Scientists Pursue Climate Activism Despite Violent Threats

climate scientist arrested

Last month, 29 of the world’s prominent scientists published a paper in the journal Science Advances showing conclusively that given the worsening of climate change, biodiversity loss, and five other global emergencies generated by industrial society, “Earth is now well outside of the safe operating space for humanity.” It has been known for years that we are in big trouble, but this paper put an exclamation point on the massive trove of research showing that our species’ abuse of the Earth is causing ecological breakdown. And the world’s rich nations pretend nevertheless that everything is just fine.

I spent the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic writing a book about how the roots of the pandemic, the climate emergency, and systemic racism were entangled, and all three had to be dealt with together. In it, I speculated that we would be able take some lessons from the events of 2020—the early-pandemic spirit of care and mutual aid at the grassroots, the largest protests in U.S. history in response to the murder of George Floyd, the free-and-fair national election, with the highest turnout in history, carried out under extreme conditions—and apply them to the struggle for climate action.

Well, that hope had a pretty short shelf life, didn’t it? We all saw what happened. For political reasons, a large share of the U.S. population started pretending that it was Covid vaccines and masks, not the virus itself, that were deadly, and from there, the plague of upside-down science spread. Climate change eventually got swept up in it; in the far right’s collective imagination, Covid lockdowns were morphing into nonexistent “climate lockdowns,” and attempts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions were the work of “woke CEOs.” 

Leaders and influencers of the U.S. extreme right have continued to feed their followers a steady diet of what has come to be called “conspiracy theory,” much of it sounding more like bad science fiction (or maybe a better term would be “science-free fiction”). Tens of millions of Americans continue buying into these tall tales—not necessarily believing them, but very much believing in them as an effective means of fomenting political upheaval.

Deepening acceptance of science-free fiction by a large, fanatical segment of society is not just hurting prospects for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. It has become a more immediate menace to society, spurring an escalation of verbal attacks and violent threats against researchers who publish evidence that human-induced climate change is real. Growing numbers of scientists are braving this barrage of abuse, however. They’re turning to nonviolent climate protest, including civil disobedience, to demand that governments take bold action to snuff out the use of oil, gas, and coal.

Create Your Own Science Adventure! 

In August, a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll of U.S. residents who had been affected by extreme weather found that, among respondents who identified with the left portion of the political spectrum, hefty majorities—68 to 85 percent— believed that today, human-made climate change is a “major factor” contributing to various disasters, including heat waves, droughts, wildfires, severe storms, and flooding. Of those on the right, only 28 to 35 percent of respondents saw climate change as a major factor in such disasters.

This widespread rejection of science didn’t happen spontaneously. It was heavily fertilized by political propaganda. In one recent example, Media Matters for America recently described 24 different attacks that high-profile rightist media launched against climate science just between June 7 and 19. In the attacks, Fox News and Newsmax personalities, far-right radio hosts, oil- and gas-company flacks, and conspiracy theorists tied themselves into illogical knots arguing that record wildfires in Canada and unprecedented heat and humidity then afflicting much of the U.S. population had nothing to do with greenhouse gases.

Joining those longstanding sources of science-free fiction is one that would have been somewhat surprising as recently as a few years ago: Silicon Valley. The economist and New York Times opinion columnist Paul Krugman wrote recently, “If you regularly follow debates about public policy, especially those involving wealthy tech bros, it’s obvious that there’s a strong correlation among the three C’s: climate denial, Covid vaccine denial and cryptocurrency cultism.”

What explains the prevalence of these sorts of erroneous beliefs (or perhaps, knowingly false claims) among Silicon Valley’s plutocrats—people who have little or no background in climatology, epidemiology, or monetary theory? Krugman writes that the vast fortunes these folks have accumulated in the digital technology business induce in them a belief “that you’re smarter than anyone else, so you can master any subject without working hard to understand the issues.” This kind of arrogance “may be especially rife among tech types who got rich by defying conventional wisdom.”

The create-your-own-science attitude of the rich tech bros has increasingly infected the social networks that some of their own companies created. The Green New Deal heyday of 2018–19, in which climate denial finally appeared to be fading and demands for mitigation rising, seems far back in the mists of time today. In 2020, Covid-19 crowded global warming out of media and politics altogether, and for a while, neither climate change nor climate-change denial received much attention. But in the past year or two, a fresh epidemic of climate disinformation and denial has torn through the online world.

In July 2022, media watchdogs noticed that suddenly the denial hashtag #ClimateScam had become the top result when users of Twitter (now X) searched only for the single word “climate”. That was despite the fact that tags like #ClimateEmergency and #ClimateCrisis were enjoying far more activity and engagement than #ClimateScam. Then, last fall, with the approach of the COP27 climate summit, #ClimateScam and related propaganda surged even further. At the same time, the platform’s new owner, tech bro Elon Musk, was busy gutting his staff and their content-moderation practices. Few saw that as mere coincidence

Nor was it a fluke that in the run-up to COP27, fossil fuel-related groups bought $3 to $4 million worth of disinformation-filled advertising on Facebook and Instagram, according to the alliance Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD). Among the big spenders were two front groups for the American Petroleum Institute called Energy Citizens and Energy for Progress, along with the fossil-fuel pipeline company Enbridge and America’s Plastic Makers.

In late November, 2022, as soon as the COP27 conference wrapped up, the prominence of #ClimateScam and the spending on oily Facebook ads evaporated. But the overall flood of climate denial and science-free fiction has by no means subsided; instead, it has proliferated and grown far more menacing.

Racism, Misogyny, and Death Threats

Verbal assaults on the idea of anthropogenic climate change run through a spectrum, from polite but unfounded arguments against the global scientific consensus, to increasingly unhinged accusations of Deep State fabrication, on to aggressive personal, racist, and/or misogynist attacks on climate activists and researchers, and finally to threats of physical violence.

A few years ago, Scientific American reported this under the headline “As Climate Scientists Speak Out, Sexist Attacks Are on the Rise”:

Threats of death, rape and other forms of violence have left a number of researchers feeling concerned for their safety. They worry about opening envelopes with handwritten addresses and answering phone calls from unfamiliar numbers. Anonymous emails that try to entice a response cause agitation. One prominent researcher who has spoken about being harassed asked not to be quoted in this article. She worries it would trigger a new wave of trolling. Her concern goes beyond online attacks and hateful phone calls. She’s worried for her safety. The attacks aren’t new. But some scientists say the harassment they’re enduring is becoming more personal, increasingly sexist and less focused on their scientific conclusions.

Reporting for Guardian US last December, Oliver Milman noted that although Twitter had previously “proved a cherished forum for climate scientists to share research, as well as for activists seeking to rally action to halt oil pipelines or decry politicians’ failure to cut pollution,” it had recently become a swamp of “climate misinformation, spam and even threats” targeting climate researchers.

In a late-2022 survey of almost 500 climate scientists worldwide, the climate justice organization Global Witness found that almost 40 percent had been targeted with online harassment or abuse in response to their work, and 8 percent had received death threats. One of them reported, “The death (and rape) threats were extended to my children.”

Climate researchers are frequently quoted in the press these days, given the onrush of unprecedented climatic events, and that brings even more targeting. Among those who told Global Witness that they were appearing at least once a month in the media, almost three-fourths had experienced online attacks. The report added that

. . . this abuse is having serious detrimental impacts. Half (48 percent) of the 183 who had received abuse said it had made them less productive at work, 41 percent said they are less likely to post on social media about the climate, and over a fifth (21 percent) said it had made them dread work. Meanwhile one in five (21 percent) of those impacted by online hate said the attacks had made them fear for their personal safety.

Researchers reported explicitly racist attacks, and, of the women polled, 13 percent said they had been threatened with sexual violence. Helene Muri, a Norwegian climate scientist and co-author on IPCC reports, told Global Witness that in the worst attacks, “they say that they are going to hunt me down and do various things to me. And what I appreciate even less than that is when they are calling my father up and saying various things to him.”  

The Science Media Center has published a guide titled, “Advice for Researchers Experiencing Harassment.” It urges scientists to continue speaking publicly despite being hounded online, because “if you stop engaging with the media you may struggle to reach out to the wider public, thereby creating a vacuum of information that those critical of your research can exploit.” The guide does, however, acknowledge the danger that researchers face. And on the question of whether they should engage directly with online attackers, the guide is emphatic: “The answer is almost always no. The advice from experts in this area, including the police, is to avoid engagement with these extreme critics.” (emphasis added)

Scientists Take the Initiative

Far from being cowed by online threats, increasing numbers of researchers are publicly supporting on-the-ground climate activism. In 2021, more than 400 climate scientists signed an open letter condemning the increased criminalization of nonviolent climate protest by governments around the world. One prominent signer of the letter, Julia Steinberger at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, who works in ecology and ecological economics, told the Guardian, “As scientists, we have a duty to stand with the activists who are paying attention to the science, rather than these governments, who seem to be more swayed by powerful economic interests than by the life chances of their own citizens.”

Many scientists have concluded that they must go further, not only supporting protesters but also becoming climate activists themselves. Among hundreds of researchers who have helped write the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s massive, increasingly alarming reports, one in four reported having taken part in grassroots climate protests. But, noting that such action has so far had minimal effect, six scientists, including Steinberger, authored a paper last year in which they called on their colleagues around the world to up the ante with “carefully targeted and peaceful civil disobedience,” in which “scientists accept the risk of arrest for conscientious but potentially unlawful acts.”

The network Scientist Rebellion has taken the global lead in labcoat-clad protest and civil disobedience. In May, more than 1,000 scientists took to the streets, with protests in more than twenty countries across North America, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Australia. A significant number of them were arrested for civil disobedience in at least five European countries: Portugal, Italy, Denmark, Norway, and France. Scientist Rebellion rightly takes the position that their activists in the Global North should take the lead in civil disobedience because the consequences of their being arrested are likely less severe; furthermore, their own home countries carry the bulk of responsibility for having created the climate emergency in the first place.

The climate movement as a whole, including its increasing numbers of scientists, is collectively brushing off online hatred and turning instead to vigorous confrontation with the sources of ecological breakdown. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a press release announcing a frightening new IPCC report last year, “Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals.  But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.”

Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond (2020) and The Path to a Livable Future (2021), both from City Lights Books. This article is part of City Lights’ monthly ‘In Real Time’ series. See the evolving ‘In Real Time’ visual work at the illustrated archive; listen to the ‘In Real Time’ podcast for the spoken version of this article; and hear a discussion of it on the Anti-Empire Project podcast.

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