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The climate scientists are not alright

Frustration, rage, terror, desperation: After decades of being ignored, scientists are resorting to more radical action to communicate the dire urgency of the climate crisis

Scientist Rebellion activists chain themselves together in protest of the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 6. (Russell Cheyne/Reuters)

As Rose Abramoff chained herself to the White House fence, she was more worried about securing the lock than getting arrested. Police milled around on the morning of April 6 and she had to act fast. Wearing a lab coat, the 35-year-old scientist quickly thread a chain through the fence and around her waist three times, then secured it with a padlock. Meanwhile, four other protesters shackled themselves beside her. One pair locked arms through a PVC tube while another bike-locked her neck to the fence. “That was pretty metal,” Abramoff said.

Within 10 minutes, police were on the scene. With bolt cutters and a circular saw, the police broke through and took Abramoff and the others away. Two days later, Abramoff returned for another climate protest, this time blockading Interstate 395 in D.C. She was arrested, once again, wearing her lab coat.

“It’s important for [scientists] to say, ‘It’s true. It’s not a fantasy. These [climate activists] are not extremists,’ ” said Abramoff, a climate change and soil scientist based in Knoxville, Tenn., who withheld her institution because her employer does not want to be affiliated with her activism. “They’re kind of the only sane ones as far as I can tell.”

As time runs out for the planet to avert a future of climate chaos, scientists around the world are throwing down the gauntlet. Climate change science has been settled for decades, yet policymakers have yet to take sweeping action, and greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb to record highs. Climate scientists began to publicly make policy recommendations based on their research in the late ’80s, and their warnings have become increasingly strident. In April, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said emissions must peak by 2025 to avoid catastrophic consequences.

Now this inaction is driving some scientists to engage in civil disobedience, while others are striking against the IPCC, calling for a halt of further reports until governments mobilize. It’s a dire situation that’s taking a toll on the mental health of scientists, and raising the question of what climate advocacy scientists should engage in as politicians imperil the planet.

“It’s the job of us in the science community and climate scientists to communicate what we understand about future projections and the current climate pledges as forcefully as possible,” Abramoff said of her civil disobedience. “It is not only necessary, but it’s right.”

Outside the Supreme Court, a life of purpose and pain ends in flames

Abramoff’s actions last month were part of a global campaign by Scientist Rebellion (SR), a climate network of scientists of all stripes and degrees to partake in nonviolent civil disobedience and demand climate action. In April, the group mobilized an estimated 1,000 scientists in 26 countries to protest.

When Abramoff joined in December, the U.S.-Canada chapter had about 12 members. Since then, she said, it’s grown to over 100. But it’s not just scientists taking up more radical action. In the wake of contentious global climate talks, President Biden’s stalled climate legislation and the war in Ukraine, the whole climate movement is escalating. In October, five activists with the Sunrise Movement launched a hunger strike in D.C. Last month, Extinction Rebellion activists in New York occupied the lobby of Citigroup, leading to 19 arrests. In the United Kingdom, about 400 people were arrested 900 times for a slew of direct actions. And at the end of April, a climate activist from Colorado named Bruce Wynn self-immolated on the steps of the Supreme Court and died.

“There’s a broader recognition among professional scientists that the data won’t carry the day,” said David S. Meyer, a sociology professor at University of California at Irvine. “Deep down most scientists operate with this religious belief that getting the truth out is what matters. It’s harder and harder to hold onto that belief. What do you do when you realize that you need to package the truth with something else in order to save the world?”

SR is an offshoot of its sister movement, Extinction Rebellion (XR), an international climate group born in the U.K. in 2018. Behind the scenes, scientists helped the original organization translate science into presentations about the climate crisis, but left the direct action for the activists — until September 2020. During the U.N. climate talks in November, 21 activists with SR blocked the George V bridge in Glasgow, Scotland, by chaining their necks together.

“The research is clear. We know we’re f-----,” said Kyle Topfer, 29, an environmental scientist based in Germany and full-time organizer with SR who was arrested on the bridge. “Civil disobedience is an incredibly powerful way of reconnecting society that doesn’t connect with the truth.”

That bridge protest is what inspired Abramoff to join the group. Over the years, the injustice of the climate crisis has left Abramoff with simmering grief, frustration and anger, especially at people in power. In November, Nature published a survey of a group of IPCC authors, which found that 61 percent experienced some degree of grief, anxiety or other distress because of climate change.

“Civil disobedience is an incredibly powerful way of reconnecting society that doesn’t connect with the truth.”
— Kyle Topfer, Scientist Rebellion organizer

Historically, climate advocacy as a scientist has been viewed by some as akin to a scarlet letter, a move that could jeopardize a researcher’s credibility or job. Abramoff and others recognize the risk to their actions, but see inaction as far more consequential.

“The fear of damaging our professional reputation and losing our jobs is a very real fear,” she said. “Those are fears that I have. But they’re no longer as large as my fear of the future that we’re creating.”

“We are indoctrinated with this sense that we have to stay neutral,” Abramoff added. “That causes us to reject our humanity and suppress what we’re thinking and feeling about our research. It’s not healthy and it’s not fair.”

On the same day that Abramoff chained herself to the White House fence, Peter Kalmus, 47, a climate scientist with NASA, and three others were arrested for chaining themselves to the doors of JPMorgan Chase in Los Angeles, the world’s largest funder of fossil fuels. While chained to the door, Kalmus choked up delivering a speech that went viral. Shortly after, dozens of riot police descended on the bank, which also went viral.

After years of advocacy, the latest IPCC report drove Kalmus to escalate. Then Biden tapped into the oil reserves, which left Kalmus feeling frustration, rage and terror, and cemented his decision. Across the world, “there’s a remarkable vacuum of leadership right now,” he said, adding that he’s speaking on his own behalf. The current dissonance between science and policy is “exactly like being in ‘Don’t Look Up,’ ” Kalmus added. “It’s such a perfect fit to what I experience in my day-to-day life. I actually cried. I was like, ‘Wow, someone else knows what I’m going through.’ ”

Ever since his arrest, Kalmus has become the most followed climate scientist on Twitter with 252k followers, surpassing prominent climate scientists Katharine Hayhoe and Michael E. Mann. Kalmus has called for more civil disobedience and “100 percent” wants more scientists to get involved. He and others said they’ve received overwhelming support, albeit quiet, for their protests, and invigorated young people. But Hayhoe pushes back on their calls for action.

“I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all,” she said. “There’s a full range and we need scientists at every point across that range.”

Many experts question SR’s impact, which has done little more than draw media attention.

“Do you know how many people we’re gonna need in the streets?” said Dana R. Fisher, an IPCC contributing author who is an expert on environmental activism and social movements at the University of Maryland. “It’s way more than 100 scientists.”

Fisher argued that the systemic forces protesters face — the oil industry, climate misinformation and political gridlock — mean that the mass mobilization needed to precipitate radical change will take “some sort of large shock to the system.” That will most likely be a climate shock.

Scientists’ engagement in climate action can be traced back to 1988, when former NASA scientist James Hansen delivered a groundbreaking testimony to the Senate about global warming. Frustrated with U.S. policies, he went on to get arrested five times at various environmental protests, once for zip-tying himself to the White House fence.

“[Hansen’s] trajectory over the last 35 years is sort of what’s happening in the broader scientific community at warp speed right now,” Meyer said. “The movement that you’re seeing now is an intensification and spread of what’s been going on for quite a long time.”

In the early 2000s, Mann and Hayhoe rose to prominence defending climate science against skeptics. The Union for Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) started providing engagement resources to scientists.

This shift accelerated under the Trump administration, whose climate change denial and support of policies hostile to science drove tens of thousands to participate in the 2017 March for Science and a 36 percent surge in UCS membership. While Hansen accused political appointees of muzzling him under President George W. Bush, Kalmus has not faced any repercussions at the same agency.

“The usual approach of writing a paper, publishing a report and getting them to the right people is not the 21st century model of engagement,” said Maxwell Boykoff, a social scientist who studies the cultural politics of climate change at the University of Colorado at Boulder and IPCC contributing author. “It’s part of our responsibility to advocate for evidence-based science. Good lord, it’s part of the job.”

William Livernois, 26, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington researches biomaterials for electronics and was arrested last month for blocking the entrance to the World Trade Center in Portland, Ore. Livernois, who speaks on his own behalf, asked of scientific research, “What’s the point of doing this if civilization collapses?”

“What’s the point of doing this if civilization collapses?”
— William Livernois, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington

And it’s not just civil disobedience. In December, Bruce C. Glavovic, 61, an environmental planner and professor at Massey University in New Zealand, and two colleagues published an op-ed in an academic journal that called for a moratorium on climate change research and IPCC reports until governments do more. Entitled “The tragedy of climate change science,” the op-ed describes a science-society contract, whereby society supports science in order to better understand the world and inform policies beneficial to society. In the case of climate change, that contract is “irrevocably broken.”

To repair it, Glavovic argues the IPCC — a collection of many of the world’s foremost climate researchers, whose reports help guide negotiations among 195 nations — must radically reconfigure. Now in the midst of its Sixth Assessment, the group has played a critical role in establishing authoritative climate science and getting countries to commit to cutting emissions. But its reports, which take years to craft, do not dictate policy.

“[Scientists] have fulfilled our responsibility to provide robust knowledge that underpins the actions necessary to stop greenhouse gasses from rising,” said Glavovic, an IPCC contributing author. “The problem lies in the political sphere, so what can the IPCC do to enable the decisions to be made?”

To be sure, the IPCC has been “stunningly effective,” he added, especially at raising public consciousness. But with the science long settled, the IPCC has made itself “redundant,” Glavovic said. “We don’t have enough time” for another report.

After multiple rejections, the piece ran in December 2021, but its call for a strike did not win many converts. “I can understand why they took up that perspective,” Boykoff said. “But you’re just self-censoring at a time when we need to be more vocal.”

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Other researchers said it “fundamentally” misunderstands how policymaking worked. “I don’t think Joe Manchin III is going to change his mind if science stops publishing IPCC reports,” said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist and IPCC contributing author, referring to the West Virginia senator who has blocked Biden’s climate bill. “It misdiagnoses the problem.”

But Lisa Schipper, an IPCC lead coordinating author who co-edits the journal Climate and Development, said that the op-ed tapped into a broader “rumbling” about the group’s role “bridging science to the solutions,” given the alarming rate of warming, “We’re in a place where something has to give. It can’t continue like this.”

Last year, an academic journal issued a call for papers entitled, “IPCC: dinosaur or dynamo for climate action?” to discuss how to make its findings more relevant to climate action. That’s going to be a challenge, given that one of IPCC’s core tenets dictates that its language cannot be policy-prescriptive.

As world leaders continue to stall in the midst of more extreme summer fires and drought, scientists will “absolutely” engage in further disruption, Abramoff predicted.

“As you see an escalation in climate activism over time, I think you’re going to see an escalation of SR over time,” she said. “Projecting is my specialty.”

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