Extinction Rebellion protesters on Waterloo Bridge, London, April 2019. ‘This is what we have been waiting for, yet strangely the reaction within the scientific community has been muted.’ Photograph: Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images
As scientists, we tend to operate under an unspoken assumption – that our job is to provide the world with factual information, and if we do so our leaders will use it to make wise decisions. But what if that assumption is wrong? For decades, conservation scientists like us have been telling the world that species and ecosystems are disappearing, and that their loss will have devastating impacts on humanity. Meanwhile, climate scientists have been warning that the continued burning of fossil fuels and destruction of natural carbon sinks, such as forests and peatlands, will lead to catastrophic planetary heating.
We have collectively written tens of thousands of peer-reviewed papers, and shared our findings with policymakers and the public. And, on the face of it, we seem to have done a pretty good job: after all, we all know about the environmental and climate crises, don’t we?
But while we’re now well informed, we haven’t actually changed course. Biodiversity loss proceeds apace, to the extent that a million species face extinction in the coming decades, and we continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere at ever faster rates. We have emitted more greenhouse gases since 1990, in full awareness of its impacts, than we ever did in ignorance. It seems that knowledge alone cannot trigger the radical global changes we so urgently need.
It was this realisation that incited us both to embrace activism, and to take to the streets and engage in non-violent civil disobedience as members of Extinction Rebellion. The refusal to obey certain laws has a long and glorious history: from the suffragettes to Rosa Parks and Gandhi, many of the 20th century’s greatest heroes engaged in non-violent civil disobedience to win their rights.
Today, civil disobedience is again on the rise. And it is working. The protests that shut down four sites in London in April raised the climate crisis rapidly up the political agenda, and into the public consciousness. The environment is now the third most pressing issue for British voters, above the economy, crime and immigration: the UK parliament and half the country’s local councils have declared a climate emergency, and a zero-carbon target has been enshrined into law. We don’t know what policy change will follow, but it is an encouraging start.
Alongside this are the Greta Thunberg-inspired school strikes and our sister movements worldwide. This is what we have been waiting for. And yet, the reaction within the scientific community has been strangely muted. In conversation, our conservationist colleagues (and we imagine climate scientists, too) have long bemoaned the fact that environmental issues remain so marginal in the public consciousness. “If only conservation was mainstream,” we lament, “and if only people would take action to fight for our world.” Well, now they are, yet few of us seem to have joined them.
Young people have embraced the movement, and grandparents, too. So have doctors and lawyers, farmers and unemployed people. But not many scientists, which is odd given we probably know more about the severity of the problems we face than anybody. Perhaps it’s related to an unspoken assumption that if our job is to provide information, then adopting a position will weaken our authority. In fact, research shows it doesn’t.
Alternatively, scientists may be reluctant to rise up because there are “proper” channels for influencing policy: you can vote, you can write letters and sign petitions, and if things get really desperate you can walk from A to B on a sanctioned march. The trouble is, these avenues aren’t working, and lobbyists for fossil-fuel industries have far greater access to political decision-makers. In 2018, for example, oil and gas lobbyists alone spent more than $125m (£100m) lobbying politicians in just one country, the United States.
Worse, these lobbyists and the corporations they work for have invested heavily in an anti-science agenda, all with the aim of convincing the world that we can carry on as normal. They are endangering our very survival in pursuit of profit, and undermining the faith in truth, rationality and the scientific method that – surely – will be critical to surviving these crises. This is why we have taken a break from our usual areas of research to publish an article in the prestigious journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, urging our fellow scientists to rise up and embrace rebellion.
As scientists we have spent years telling policymakers that we must change course, but they haven’t taken action. They may be starting to now, but only because people have engaged in open rebellion, making it clear that we will no longer accept inaction. Surely scientists have a moral duty to join the masses, and rebel for life.