“Desperate times call for desperate measures”: Peter Kalmus interview
by Ian Sinclair
7 June 2022
In April Dr Peter Kalmus, an American climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, was arrested after he chained himself to the door of the JP Morgan Chase building in Los Angeles in protest at the bank’s investments in new fossil fuel projects.
Speaking in a personal capacity to Ian Sinclair, Kalmus, who is currently the most followed climate scientist on Twitter, discussed his arrest, barriers to scientists speaking out and the importance of mass civil disobedience in the climate crisis.
Morning Star: Can you explain what led you to chaining yourself to the front door of the JP Morgan Chase building in Los Angeles?
Peter Kalmus: I’m feeling desperate, because the climate emergency is intensifying each year and yet government leaders aren’t doing anything about it. In fact, they’re doing the opposite of what needs to be done: they’re still expanding the fossil fuel industry. They should be leading an emergency-scale transformation away from fossil fuels instead. Everyone needs to know that the damage fossil fuels are doing to Earth’s life support systems are effectively irreversible.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change WG3 report was released just two days before our action at JP Morgan Chase. The report made it very clear that there can be no new fossil fuel infrastructure built from this point, and that human emissions globally need to peak now – not five years from now – in order to still have a 50/50 chance of staying under 1.5°C of mean global heating, a level that I think will be far more catastrophic than almost anyone realizes. Scientist Rebellion called for civil disobedience on April 6 to protest inaction in the context of this report, and I thought “it’s definitely time,” so I joined hundreds of other scientists around the world, risking our careers and our freedom, for the sake of the planet, our kids, and everyone. I chose the JP Morgan Chase as the location because they do more to fund fossil fuel infrastructure than any other institution on the planet. JP Morgan Chase is unabashedly funding the irreversible destruction of life on Earth. It’s crazy to have to say that – it’s a crazy time we live in – but it’s absolutely true.
MS: While 1,200 scientists in 26 countries were reported to have taken part in the Scientist Rebellion that your direct action was part of, you will know most scientists, indeed most climate scientists, don’t speak out publicly, or participate in activism. What are some of the barriers that stop scientists becoming publicly active?
PK: It takes courage to break social norms, and it takes courage to risk your career. I think it’s worth it. Life on Earth is at stake. Our kids’ lives are at stake. That’s worth infinitely more than my career. It’s even worth risking my freedom for. At this point, we need to start thinking in terms of “deep time.” The action we take today, or the inaction, will reverberate for thousands of generations.
MS: UK climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson stopped flying in around 2005, and has criticised other scientists who continue to use air travel. In his 2021 book The New Climate War Professor Michael Mann describes Anderson’s position as “buy[ing] heavily into the ‘personal action’ framing of climate solutions”, which deflects from the necessary systematic action needed. What’s your view on climate scientists making a public stand on flying?
PK: I don’t want to pick on any one person, and there are still a lot of climate advocates who are frequent flyers, but personally I do think it’s irresponsible to continue flying frequently when you know that this behaviour is irreversibly heating up the planet. Much of the CO2 we emit, whether from flying or any other activity, will stay in the atmosphere contributing to global heating for thousands of years. I haven’t flown since 2012 because I can’t handle the intense feeling of benefitting personally from flying at dire cost to my own kids, young people everywhere, future generations, and nonhuman life such as forests and coral reefs. It felt simultaneously horrific and selfish – horrifically selfish.
But the damage goes far beyond the CO2 emissions, precisely because frequent flying climate influencers are correct: it’s not about their “individual action.” The main problem with their flying isn’t the CO2 they’re emitting, it’s the message they’re communicating, and how this message delays systems change. We live in a political system whose decision makers have been financially captured by the fossil fuel industry. In order to get change in this captured system, we need grassroots pressure that’s stronger than the fossil fuel industry. To get this grassroots power, the public needs to understand that we’re genuinely in an emergency. But when our most influential climate messengers act like there’s no emergency, by engaging in status quo fossil fuel behaviour of the privileged global rich, and then vocally defending that behaviour in order to justify it, the public takes the top-line message that there’s no emergency. The sooner the public understands we’re in an emergency, the sooner humanity will start responding like we’re in an emergency, and the more we’ll save. We’ve already lost so much. Ecosystems are dying. People are dying. Losses are guaranteed to intensify from here, and to continue intensifying, until we end the fossil fuel industry. Frequent flying from top climate advocates is a significant block to systemic action. If they were to say, instead, “this is such a huge emergency that I can no longer fly, I know my decision to stop flying is not a solution, but, knowing what I know, it just feels too horrific and disgusting to keep doing it,” the public would get a very different message.
These are tough conversations to have. Obviously, we all live in a fossil-fuelled system of systems, and it’s impossible to fully reduce our fossil fuel use until those systems change. And of course we do need systems change; we won’t stop Earth breakdown through “individual action.” But we can at least avoid excessively using fossil-fuelled systems for perceived personal gain, or worse, defending them. In other words, fly if you still feel that you “need” to, but don’t fly frequently; and instead of defending the commercial aviation system, call for its end. Eventually, most people will recognize that the climate emergency is simply too deadly and irreversible to justify flying on fossil fuels.
MS: US President joe Biden has been in office for just over a year. What do you think about the Biden Administration’s record so far on the climate crisis?
PK: It has been terrible. With all the new drilling and calls for fossil fuel expansion, stopping climate breakdown is clearly not a priority for this administration. It would be great if this changes over the next few years – the first president who makes climate their top priority will go down in history as one of the best presidents of all time – but evidence so far indicates that it will not.
MS: You recently tweeted that “climate petitions, letters, and even marches are a waste of time”. In terms of strategy and tactics, where do you think the climate movement should put its energy in the next few years?
PK: Civil disobedience. It’s time for the climate movement to shift into mass civil disobedience. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and in terms of Earth breakdown we’re now in desperate times. It’s not too late to act, because it will never be too late to act, but the sooner we really start to fight the more we’ll save. At this point, everyone should fight as hard as they can.
Peter Kalmus is the author of the 2017 book Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, published by New Society Publishers. Follow Peter on Twitter @ClimateHuman.