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Climate Scientists Urge More Civil Disobedience To Signal ’How Deep in the Sh*t We Are

New paper argues direct action "by scientists has the potential to cut through the myriad complexities... surrounding the climate crisis in a way that less visible and dispassionate evidence provision does not."

Scientists protested in support of bold climate action on April 6, 2022 in Berlin.,Scientist Rebellion

"We have long since arrived at the point at which civil disobedience by scientists has become justified."

That's according to an article published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change by five climate scientists—Stuart Capstick, Aaron Thierry, Emily Cox, Steve Westlake, and Julia K. Steinberger—and political scientist Oscar Berglund, who focuses on civil disobedience and social movements.

The half-dozen scientists, who have all participated in and supported groups engaged in civil disobedience pushing for action "to secure a livable and sustainable future," argue that now is the time for scientific experts to intensify their activism efforts.

"What we say in the article is that getting involved in this kind of thing can actually add weight to the message that this is a crisis; that these are decent people who know more than anybody else about how deep in the shit we are, and are taking this kind of action—nonviolent direct action, civil disobedience," Berglund told The Guardian.

"We have a kind of what we call epistemic authority here: People listen to what we are saying, as scientists, and it becomes a way of showing how serious the situation is, that we see ourselves forced to go to these lengths," the University of Bristol lecturer added.

"Many already accept a role for scientists in advocacy," the paper states, noting that around two-fifths of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) authors have signed petitions or letters demanding action, and a quarter of them have joined protests.

The article asserts that "to press for more meaningful efforts, and to push back against the negligence and bad faith tactics that frustrate this, a legitimate next step for scientists is to participate in peaceful civil disobedience."

"We argue that this is justified on the basis that it is effective as a strategy for change, it strongly communicates the urgency of the climate crisis, is a reasonable and ethical activity for scientists to undertake, and is revealing of the barriers to climate action," the authors wrote.

The scientists referenced the historic effectiveness of civil disobedience, pointing out that "the IPCC concludes with 'high confidence' that collective action connected to social movements has played a substantial role in pressuring governments to create new laws and policy."

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The two-page call to action even cites one of the youth climate movement's top leaders:

Civil disobedience by scientists has the potential to cut through the myriad complexities and confusion surrounding the climate crisis in a way that less visible and dispassionate evidence provision does not, sending a clear signal that scientists believe strongly in the evidence and its implications. When those with expertise and knowledge are willing to convey their concerns in a more uncompromising manner than through papers and presentations, this affords them particular effectiveness as a communicative act. This is the insight of Greta Thunberg when she calls on us to "act as you would in a crisis."

The paper makes a case that civil disobedience by scientists is justified because previous avenues for pushing policymakers to act more boldly—including phasing out fossil fuels—have failed and the climate emergency is having and will continue to have such sweeping negative impacts.

"For decades, scientists have tried to sound the alarm through other means," the article notes, "but years of delay and obfuscation by decision-makers mean that severe consequences are already unfolding around the world, with little time remaining to avoid even more far-reaching and long-lasting harm."

"The climate crisis is epitomized by destructive impacts on large numbers of people; it is pervaded by injustice, and exacerbated through obstruction by powerful institutions, including the conditions set by legislators," the document stresses.

Responding to the counterargument that scientists participating in civil disobedience "risks undermining the integrity of science," the authors wrote that the separation of science and politics is "based on historical precedent" and "we need to ask how well these inherited norms are serving us in a time of existential environmental crisis."

They declared that "the widespread notion that sober presentation of evidence by an 'honest broker' to those with power will accomplish the best interests of populations is itself not a neutral perspective on the world; it is instead conveniently unthreatening to the status quo and often rather naive."

The scientists also acknowledged that "the personal risks associated with civil disobedience vary dramatically with people's circumstances," and "there are many frontline activists who have lost their lives protesting and resisting in defense of people and planet."

"To be able to engage in disruptive protest in relative safety is a privilege held by citizens living in comparatively liberal societies," they wrote. "For those in such a fortunate position, the opportunity exists to press for action, while helping to shape the nature of protest activity and reducing the barriers to participation by others."

The article—which follows a global mobilization of scientists pushing for climate action in April, including through acts of civil disobedience—was welcomed by others in the scientific community.

"This paper is absolutely great," said Fernando Racimo of the GLOBE Institute at Denmark's University of Copenhagen. "Plus, unlike other papers, it appears to have the uncanny ability to print itself and find its way into various faculty lounges of my university."

Sebastian Berger, an assistant professor of sustainable development at the University of Bern in Switzerland, similarly pledged to spread the article, tweeting, "Fresh [off] the press and straight into my undergraduate syllabus."

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