Climate scientists defend colleagues victimised for activism

Two climate scientists were thrown out of a conference in the autumn for holding up a banner, and one was then fired. Lucas Scott looks at the links between science – including climate science – and the state, and how scientists are organising.

Scientists hold up banner
Photo: Rose Abramoff

Rose Abramoff and Peter Kalmus, two US based climate scientists involved with XR group Scientists Rebellion, were removed from the fall 2022 American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference in December following a short demonstration. The two scientists held up a banner displaying the message ‘Out of the lab and into the streets’ at the beginning of a talk on arts and sciences before leaving the stage when asked. As well as being escorted out of the conference, their scientific contributions were removed and they were informed they would be arrested if they returned and that AGU would be contacting their employers. 

AGU, a major organisation in the world of climate science whose fall conference is the largest in earth science in the world, followed through with their threat to go to the scientists’ employers. Ecologist Rose Abramoff, specialising in carbon uptake in soil, was fired from her research position at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), a US Department of Energy facility working in biology, ecology, and renewable energy as well as nuclear and material science. In an interview with the New York Times, Abramoff said ORNL accused her of having ‘misused government resources by engaging in a personal activity on a work trip’ and having ‘not adhered to its code of business ethics and conduct.’

Over 1500 climate scientists have signed an open letter condemning AGU for their response, and another open letter hosted online now has over 2000 signatures. These letters demonstrate important support from the climate science community for political activism, and to some degree acknowledge scientific work as tied to political action. The political rallying round of climate scientists, including the continuing strike action by UCU and scientific workers with Prospect going to ballot, demonstrates the precarity currently felt by scientists and their political will to organise.

The efforts of climate scientists and the wider scientific community to involve themselves in political action, and the disciplinary response of scientific institutions, raises questions about the political opportunities and limitations scientific workers have in an increasingly politicised field.

The organising of scientific workers has an important and varied history in the imperial core. Movements like the Social Relations of Science Movement (SRS) in ‘30s and ‘40s Britain and the US based Science for the People (SftP) organisation in the ‘70s and ‘80s are useful touchstones to consider, and demonstrate important contradictions. For instance, scientists involved in SRS such as J. D. Bernal called for greater state funding of science alongside a more democratic and egalitarian state. This was to allow scientists to pursue their research in the interest of public good. The later SftP took the deep issues with state and imperialist involvement more seriously, especially in the context of the Vietnam War and the accelerating control of the sciences by the military-industrial complex. This foregrounded vital questions about how to be an anti-imperialist and anti-militarist scientist.

Climate science itself, particularly meteorology and oceanography, is significantly intertwined with the military. For instance, meteorology emerged as a modern science alongside military interests in the navy and air force which deeply structured the objectives, techniques, and organisation of the practice. Foundational schools of meteorological thought like the Bergen and Chicago schools were established in the contexts of World War 1 and World War 2 respectively, with their research geared towards the requirements of the military. World War 1 forced integration of meteorology into European armies when poison gas attacks became increasingly decisive and for increasing artillery accuracy. Meteorological forecasts ensured the success of the D-Day landings, and the atomic massacres at Hiroshima and Nagasaki relied on favourable weather conditions. In the words of Craven and Cate’s The Army Air Forces in World War II, the verification of the weather forecast for Hiroshima by the final meteorological reconnaissance plane ‘sealed the city’s doom’.

Organisationally, then, theoretical institutions became increasingly militarised – entering into a division of labour with and within military field and operational meteorology. The importance of atmospheric science to military interests has kept it close to the state and military, often militarising in wartime and commercialising during peacetime, with structural ties to the military remaining in place throughout these transitions. The UK Meteorological Office, a world-leading institution in weather and climate science, was integrated into the Ministry of Defence from World War 1 until 1990. Today it remains part of the civil service and maintains close ties to the military, inevitably entailing scrutiny of its employees. Relatedly, ORNL did not directly raise the issue of national defence in their reasons for firing Abramoff, but it is a government institution with significant national security involvement and this does significantly increase its scope for disciplining workers.

State involvement in climate science imposes considerable political oversight on climate assessment. Delegates from all governments involved in the The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change must sign off on each line of the Summary for Policy Makers. This allows for opportunity to ‘water down the content’. However, scientific institutions outside of the state are no better. Science serves the industries that fund them, seeking to increase profitability in that sector. Scientific institutions – such as AGU, which has sharply increased the registration fee of its fall conference – take on increasingly corporate cultures and administration outside of state funding. Science that goes against corporate interests may be misrepresented or even simply never reported, as in the case of early climate research done at Exxonmobil. Scientific institutions are deeply involved with private interests and funding, and often highly reluctant to sever those ties. For example, even after the investigations into the scale of efforts by Exxonmobil to discredit climate science, AGU – which had received significant donations from the fossil fuel company – refused at first to cut ties. The AGU conference finally ended sponsorship from fossil fuel involvement in 2019, but arms industry sponsorship continues with both the 2021 and 2022 conferences sponsored by Lockheed Martin.

How scientific workers navigate the landscape of their institutions and funding is complex, tactical, and highly dependent on local and national specifics, the politics of states involved, their position in the imperialist world system, and how they instrumentalise science to that end. Somebody always owns scientific institutions, owns science. Socialist and activist scientists, especially in the imperial core, are always going to be in-and-against these institutions. Or as Richard Levins put it in a talk at MIT in 2015, scientists must be ‘one foot in, one foot out’. The way to continue as serious researchers is to retain roots in activism and develop independence from the scientific establishment.

This is what is so valuable in the protest of Abramoff and Kalmus. The slogan ‘out of the lab and into the streets’ is right to not just call scientists to action but to counterpose that action to scientific work. ‘The lab’ is a highly political, commercial, often military institution and scientists need to cultivate their independence and develop meaningful in-and-against strategies. Organisations like Scientists for Global Responsibility, newer political organs like Scientists for Future, XR Scientists and the reestablishment of Science for the People show willingness of scientists towards developing larger-scale coordinated political strategy. Such institutions must meaningfully engage with union organising of scientific workers, counter-hegemonic knowledge production, and cultivate anti-imperialist relations and international political collaboration with scientists and institutions in super-exploited peripheries.

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