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Meet a climate scientist who just risked arrest to save the planet

NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus was arrested for chaining himself to a Chase Bank in Los Angeles. He thinks more people need to engage in climate disobedience, too.

Meet a climate scientist who just risked arrest to save the planet
Peter Kalmus [Photo: Brian Emerson]

On a typical day, Peter Kalmus goes to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles, where he studies biological systems and climate change.

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But last Wednesday, he instead went to JP Morgan Chase’s building in downtown L.A., along with three other scientists, and chained himself to the front doors in order to bring more attention to the current state of the climate crisis and JP Morgan Chase’s role as the bank providing the most funding to fossil fuel firms. (He was acting on his own behalf, not as a representative of his employer.) He’s one of more than 1,200 scientists in 26 countries who demonstrated last week—and one of many who were arrested—after the IPCC released its latest report, which UN Secretary-General António Guterres described as saying that the world is on “a fast track to climate disaster.”

[Photo: Brian Emerson]
Kalmus, who made a career move from astrophysics to Earth science a decade ago, quickly realized that the reality of climate science alone wasn’t convincing society to transform. He became an activist, helping organize Fridays for Future in the U.S., talking at city council meetings, and trying to drastically reduce his personal carbon footprint, including giving up flying. But as society keeps hurtling toward more catastrophic climate impacts, he’s become increasingly convinced that civil disobedience is necessary. Other scientists feel the same urgency. The actions last week were part of a group called Scientist Rebellion, which grew out of organizing work that began in the U.K. He argues that more people should be doing the same thing. “I think climate activists, especially those taking risks in climate disobedience, are genuine heroes. They’re selflessly protecting the planet for all of us, even for future generations,” he says.

I talked to Kalmus about why he thinks that civil disobedience is necessary now and what else individuals can do—including pushing the companies they work for to make real change. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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Adele Peters for Fast Company: What’s the biggest takeaway from the latest IPCC report?

Peter Kalmus: I think the biggest takeaway from the IPCC report is we need to switch into emergency mode as a society. We’ve got to end this disconnect between what the scientists are saying we need to do, and what society and leaders of society—the elected officials, and CEOs, and the judges, etcetera—are actually doing. So the science says [that] we have to ramp down the fossil fuel industry as fast as we possibly can. Forget about the budget, forget about the deadlines, forget about 2050. Forget about 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees, every little bit of fossil fuel that we burn at this point, every day that we wait to start ramping down emissions globally, makes things worse, right?

It’s simple to think about it in those terms, but this is everything that we love—our civilization, the coral reefs, the forests, our kids’ futures. I started calling it ‘Earth breakdown.’ For a long time we were calling it ecological breakdown. But Earth breakdown means that we won’t be able to make progress on any other issue if we don’t have a stable and livable planet. So I’d say that’s the main takeaway: Somehow, we’ve got to break out of this weird sleepwalking mode that we’re in a society where we know what we need to do, and yet we’re doing the opposite. We need to break out of sleepwalking mode and move into emergency mode.

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If decarbonization by 2050 or ‘net zero’ by 2050 is too late, how soon is decarbonization actually possible?

That’s a great question. I don’t think anyone really knows. There’s some easy stuff for decarbonizing society, and we should be doing it as soon as we possibly can. Then there’s some harder stuff that we’re not really sure how to do yet. It’s not just a question of learning how to do it, it’s a question of how much panic we feel that motivates us to do it. For example, long haul flights. We don’t know how to decarbonize those yet. But if we were genuinely panicking about climate breakdown, we’d probably choose to stop flying. We’d say, like, livable planet on one hand, [and] fly to Europe on the other hand. We’d probably pick a livable planet if we truly thought that this was an emergency. I think that so far, society has been dancing around the edges of this problem, and we barely started trying. Once we truly switch into making this our top priority and doing everything we can . . . we’ll have a better sense of how fast we can do it.

We can’t do it overnight because lots of people would die—the electricity system, the food system, they require fossil fuels. Those are some of the harder things to get rid of. My personal sense is that if everyone on the planet was treating this as the top priority and shared my sense of urgency over it, that probably we could get off of fossil fuels in about five years. That’s a guess.

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That’s what an emergency I think it is. Another thing that the public needs to know is that the damage that is being done back to Earth life support systems right now is effectively irreversible. The timescales for fixing the damage are so long, they’re like longer than the U.S. has been around, longer than the Roman Empire has been around, some of them are longer than humans have been around. If your house is burning, you don’t sit there and ponder—you’re not like, we’ll call the fire department in 2050.

[Photo: Brian Emerson]
Even people who are genuinely concerned about climate change don’t seem to be acting on that fear or even know what to do. What should everyone be doing now?

I agree. I think there’s a kind of global bystander effect going on where society isn’t acting. Everything seems normal at some level, though it’s been a very not-normal few years. I think Earth breakdown is going to start kind of contributing very strongly to that sense of non-normalcy going forward. I think that if the mainstream media is reporting this as just another story, and if they’re talking about electric cars, and if the scientists are using scientific jargon and graphs and they don’t appear to be freaking out, I think the public looks at the journalists and looks at the scientists . . . and they’re not going to get the message that it’s an emergency.

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What I think the people who do realize that we’re having an emergency should do is basically become climate activists. I’ve been thinking about this for years and trying to make cultural change for years, and I can’t come up with any other solutions. Petitions haven’t worked, calling your members of Congress hasn’t worked. Even marches, in my opinion, really haven’t worked. I think things that might work are, for example, mobilizing your workplace: That can have some impact if you get your company to make real changes and to make public statements that are real and are not greenwashing. Engaging in climate disobedience and taking risks and going outside of social norms, I think, can be really powerful.

I did such an action on Wednesday. I was arrested. And I still feel like it was very much the right thing to do. I’m hoping a lot more people all around the world, in all walks of life—scientists, artists, historians, corporate leaders, anyone, I hope—can start engaging in climate disobedience because that’s I think that’s the antidote to that sort of global societal bystander effect that I think has been blocking action. Once the public really wakes up, our elected leaders are actually like the followers, right? If the public is demanding real climate action and fast, then that’ll force elected leaders to either act on climate quickly or directly. And I just don’t think that sense of public urgency has gotten to that.

Even with the catastrophic climate impacts we’re already seeing, people aren’t taking more action. I live in Northern California and have seen living with wildfire smoke quickly become normalized. Can climate disasters wake people up?

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As a climate scientist, I know that these climate disasters are going to get worse and worse—it’s just physics. I can be 100% confident about that very easily. I’ve been trying for 16 years to get the public to wake up before it got this bad, by saying we know the science. It’s going to get this bad. It’s going to take a long time to transform society because we’ve got to change everything. So let’s start doing it now.

We thought, well, okay, it’s tragic, but maybe the reason that’s not working is because the disasters haven’t got intense enough. Even up to two years ago, I thought, once these disasters get bad enough, it’ll wake people up, and we’ll have lost so much more by then; but at least people will finally come to their senses. And that hasn’t happened. It seems like our ability to socially [and] psychologically adapt to even horrific circumstances is huge. That’s another reason why I think climate disobedience is probably even more important because the thing that’ll change the social norms is to directly challenge the social norms.

[Photo: Brian Emerson]
You mentioned that people can also pressure the companies that they work for to do more, faster. Have you seen any good examples of that? What about what happened at Amazon?

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I was excited about that, and I thought it might spark something bigger. But I can’t think of a major example of people mobilizing within a large corporation to shift its stance on climate. I actually met with a group of employees at Pixar. They have a green club, and they’re very, very concerned. I met with them to try to help them push Pixar into making climate stories. I consider Pixar to be one of the best storytellers. And if they decided to make, you know, waking up the public on climate change their top priority, they would certainly do it in a beautiful and effective way. And probably a surprising way. I would love to see what came out of that. But that hasn’t happened yet.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley

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