Dilemmas and Dynamics of Escalation (3)


People who want strong action to combat climate change have many options beyond self-immolation–which isn’t a good choice at all. Within a broad movement that includes the full spectrum of advocacy and protest actions–from talking to neighbors to ecosabotage–with all sorts of politics and protest in between–you can see individuals testing out strategies for escalating the fight.

More than 1,000 scientists staged protest actions around the world in April 2022, as part of Scientist Rebellion. There were teach-ins and demonstrations, where scientists got to wear their lab coats outdoors, and there was also much more: protesters chained themselves to a White House fence in Washington, DC; Spanish protesters threw fake blood; German protesters glued themselves to a bridge.

Their reasons: desperate times call for desperate measures. On the Rebellion website, Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion lab, announces: “We are currently heading directly towards civilizational collapse.
We need to switch into climate emergency mode as a society.”

On April 6, Los Angeles police arrested Kalmus and a few others wearing lab coats who had chained themselves to the doors of JP Morgan Chase, protesting the financing of fossil fuels.

People make individual decisions about how they can be most effective and how much risk they’re willing to take, and their calculations change over time. Individual activists usually start with modest efforts–going to a meeting or demonstration, or writing a letter–and find ways to escalate over time as they decide that the urgency of the moment demands more.

More than a thousand scientists coordinating sometimes disruptive protests across two dozen countries represent a sliver of the working scientists concerned with inaction on climate change, but a bigger and more aggressive sliver than ever before. There’s a growing sense of urgency, and of futility in depending upon science and facts to carry the day.

In March of this year, The New York Times published a long piece on debates within science about appropriate professional action. Three climate scientists had published an academic journal article calling for a moratorium on climate science research. It’s not that everything is known, but the very substantial body of accepted scientific wisdom on climate had yet to exert much influence on policy. They wrote, “Given the urgency and criticality of climate change, we argue the time has come for scientists to agree to a moratorium on climate change research as a means to first expose, then renegotiate, the broken science-society contract.”

Of course, scientists don’t all agree. There are important questions to answer and studies to be done, and information to be communicated. Scientists who enter the political arena fear, reasonably, being marginalized or ignored because of their political views. Finding a path to maintain a professional identity that carries with it some modicum of respect from mainstream politics and culture while simultaneously underscoring a sense of urgency appropriate to the moment is no easy task. Scientists work through it at different paces, coming to different–provisional–conclusions.

But, we need to remember that climate change isn’t a new issue for everyone, and that some very accomplished scientists have long ago embarked on a more explicitly activist path. James Hansen, who served as Director of the NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies for more than thirty years started long ago, and moved through a series of escalating steps at a deliberate pace: Hansen published his first article on global temperatures in 1981, first testified before Congress in 1988, and found increasingly visible outlets over the next decades to criticize government inaction and the fossil fuel industry. There were additional appearances before Congress, talks at universities, interviews on mainstream media, and a TED talk. As far as I can find, Hansen was first arrested at a protest in 2009, with actress Daryl Hannah, trying to block a coal company’s mountaintop removal in West Virginia. He’s protested and been arrested many times since.

Lots of younger scientists are beginning their own political lives far earlier in the careers, starting where Hansen ended up. It’s unlikely that they’ll all take a quarter century to move from publication to arrest.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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