‘Scared as hell’: Climate scientists risk jobs, jail to save dying planet

Desperate climate scientists embrace civil disobedience and specialised therapy to deal with their growing anxiety over global warming.

BERLIN, GERMANY - APRIL 04: Wolfgang Metzeler-Kick (C), an environmental engineer, takes a break as he and Richard Cluse (R), an energy engineer, who are both on a hunger strike, join "Last Generation" activists in a small protest demonstration in Berlin's government quarter next to the Reichstag on April 04, 2024 in Berlin, Germany. The two men have been camped out near the Chancellery and on a hunger strike since March ander the motto: "To Hunger Until You're Honest!" ("Hungern Bis Ihr Ehrlich Seid!") in a direct demand directed at German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his government to take stronger measures towards mitigating climate change. Members of the climate activists group "Scientist Rebellion" have announced their intent to join the hunger strike in coming days. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Environmental engineer Wolfgang Metzeler-Kick, centre, and energy engineer Richard Cluse, right, began a hunger strike in March in Berlin, Germany, under the motto “starving until you are honest” in a protest organised by Scientist Rebellion. The protesters seek acknowledgement from the German chancellor of the severity of the climate crisis [Sean Gallup/Getty Images]

“I was scared as hell. … I remember feeling very nervous.”

On April 6, 2022, Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, got a ride into downtown Los Angeles, where he was about to handcuff himself to the door of a JPMorgan Chase bank alongside three fellow scientists.

“There was a moment,” he says of the decision to engage in civil disobedience when he “realised that I just had to do it, to find that courage”.

He was joining more than 1,000 activists taking to the streets in nearly 30 countries across the globe under the slogan “1.5C is dead, climate revolution now!” – a campaign led by Scientist Rebellion, an activist group of scientists, academics and students committed to disruptive, nonviolent action to raise alarm over the global climate emergency.

“I was really scared,” Kalmus reiterates over a call, about how his colleagues, the police and, especially, his employer would respond. “I thought there was a very good chance that I’d get fired, which was probably my biggest concern.”

But by that point, he had exhausted all other avenues. For Kalmus, civil disobedience came as a culmination of decades of attempts to raise awareness of the climate emergency by other means. With what he sees as half the country being in denial of the urgency of the climate crisis, Kalmus says he didn’t know what else to do; this was the next logical step and one he admits has been the most effective.

Joining a global day of action to ban private jets, Peter Kalmus and local activists chain shut the doors of a private airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, to underscore the disproportionately high impact the wealthy have in terms of carbon emissions. (2022)
Joining a global day of action in 2022 to ban private jets, Peter Kalmus and local activists chain the doors of a private airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, to underscore the disproportionately high impact the wealthy have in terms of carbon emissions [Courtesy of Will Dickson]

During a speech he delivered that day, which has gone viral around the world, Kalmus is visibly emotional, breaking down in tears as he tells the onlookers: “So I’m here because scientists are not being listened to. I’m willing to take a risk for this gorgeous planet – for my sons,” he gasps as he tries to control the tremor in his voice. “I’ve been trying to warn you for so many decades, and now we’re heading towards a f****** catastrophe.”

After a standoff with police and an eight-hour stint in jail, Kalmus was charged with misdemeanour trespassing, but the charges were later dropped. That first arrest felt exhilarating and freeing, he says, but the incident led to a months-long investigation by NASA’s ethics and human resources departments, and the resulting stress caused Kalmus’s diverticular disease to flare up. While he was stuck in a holding pattern awaiting the outcome of the inquiry, which ended in his favour (Kalmus is still employed by NASA and spoke to Al Jazeera in a private capacity), Kalmus felt like the institution was making a mistake by not supporting his activism “since climate activists are clearly on the right side of history”, he says.

Activists from the Scientist Rebellion climate change group block a bridge in central Berlin, Germany, April 6, 2022. REUTERS/Christian Mang
Activists from Scientist Rebellion block a bridge in central Berlin during the global ‘1.5C is dead, climate revolution now!’ protest on April 6, 2022 [Christian Mang/Reuters]

Rubber band snapping

Potential impacts on employment, health and professional reputations are real considerations when scientists speak out publicly about climate change, particularly when emotions run high. After all, they train to be impartial researchers – not to have feelings about their data.

Kalmus’s peer, scientist Rose Abramoff, was fired from Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee after together they unfurled a banner calling for scientists to leave their labs and take to the streets during a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December 2022.

Abramoff has since taken a research fellowship at the Ronin Institute and is completing a residency at the Sitka Center of Art and Ecology in Oregon. She is cheerful and vivacious and laughs easily.

For Abramoff, the path to action was paved by the emotional catalysts of witnessing environmental catastrophes in the field, from forests in the northeastern United States being decimated by pests sprung by a warming climate to land sinking as permafrost melts. “It’s a very sort of visceral, depressing thing to see and to stand on and to feel under your feet,” she says from Oregon. “I think all of those things were like small rubber bands which were snapping.”

The final snap came around 2019 when Abramoff joined the panel of scientists reviewing the Sixth Assessment Report published in 2023 by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It concluded that while limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels as established by the 2015 Paris Agreement was slipping further out of reach, some of the irreversible changes could still be limited by “deep, rapid and sustained” reduction in emissions.

Abramoff was jarred by the data: “I remember feeling the enormity of all of the Earth systems that were already being affected by climate change and how little time we had to avert more catastrophic effects.”

Overwhelmed by the severity of the climate impacts and the resulting human suffering, Abramoff, who was completing her postdoctorate in France at the time, began volunteering for Extinction Rebellion, helping proofread the activist group’s documents and media statements. Once she returned to the US to take up her position at Oak Ridge, she was ready to risk arrest, which she did when she joined the global Scientist Rebellion protest in Washington, DC, on April 6.

She couldn’t sleep the night before, she recalls. However, she wasn’t nervous about the experience of being in a processing cell “but of not actually being able to accomplish the task, which was to chain myself with four other women to the White House gate”, she says. “And we managed it.”

Abramoff went on to be arrested six more times, most recently for chaining herself to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, whose approval US President Joe Biden signed into law last year. The $6.6bn pipeline, which is set to carry 56.6 million cubic metres (2 billion cubic feet) of shelled gas a day across West Virginia and Virginia, is estimated to emit 89 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases a year.

In an opinion piece for The New York Times that she penned shortly after her dismissal from Oak Ridge, Abramoff describes how being a “well-behaved scientist” did not have any tangible effects. “I’m all for decorum, but not when it will cost us the earth,” she writes.

Abramoff speaks after she and another activist chained themselves to the fence surrounding the White House - a federal offense (2022)
Abramoff speaks after she and another activist chained themselves to the fence surrounding the White House in 2022 [Courtesy of Will Dickson]

Eco-anxiety

Kalmus and Abramoff are among the rapidly growing number of those exasperated with the lack of urgency around the climate emergency. According to the American Psychological Association, which defined eco-anxiety in 2017 as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”, more than half of US adults see climate change as the biggest threat facing humanity.

Climate change and the anxiety around it can wreak havoc on the human mind in a multitude of ways. Studies have linked rising temperatures to increased visits to emergency departments and spikes in suicide rates. Climate-related stress can bring about despair and hopelessness while extreme weather may trigger post-traumatic stress, depression, survivor guilt and substance abuse as well as other mental health issues.

“Anxiety around death is really similar to an anxiety around climate change,” Susie Burke, a psychologist and adjunct associate professor at the University of Queensland, says from her home in Castlemaine, Australia. “Many of the techniques that we use to manage, to cope with our inevitable death, are similar for coping with the extinction through climate change.”

Burke was among the first mental health professionals to focus on climate change, even before the devastating “Black Saturday” wildfires of 2009, which killed 173 people in the state of Victoria, where she worked in the field. She has seen a significant shift towards climate grief and anxiety counselling over the past 10 years. According to The New York Times, for example, the Climate Psychology Alliance North America has nearly 300 “climate-aware” psychotherapists.

The model Burke finds most effective for increasing our capacity to manage “really painful feelings” associated with climate distress is ACT, or acceptance and commitment therapy, a mindfulness-based approach that encourages acknowledging thoughts and emotions instead of trying to change them. Because we can’t do anything about feelings such as doom, dread, panic, shame and guilt around climate change, the acceptance part of the model teaches us to “get good at noticing a feeling in our body, find out where it is, make room for it and allow it to be there”, Burke explains. The practice then encourages doing what matters – “the things that we do with our legs and our arms and our words that give us a rich and fulfilling life”.

In Burke’s experience, people working on environmental problems have higher levels of concern. “Those people are going to be feeling really grim,” she says. “They’re looking at the data and they’re going, ‘What? What has happened?’ … So you would probably expect that those people are not sleeping well, that they are holding a lot of high distress.”

Scientists for Extinction Rebellion line up at 'The Big One' environment event which coincides with "Earth Day", in London, Britain, April 22, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Coombs
Scientists for Extinction Rebellion line up at The Big One environment event, which coincides with Earth Day, in London, UK, on April 22, 2023 [Kevin Coombs/Reuters]

Letters of loss

This is the kind of sentiment that Joe Duggan, a science communicator at the Australian National University, sought to address when, in 2014, he asked scientists working on the climate to submit handwritten letters to describe how they felt about the status quo. Duggan, who started his career as a marine scientist, shifted his focus in 2014 when he saw a significant disconnect between the scientific community’s and the public’s perceptions of climate change.

“In the beginning, what I wanted to do was convince climate scientists to picket in the streets, to climb Big Ben and unfurl a banner, you know, to protest and to … start breaking rules in communication to get a message across,” he says on a patchy video connection from his family’s home in Canberra. Duggan speaks with impassioned conviction, often apologising for getting worked up.

For many reasons, he says, a call to civil disobedience didn’t make sense at the time, so he decided to provide a platform for climate scientists to share their thoughts in a way that would connect with others.

The dozens of missives that populate the Is This How You Feel? website are full of frustration, exasperation, incredulity, depression, anger, worry, bitterness, sadness and guilt. “I feel so lost,” reads a 2020 letter by Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a climatologist at the University of New South Wales. “Some days I feel like I need to scream at the top of my lungs. ‘JUST DO SOMETHING!!!’, but I am running out of energy.”

In one of the original submissions, Stefan Rahmstorf, head of Earth system analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, described global warming as a nightmare that he cannot wake up from – with children screaming in a burning farmhouse while the fire brigade refuses the call because “some mad person keeps telling them that it’s a false alarm”.

After giving up on the project a number of times – simply talking about how people felt about climate change seemed like a drop in the ocean of urgently needed systemic change, Duggan says – he came back to the letters with a colleague to analyse them in depth. They went on to argue that more safe spaces are needed “to empower scientists to continue their research – and, perhaps, even to hope”. In a 2023 study inspired by their earlier research, Duggan and his co-author concluded that group therapy can be “a cathartic outlet for climate emotions among environmental scientists”.

This is where groups like the Good Grief Network, founded by Laura Schmidt and her wife, Aimee Lewis Reau, in 2016, come in, offering a 10-step programme for those concerned about the environment. The peer-to-peer support scheme aims to help people struggling with eco-anxiety and grief to reframe their predicaments and rediscover their personal and collective agency by dispelling the feelings of isolation and loneliness as well as the impression that nobody cares – which, Schmidt insists, is simply not true.

Initially, the idea was to host the group for their activist friends who were on the front lines, pushing for change, Schmidt says. However, the pilot meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, attracted a photojournalist, a teacher, a landscaper, a caterer and a paralegal. “I was just blown away that … the demographic we had in mind was not at all the demographic who showed up,” Schmidt says.

“I think the grief and despair that people feel can be really immobilising,” Abramoff concurs. To deal with such sentiments, she regularly meets with activists to vent in a safe space – a climate grief circle like the ones prescribed by Duggan and Schmidt. “It’s one of those things which we started to do … to feel heard by other people and understood,” she explains. “I think it really … catalyses people to action.”

Is This How You Feel exhibit in Australia [Courtesy of Joe Duggan]
Joe Duggan, who helmed the Is This How You Feel project, which asked climate scientists to submit handwritten letters to describe how they felt about the status quo, reads one of the letters on display at the RiAus Adelaide exhibition in 2015 [Courtesy of Erinn Fagan Jeffries]

‘A good way to live a life’

Still, Kalmus remains disappointed with people, he says. He thought we’d have more courage, more fortitude, more compassion and love for each other and life on Earth. “It’s like a nightmare,” he explains, that judges, world leaders, corporate leaders and people on the street “don’t understand that we’re in an emergency, … that everyone’s still acting like things are normal”.

While burning fossil fuels is responsible for 75 percent of anthropogenic (human-influenced) greenhouse gas and 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, the International Monetary Fund estimates that the fossil fuel industry received $7 trillion in subsidies in 2022 at a rate of $13 million a minute. Both Kalmus and Abramoff are incredulous that the Biden administration, despite its proclaimed commitment to tackling the climate crisis, approved more than 3,000 new oil-drilling permits on federal land last year – 50 percent more than former President Donald Trump did in a comparable period during his first three years in office.

Abramoff, Kalmus, members of Scientist Rebellion, and other activists from across the country answer the call from Climate Defiance to shutdown the White House Correspondents dinner, calling on the Biden administration to end fossil fuels (2023)
Peter Kalmus and Rose Abramoff, members of Scientist Rebellion, and other activists from across the country attend a protest in April 2023 calling on the Biden administration to end fossil fuel use [Courtesy of Will Dickson]

“That indicates to me that maybe they’re not as smart as I thought, … out of touch with reality,” Kalmus suggests.

What keeps him going is love for the planet and its inhabitants. “I want to spread love, and I don’t think there’s anything more meaningful to do for me,” he says. There is never going to be a point when it’s too late to be a good planetary roommate, he insists. “It’s late. It’s very late, and it’s very tragic that it’s gotten to this point, but it’s not too late because it’s not a binary on or off thing. It’s like every gallon, every litre of petrol that gets burned, every aeroplane that flies, every cow that is raised and slaughtered for meat makes it a little bit worse.”

He has learned to deal with anxiety by doing vipassana meditation, getting enough sleep and running. “I find it useful to keep in mind that none of this is about me,” he explains. “I think the stress somehow comes when I get too caught up in the me-ness of it, like whether I’ll get fired. If I do, I’ll figure out something else.”

Abramoff is more categorical: “It’s not a problem of information. It’s a problem of power.”

She underscores the fact that while we are already inside the danger zone of several tipping points that may irrevocably change life as we know it, “we don’t all die immediately, so it’s not really worth stopping … trying to make things better”, she iterates. “It’s not like the car explodes and the movie credits roll. … We have to keep living and working on it.”

For Abramoff, activism is “an expression of love, hope and community”, she writes in an email. “It has been an effective and lasting solution to climate anxiety for me, and has also given me the perspective I needed to be more joyful, fearless, and inclusive when it comes to work, family, and living on Earth.”

“There’s so much good work that’s happening,” she sums up. “And it gives me hope, and, even in a world where the worst possible of all outcomes happens, I’d still rather be doing this than nothing. … It seems like a good way to live a life regardless of what we can achieve.”

Duggan, who describes his current mindset as a “combination of beat and sad and angry”, gets emotional: “It’s a really sad reality … because the longer we wait, the more people it’s too late for, … but we owe it to everyone else to try now.” As public perceptions shift and demands for change grow, he’ll “keep smashing my head against the wall”, he insists, driven by the desire to do the best he can for his young children, adding, “I don’t think there’s another option.”

“We’re having this very human experience of trying to navigate the world,” Schmidt clarifies, suggesting that living according to one’s values and continuing to do what we can within our individual capacity is the way out of climate paralysis. The analogy is that of planting seeds: “We don’t get to know when those seeds sprout, but it is our moral obligation to be planting those seeds because if you never plant them at all, of course, they’re never going to grow.”

A few days after her arrest outside the White House, Abramoff joins a local activist group in shutting down a major highway running through DC to bring attention to the climate crisis at hand (2022)
A few days after her arrest outside the White House in April 2022, Rose Abramoff joins a local activist group in shutting down a major highway in Washington, DC, to bring attention to the climate crisis [Courtesy of Will Dickson]
Source: Al Jazeera

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