integrity of climate scientists compromised by our inaction?

Clear organizational guidance on activism is needed. Institutions don’t need to embrace confrontational activism, but they will need to acknowledge and develop a response to it. Ideally, guidance that doesn’t require people to risk their careers and livelihoods for their non-violent, independent activism.

Risk takers and rule breakers to the front. As Peter Kalmus has said, he and Rose Abramoff disrupted the AGU meeting that day because they “believe that climate scientists have a key role to play in breaking society out of the ’normalcy bias’ or bystander effect that still has most people thinking ’this is fine.’” I couldn’t agree with this objective more. And I see, in the price they have paid and the attention it has received, some small but perceptible movement toward it.

The bolder tactics of activism carry real risks — including for scientists the risk of eroded credibility as a widely-trusted messenger. Yet, the greater the risk, the greater the potential reward. If the reward is actually breaking society out of our collective trance and into a state of real, transformative action, what professional — and even personal — risk wouldn’t be worth it? Climate scientists, what would you risk for that reward?

Originally published by Union of Concerned Scientists, The Equation, By Erika Spanger-Siegfried, Director of Strategic Climate Analytics

Featured Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

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