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Renewing our energy for smarter protests on climate change

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Deputy Opinion Editor

MARCH 08, 2023

In March 2020, a week before COVID-19 shut down my high school, I interviewed NASA engineer and climate scientist Peter Kalmus on what he called a “climate breakdown.” 

Writing numerous research publications and books, Kalmus is a highly renowned physicist and social activist whose doctoral degree from Columbia University centered around the study of gravitational waves. He later focused on ecological forecasting and how ocean acidification impacts coral reefs worldwide. 

With three friends, I went into the backroom of my school’s filming class with a used DSLR camera and an army of lamp posts for artificial lighting. We draped a cheap piece of black fabric behind Kalmus and placed two plastic chairs in the middle of the dusty storage room. 

For 30 minutes, we talked about a variety of issues including the entanglement of fossil fuel industries and government, the rapid increase in droughts, upticks in mass deforestation and the widespread extinction of key species. 

For a high school junior who received a B in his non-AP biology class, I could barely keep up. However, the in-depth interview received hundreds of thousands of social media views, informing a broader community on the issues. 

I emailed the video link to Kalmus, thanked him for his time and have not been in contact with him since. 

Two years later, I found out that he was arrested for chaining himself to a JPMorgan Chase building in Los Angeles. He and a few other scientists were protesting Chase’s $51.3 billion investment in the fossil fuel industry in 2020 — the largest of any bank in the world. 

The demonstration was livestreamed, and he was observably distressed while proclaiming that “we’ve been trying to warn you guys for so many decades that we’re heading towards a f—g catastrophe, and we’ve been being ignored.”

At the time, Kalmus was part of a coalition called Scientist Rebellion, which staged dozens of similar protests of civil disobedience across the planet. Throughout Europe and Washington, D.C., scientists and members of this coalition glued their hands on bridges, blocked traffic by laying in the streets or threw paint at parliaments. 

Other protests seemed to target world-renowned paintings, as one protester threw cake on the protective glass in front of the “Mona Lisa” and another doused canned soup on Van Gogh’s “Poppy Flowers” to protest against climate change and the fossil fuel industry. 

Now, their concern was warranted — climate change presents an increasing number of cataclysmic environmental threats. The present data and a nearly unanimous scientific community agree that the recent rapid increase in global temperature is due to an excess of carbon emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report in 2022 recommends to policymakers a variety of mitigation measures and green energy investments for a stronger resolve against climate change. 

However, despite the validity of their arguments, these protesters are not approaching the fight against fossil fuels in the most effective way. Without a doubt, Kalmus is a leading authority on climate science and his professional opinion buries whatever foresight I have on the environment. However, no matter his argument’s merits, the seemingly distressed and impulsive image of chaining oneself to a bank muddies the message. 

If I block the entrance of Sather Gate with a police barricade that says “The Earth is round,” will people be frustrated by the inconvenience even if what I say is true or merited? 

To add insult to injury, I imagine the people who were negatively affected by his demonstration were the Chase customers applying for a loan or withdrawing money that day — not the actual company, which will continue with its fossil fuel investments. 

Actions that show an intentional and physical disruption like blocking traffic or vandalizing a museum with cake will most likely not persuade the irritated observers and may detract from the movement. Even if the demonstrations are not disruptive, actions that are perceived as impulsive, rash or even unnecessary are easy to dismiss in the public eye despite the argument’s logic. It’s safe to say that not many people are reducing their carbon footprint because someone threw soup on painted flowers. 

In fact, the Annenberg Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a poll asking respondents how nonviolent actions influenced their opinion on efforts against climate change. The poll found that support for such efforts decreased among 46% of respondents. 40% said it had no effect, and only 13% said the demonstrations increased their support. 

This shows a baseline notion about movements or general politics: Perception is everything. 

While coming from a place of real concern for a dire issue, these demonstrations are not helpful in swaying the hearts and minds of the populace. All successful movements require rigorous lobbying and a lockdown on negative public relations campaigns, and from what I see, these movements are missing the mark in convincing people to band together to fight climate change. 

In democracies around the world and especially in the United States, real grassroots movements spark change in Congress — not on the face of the “Mona Lisa.”

Ethan Kim writes the Wednesday column on measuring the medium of the two political sides in a marketplace of ideas. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

SEPTEMBER 12, 2023