Scientists have been warning about the climate crisis for decades, dedicating their lives to research that unequivocally shows why we need to eliminate fossil fuels.
They’ve developed novel techniques for measuring ocean acidity levels, spent months trekking through harsh environments to track species’ declining population levels, and lost many hours of sleep working late in the lab.
Yet new fossil fuel infrastructure keeps getting built, greenhouse gas emissions are at their highest level in recorded history, and the window of time for averting catastrophe is rapidly shrinking.
So now scientists are taking direct action to disrupt society, joining Indigenous organizers and other frontline environmental groups who are urgently trying to accelerate the dismal pace of climate action.
In early April, the group Scientist Rebellion gathered more than 1,000 scientists in over 25 countries to take direct actions, ranging from chaining themselves to fossil fuel-funding banks and political buildings to obstructing traffic. Their website guides people on other actions such as “safely cracking glass,” staging hunger strikes, and posting papers.
In towns and cities around the world, the group aims to dislodge people from the complacency of the status quo, presenting them with the strange image of scientists — often diplomatic and demure, letting their work speak for itself — yelling and shouting and risking their physical safety for a planetary threat that’s mounting by the day.
“For someone to risk their career, to risk their freedom, to risk even their life, it creates a very strong statement that what they’re fighting for is important,” Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist who participated in Scientist Rebellion, told Global Citizen.
“We have attention deficit disorder as a society,” he said. “There’s so much stuff competing for our attention, and scientists have been saying we’re in trouble all along, but it’s been too easy to ignore them. To see them taking risks for climate action, that’s a whole different level of communication.”
Early in his career, Kalmus was an astrophysicist working at NASA, but switched fields to work in climate science once he understood the scale of the problem. Since then, he’s worked in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab where he “uses satellite data and models to study the rapidly changing Earth, focusing on biodiversity forecasting, clouds, and severe weather,” according to his website.
He’s also become an advocate for low-carbon living, successfully reducing his carbon footprint to under 2 metric tons of CO2 per year, which is eight times less than the average American and several hundreds times lower than the average billionaire. His book Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution shows the impact that one person can have if they take meaningful action.
Kalmus has also amassed a large social media following and uses his platform to weigh in on the latest climate news, excoriate political inaction, and make impassioned cases for transforming society.
If you don't speak and act out as strongly as you can today, you may very much regret your cowardice in the hot near future. If there's a part of your brain telling you to speak and act out and another part holding you back, jump in and embrace the first part. You won't be sorry.— Peter Kalmus (@ClimateHuman) May 24, 2022
Speaking on his own behalf, Kalmus recently hopped on the phone with Global Citizen to discuss his participation in Scientist Rebellion, his views on civil disobedience, and his hopes for a better world. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Global Citizen: Can you describe for the Global Citizen audience why NOW is the time for decisive action?
Peter Kalmus: The sooner we take decisive action as a global society, as a species, the better off we’ll be and the better off the future will be. Right now, there’s new clarity in terms of how we can create the change that we need, especially after the invasion of Ukraine and the release of the IPCC Working Group III report.
The report clearly says that we can’t afford any new fossil fuel infrastructure right now. But world leaders are using the invasion of Ukraine as an excuse to lock in new fossil fuel infrastructure and that’s taking us way out into the deep waters of climate catastrophe.
What’s behind the recent surge in civil activism?
I think a lot of young people right now are realizing that world leaders are selling out their futures. There’s this incredible resurgence of climate activism in the form of civil disobedience and it’s showing us the pathway to creating the change we need.
The fossil fuel capitalists and the politicians they control are leading us toward catastrophe, and we can’t just write petitions and call their staff and scientists can’t just write more papers and hope that it will work.
We have to start disrupting things. That’s the only way that the power structures will change.
What has it been like, as a scientist, to go from writing papers to risking arrest?
Peter Kalmus being arrested after engaging in direct action.
For me, it has been absolutely wonderful. It feels so good to finally be taking this risk. And I know a lot of other scientists who participated feel the same way. We’re stoked. I think we’re really excited about what happened, to be able to stand in solidarity with Indigenous activists who have been fighting for hundreds of years. Just think about how devastating it must be for them. They’ve been fighting for hundreds of years and their bodies have been ground up by this corporate machine.
I’ve been trying to do what I can over the past 16 years as a climate activist, and it always felt like I was on the sidelines. I don’t feel like that at all right now. I feel part of something really amazing.
Why is civil disobedience important for this moment?
I think it’s basically a very effective form of communication, so it kind of cuts to the quick. It's like two human brains connecting through a mind meld. For someone to risk their career, to risk their freedom, to risk even their life, it creates a very strong statement that what they’re fighting for is important.
We have attention deficit disorder as a society. There’s so much stuff competing for our attention, and scientists have been saying we’re in trouble all along, but it’s been too easy to ignore them. For the public to see them taking risks for climate action, that’s a whole different level of communication.
What are some of the most effective forms of civil disobedience?
Well, I think civil disobedience can take many forms. It’s really about taking risks. I think all activism is about taking risks. If you’re not taking risks, you’re probably not being very effective. You have to go out of your safe space because you’re pushing against social norms and that's scary because we’re such social creatures.
Chaining yourself to the door of a bank is pretty low level. There are climate activists that put themselves between equipment and the land, there are old-growth activists that tie themselves to trees to prevent them from being cut down. There are hundreds of things that people can do.
There may be another phase in the future where things get even more intense. But nonviolent civil disobedience has proven to be very effective, so we should continue doing that.
How do people get involved?
I would say that to get involved with groups that are working on actions like this, and there are a ton of them: Just Stop Oil, Save Old Growth, Scientist Rebellion, Extinction Rebellion, Declare Emergency, Last Generation, and so many others.
There’s a lot of different groups that are starting to work on this. For every activist who’s taking risks, there are 10 more who are supporting them.
A lot of people who take risks start out by supporting and talking to people and thinking about it and learning where their comfort zone is and seeing what happens to the activists who do take risks and making sure your loved ones are aware.
By getting involved in that world, you can actually get the courage to take risks
You’ve been a public-facing climate advocate since 2006. What has your journey to civil disobedience been like?
It would have been nice if my book about how to use less fossil fuels had a lot of impact. But it didn’t. My only regret is not doing it [direct action] years earlier. It’s had much more impact
My own participation in the Scientist Rebellion on April 6 was definitely augmented by the platform that I’ve been working really hard to build for 16 years. Ten years ago, I switched fields from astrophysics to climate science, and, if I wasn’t a climate activist, I don’t think my action would have had nearly as much impact. It’s the culmination of many years of hard work trying to position myself and build a platform.
I do it for my kids, I do it for young people, and I do it for the earth. I honestly would rather not have a platform. It’s a lot of responsibility. It’s a lot of stress. It’s hard work to do interviews like this, too.
In a world that was less insane, where world leaders actually really did listen to scientists, I’d rather live a nice, quiet life doing science.
What do you hope for in the next year in terms of direct action?
I do hope that we grow as a movement. I don’t think that next time it will be 100,000 scientists, but I think they should all be taking part. Every scientist, especially Earth scientists, because they see what’s happening and how could you not want to fight for what you love? It’s a labor of love to study the earth. I know they’re feeling devastated by how quickly it’s dying and they feel it very deeply. Civil disobedience is the best thing they can do to feel like they’re standing up for the living Earth that they love.
The more who engage, the more impact it will have — but also the safer we’ll all be, the fewer bad repercussions we’ll face.
I would like to see basically the jails in a lot of the countries of the Global North start getting overwhelmed with people who are risking climate disobedience. I would like to see police being like, “What the hell? We keep arresting these scientists and students and grandmas and kids,” and see that they’re on the wrong side of history.
I would like to see world leaders start to lose their elections if they haven’t done enough to stop climate change and I’d like to see these young activists who are putting their freedoms on the line start running for office and start winning.
I would like to see the fossil fuel industry not be able to send delegates to COP27. They should be shut out and banned. They have no place there. They have not acted in good faith for decades. They lost the privilege to participate long ago. In my opinion, they should all be in prison.
There have been 26 COPs [UN climate conferences] so far, and the 27th is this year, and CO2 emissions have been rising exponentially. Every year, the inaction by world leaders gets worse.
The fossil fuel industry is completely unapologetic about it. They know they’re doing it. They were interrogated by Congress recently and they basically stonewalled and lied, and they’re doing it unapologetically. They’re counting on the climate movement to remain weak and ineffective.
What is the scale of change that’s needed? What does the scope of transformation that’s needed look like?
So I think the best way to answer that question is to do a thought experiment about whether or not we should have commercial aviation. We don’t know how to fly airplanes across the ocean without fossil fuels. You can definitely run them on biofuel, but we wouldn’t be able to run as many as we do now with biofuels. And with electric batteries being so heavy, you’d probably be better off taking a bus or train that distance.
If we were truly serious about the climate crisis, if we started treating it like an emergency, if civil disobedience got so strong and the media began to tell the truth and the public woke up, then one of the first things that we’d do is say that it’s not worth it to fly planes anymore. Until we can do electric aviation, we’re going to have to shut the industry down.
Most people who fly, when they hear that, their jaws hit the floor. But that’s some low-hanging fruit.
Think about all of the gas stations around the world. They’re on almost every corner right now, and with the amount of change we need, they wouldn’t be there any longer. It’s a huge scale of change that’s needed, and the further we go, the more we’ll save. There’s no simpler way to say it.
Because we’re at 1.2 degrees Celsius of global warming. We’re increasing by a 10th of a degree Celsius every five years. People are already dying by climate change and ecosystems are dying and it’s going to get horrifyingly worse.
We’re on the verge of losing everything. It’s time to recognize that it’s not worth burning fossil fuels. We need fossil fuels to stay alive right now, so if we were treating it like an emergency, we would get rid of all the unnecessary uses. Commercial aviation would be gone, any excess use of energy would be gone.
We would divert fossil fuel use to keeping the lights on and transporting food, the stuff we need to survive. Then we would have to think about how we can rapidly transition the food system.
What would bring us through that transition to save as much life, both human and non-human, as we can? Ultimately, we need to change the goal of the socioeconomic system from the consolidation of profits for the ultra rich to the flourishing of all. We need a socioeconomic system that recognizes its dependence on the biosphere and whose goal is to allow everyone to flourish.
There’s this disparity between the Global North and the Global South that’s so colonialist and it’s disgusting. We have to get past this whole system of hoarding and trying to take everything we can.
I think there’s enough for everyone if we come out of this selfish, fearful state.
What are the risks of inaction?
We’re facing a massive die-off both for biodiversity and humans themselves. If the global food system collapses and food prices go up, the poorest billions of people could get priced out of food. To me, it's not inconceivable.
You could have a heat wave somewhere in the Global South where air conditioning is not common and you’d have a million people-plus die.
In the near term, you have to weigh your desire for cheap air travel against that loss. That’s what I’ve been doing and I’ve been mocked for it, people have criticized me mercilessly. All I’m trying to do is save life. It kills me when other climate activists criticize me for saying we should fly less. I don’t mind when the climate deniers call me an idiot, but when supposed climate activists criticize me for that? It robs me of hope. They should know better, and they’re just trying to preserve their own fossil fuel privilege.
It’s time for people to align their activism with the systems that need changing, including the aviation system. When climate activists say we should still fly, they’re basically defending one of the many systems that are killing the planet.
I’m not even saying they should stop flying, we just shouldn’t defend the system.
From the perspective of Global Citizen, too, it’s really important to note that it’s the richest 1% of people on the planet who are responsible for 50% of aviation emissions. Climate breakdown is caused in part by rich people on planes.
Can you talk about the importance of Indigenous perspectives?
I think Indigenous voices are incredibly important and they’ve been fighting this fight for centuries. They’ve been ignored longer than climate scientists. They’re some of the most effective activists and protectors of the land, the water, and the climate.
They see very clearly the capitalist machinations at a very deep level. Their voices need to be uplifted, elevated, and included at the highest levels of policy.
How hopeful are you that we can collectively build a better world and avert catastrophe?
I was listening to some rock songs from the ’60s and ’70s, in particular “Woodstock” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and I know that for decades people have been dreaming of building this better world and it’s sad that's it’s only gotten worse.
If anything could catalyze us from getting out of this fearful, selfish mindset, it’s climate breakdown. There's a very clear connection between wealth redistribution and climate breakdown. It’s very pragmatic.
If the rich capitalists that currently control fossil fuels remain in control of the supply, prices will skyrocket, and they’ll make insane profits, and regular people will get priced out. And what will regular people do? They’ll riot; they’ll say, “We need to get to work, we need gas.”
Then the capitalists will say, “Well, we can’t have those climate polices, then; we’re going to have to expand fossil fuel supplies.” And then we’re fucked.
We need the people to control the precious supply of fossil fuels as we transition away from them, and we need to subsidize them for the working class through taxes on the ultra rich.
In order to avoid riots, you literally need to protect the working class and to do that you need some sort of redistribution of wealth. The opposite has been happening, especially during COVID, with wealth redistribution going toward the ultra rich.
The same dynamic applies across nations. To get the Global South on board with a rapid transition, you need to have a wealth redistribution in the form of the Global North going faster. The Global North has caused this problem. They have to ramp down fossil fuels faster and transfer the necessary technologies, otherwise the Global South will put up a great big middle finger when the Global North says our planet is burning.
To have these rapid transformative policies supported, you need to have that climate justice with a wealth redistribution component, otherwise they fail full stop. It has nothing to do with leftist dreams, it has everything to do with realpolitik.
The current system is embarrassing. It's no way to run a global civilization. We have to come out of this selfishness and fear, otherwise our worst nightmares will be realized.
What do you want to tell people who are experiencing climate anxiety?
I want to tell people to not be alone with their climate despair. If you start getting depressed, it makes it harder to reach out to people. The really critical thing is to reach out to climate activists in your region, to get to know them, to make friends with them, to figure out where you fit in. That’s the key part, the social part — getting involved.
When you’re sitting in your house in dread, that's what you want to avoid. You want to have discussions with like-minded people. That will give you hope.
What gives me hope is that humanity has barely scratched the surface of trying to solve this crisis. If we really tried, we could transform society way sooner than 2050.