Faced with political inaction and “anti-climate” measures, scientists are leaving their laboratories and taking to the streets

Faced with political inaction and “anti-climate” measures, scientists are leaving their laboratories and taking to the streets

Members of the group Scientist Rebellion demonstrate in front of the German Federal Ministry of Transport in Berlin, April 2022. Their sign reads: “Stop fossil madness. Climate revolution now!” in German.

(Stefan Müller/CC BY 2.0)

“The magnitude of the threat from the climate crisis is absolutely enormous, and nobody is listening to us. We’ve done enough publications, what we need now are public actions,” says Aaron Thierry, earth system scientist and activist with Scientists for Extinction Rebellion.

From Thierry’s organisation to Scientist Rebellion and the A22 Network (which includes Just Stop Oil, Declare Emergency, Dernière Rénovation and Renovate Switzerland, among others), environmental movements composed of activists identifying as scientists have multiplied across the world in recent years.

Concerned by the speed of climate change and faced with political inaction and even “anti-climate” policies, scientists from every field are participating in civil disobedience. Long confined to media appearances and signature gathering, members of the scientific community have been ignored by political leaders despite the urgency of the issues at stake. Many feel that they have no choice left but to leave their laboratories and take to the streets.

On its website, Scientist Rebellion, an organisation comprising over 1,200 scientists from 26 countries, calls for a “climate revolution”:

“Academics are perfectly placed to wage a rebellion: we exist in rich hubs of knowledge and expertise; we are well connected across the world, and to decision-makers; we have large platforms from which to inform, educate and rally others all over the world; and we have implicit authority and legitimacy, which is the basis of political power.”

In November 2022, as world leaders gathered in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt for COP27, Scientist Rebellion staged a series of protests at a dozen airports to block private jets. The group calls for an end to short-haul flights, which disproportionately contribute to global warming.

Dr Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, was one of them. He and three others were arrested on 10 November 2022 for trespassing at a private jet terminal at the Wilson Air Centre in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA. Kalmus, who is no stranger to political activism, believes civil disobedience to be necessary in order to convey the urgency of the situation to the public.

“We have the technology and the knowledge to act on climate change. It’s just a matter of shifting public opinion, discourse and political power to end the use of fossil fuels,” Kalmus, who makes clear that he speaks only for himself and not for NASA, tells Equal Times.

Cognitive dissonance: “walking the talk”

The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), written by government-appointed scientists who assess the reality, causes and consequences of ongoing climate change and propose possible solutions, is unambiguous: the next few years are critical for limiting greenhouse gas emissions and preventing global warming from exceeding 2°C, and if possible, 1.5°C. Despite the legally binding pledges made at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that the international community is still far from meeting its commitments.

Many scientists who participate in acts of civil disobedience are motivated by the lack of serious consideration given to their work by policymakers and society at large. Adam McKay’s 2021 film Don’t Look Up, released in December 2021 on Netflix, illustrates with morbid humour a sentiment that many share. When two astronomers attempt to warn the world about the threat of a large comet that could destroy planet Earth and its inhabitants (an allegory for the climate threat), they are met with disinformation, denial and mockery from politicians and media figures.

Despite the various emergencies highlighted in the research of the scientists interviewed for this article, including projections of extreme wet heat, the impact of global warming on permafrost, or the link between consumption and environmental degradation, no policy decisions are being implemented to significantly reduce environmental impacts.

“Scientists are being asked to create reports, like those of the IPCC, on the future of our planet, but no one is listening to our recommendations,” says Jérôme Santolini, a life scientist and one of the coordinators of the French collective Scientifiques en Rébellion (affiliated with the aforementioned Scientist Rebellion). “The solutions currently being implemented by our politicians will have negative consequences greater than their positive impact. As scientists, we are no longer able to live with this contradiction,” he adds.

An increasingly politicised and mobilised scientific community

The political measures being taken to limit increases in energy costs in Europe and the recent agreement to implement a natural gas price cap, which Santolini describes as a “fossil fuel premium,” highlight this contradiction. Rather than putting in place measures that would reduce consumption of non-renewable energies over the long term, the governments of the European Union prefer to keep prices steady at the expense of their commitments at the various conferences of the parties (COPs).

The scientists interviewed for this article call into question this system of compensation for environmental damage. According to them, subjecting entire ecosystems to the logic of financial markets, even though they are only ruled by natural laws, has devastating consequences for the environment.

“This ultra-liberal vision of nature is collective suicide. The real eco-terrorists are the governments. If we want to avoid the catastrophe that awaits us in a few years’ time, we must take radical measures now,” Santolini tells Equal Times.

Over the last few years, many scientists have taken increasingly political positions in the media. They include French astrophysicist and philosopher Aurélien Barrau, Belgian political scientist and IPCC member François Gemmene, and Spanish anthropologist and engineer Yayo Herrero, an advocate of ecofeminism. By engaging in civil disobedience, scientists are able to create new media spaces to communicate their scientific data and prove the gravity of the situation we face.

Many do so at their own risk. For example, British biologist Emma Smart was sentenced to several months in prison in the United Kingdom for her involvement in a protest and subsequently went on hunger strike. In a guest essay for the New York Times, Rose Abramoff, an earth scientist specialising in soil and forest ecology, describes how she lost her job at a research laboratory in the United States because of her activism.

Challenging a status quo established by fossil fuel lobbyists

The influence of fossil fuel lobbyists remains particularly powerful and is widely denounced as one of the causes of political inaction. “The fossil fuel industry has chosen to do everything possible to stop climate action and prevent the transition to other energies,” says Kalmus. “They know very well that their actions are causing the irreversible destruction of our planet, but they continue to put their short-term profits ahead of the next generations of human beings, the environment, and all life on earth”.

A report published by Global Witness, in collaboration with other NGOs, identified 636 fossil fuel lobbyists who were present at COP27, more than the total number of representatives from the 10 countries most affected by climate change.

“One of the core missions of activism is to expose state capture by fossil fuel interests, and the complicity of politicians, so that citizens demand that we change course, and choose the side of humanity and life on earth, rather than profits of sectors destroying our life support systems,” says Julia Steinberger, lead author of the 3rd IPCC working group and activist with Renovate Switzerland, who was also arrested in Switzerland in October 2022 following an act of civil disobedience calling for measures to encourage the thermal renovation of buildings.

Following the lead of the suffragettes, who successfully advocated for women’s right to vote, and the civil rights movement, which fought for equal rights for African-Americans, scientists want to make a difference in their field.

“As long as democracy does not work, and as long as it is monopolised by special interests, as long as the media does not do its job and as long as the public is not aware of the seriousness of the crisis, we will remain mobilised,” says Thierry.

This article has been translated from French by Brandon Johnson