These climate scientists are fed up and ready to go on strike
By Raymond Zhong
Sometimes, Bruce C. Glavovic feels so proud to be an environmental scientist, studying coastal planning and teaching future researchers, that it moves him to tears.
Other times, he wonders whether any of it has been enough. Scientists have proved beyond doubt that climate change is transforming the planet for the worse. Yet their work has mostly failed to spur governments to address the issue. When all the signs are telling scientists that their research is not being heard, it is tragic, Glavovic said, that they just keep producing more of it.
“We’ve had 26 Conference of the Parties meetings, for heaven’s sake,” he said, referring to the United Nations global warming summits. More scientific reports, another set of charts. “I mean, seriously, what difference is that going to make?”
It was this frustration that led Glavovic, 61, a professor at Massey University in New Zealand, and two colleagues to send a jolt recently through the normally cautious, rarefied world of environmental research. In an academic journal, they called on climate scientists to stage a mass walkout, to stop their research until nations take action on global warming.
Predictably, many researchers balked, calling the idea wrongheaded or worse — “a supernova of stupid,” as one put it on Twitter. But the article gets at questions that plenty of climate scientists have asked themselves lately: Is what we’re doing with our lives really making a difference? How can we get elected officials to act on the threats that we’ve so clearly identified? Do we become activists? Would we sacrifice our credibility as academics, our cool composure, by doing so?
Glavovic says he believes a pause on research would give his fellow researchers a chance to think, really think, about how best to use their skills in the slender window humans have left for altering the planet’s trajectory. “The clock is ticking,” he said.
Climate change has a way of making everyone feel at once very small and bothersomely large — big enough to worsen the problem, too tiny to stop it. Climate scientists devote so much of themselves to the issue that their unease can run deeper.
For scientists of many kinds, the coronavirus pandemic has fueled the sense that scientific experts and political authorities are uneasy allies at best, that distrust and misinformation have weakened society’s capacity to work toward complex collective goals.
These thoughts were percolating as Glavovic worked alongside nearly 270 other experts on the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N. body that assesses climate research. The new report, all 3,675 pages of it, was issued Feb. 28 and concludes that global warming is outpacing our ability to cope.
Each IPCC assessment is a huge, multiyear effort by researchers and representatives from 195 governments. Every line, every chart, is fine-tuned to ensure it is backed by evidence. The hours are long; the work is unpaid. The panel, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, has given global climate talks a crucial grounding in scientific fact. But its reports deliberately do not prescribe policies for governments to enact. They just lay out the options.
To Glavovic, the panel’s efforts made clear long ago what the world needs to do. He thinks everybody’s time and energy would be better spent making sure it gets done.
“My involvement with IPCC has been a defining feature of my life for the last five to six years; I’ve slept, drunk, eaten IPCC,” Glavovic said. “It’s been an absolute privilege.”
Still, he has decided not to take part in the panel’s next assessment. And he wants his fellow scientists to join him.
Few seem ready to do so, though many have similarly weak faith in government action. The journal Nature surveyed dozens of scientists who worked on another recent IPCC report. Sixty percent said they believed the planet would warm in this century by at least 3 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial times, much more than current international targets. A similar share said they had experienced anxiety, grief or other distress related to climate change.
As the oceans rise, forests burn and carbon dioxide levels continue their upward march, even scientists who do not want to go on strike wonder how much longer they can keep serving as soft-spoken brokers of data and evidence.
“Our first recognition must be that that doesn’t seem to work,” said Wolfgang Cramer, another author of the new IPCC report. “That doesn’t seem to be enough.”
‘An Incredibly Depressing Thought’
Scientists in any field want their work to have an impact. Most of them are not up against some of the most powerful political and economic forces on the planet.
Like doctors, climate researchers tend to develop “some psychological protection, some form of emotional withdrawal,” said Maria Fernanda Lemos, an IPCC author in Rio de Janeiro. “Otherwise, it would not be possible to carry out this work.”
For Iain White, a professor of environmental planning at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, a feeling of futility swept over him when he looked up the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at different points in his life.
It was about 330 parts per million in 1973, the year he was born; roughly 350 in 1988, the year the IPCC was created; and pushing 370 around the turn of the millennium.
“I came to the conclusion that it would go up every year until I retired,” White said. “It was just an incredibly depressing thought.”
Scientists do not talk enough about the emotional toll of researching planetary calamity, he said. “You do hear examples of grief, and people choosing not to have children, and all those kinds of things which you wouldn’t have really thought about 20, 30 years ago, but are now fairly mainstream.”
Timothy F. Smith, 50, a professor of sustainability at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, said he and his colleagues had long wrestled with doubts about their work: “Is it worth continuing if we’re not having the impact that we need?”
And so, in early 2020, Smith, White and Glavovic met up in the seaside town of Tairua, New Zealand. Their plan was to sketch out a joint research project. Instead, they pondered why it was so hard for any research to make a difference. They concluded that withholding that research, and halting IPCC assessments, was scientists’ best hope for prodding elected officials to act.
A Broader Responsibility
Susan Solomon, an atmospheric chemist who worked on past IPCC reports, said the science might indeed be settled on climate change and global average temperatures.
“But so what?” she said. “Nobody lives in the global average.”
In the 1980s, Solomon’s research helped lead to a sweeping agreement to restore the ozone layer. That effort succeeded, she said, because people grasped how the issue affected them personally. Similarly, she said, as scientists improve their understanding of climate change’s local and regional threats, elected leaders will feel more pressure to act.
“There is always more to learn about how to deal with climate change impacts and future risks,” said an IPCC spokesperson, Andrej Mahecic.
Other researchers say high-level action on carbon emissions is not the only point. They say their responsibility is much broader.
In India, “local governments are desperately looking for data and information,” said Aditi Mukherji, an IPCC author based in Kolkata. They “are looking for scientists to tell them what municipal action can they take,” she said.
Edmond Totin, an IPCC author in Benin, said few leaders in West Africa considered climate change a burning issue, not compared with education or security. But ordinary people are hungry to know about the changes they are seeing in water supplies, crop yields and fishing patterns.
“I make more impact at the local level than the higher level,” Totin said. “I don’t even believe I make any change at the global level.” He laughed.
Putting out their call for a strike has led Glavovic, Smith and White to think critically about their remaining working years. Really, that is all they want their fellow scientists to do, too.
“I don’t want to document decline,” White said. “I want to try and use what little time we have to bring at least a little bit of joy.”