From the lab to the streets: why scientists join the climate movement

When she is not working towards her PhD at the University of Eastern Finland (focusing her research towards “eco-engineering” — applying biological systems and communities to solve the current climate and energy crises), Rebecca J. Wicker is attending Extinction Rebellion demonstration and encouraging her colleagues to get involved with with ‘Scientists with Extinction Rebellion. She explains why scientists need to join the fight.

 

Words

Rebecca J. Wicker

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“On peut tout expliquer au peuple à condition toutefois qu’on veuille vraiment qu’il comprenne.” (Everything can be explained to the people, on the condition that you want them to understand.)—Frantz Fanon, Les Damnés de la Terre — The Wretched of the Earth

Percentages, degrees Celsius, tonnes of carbon dioxide, negative and net-zero emissions… Nobody can escape the flurry of numerical data and figures presented in climate news today. As scientists, we feel comfortable using this language to convey information to legislators writing climate policy, both national and international. We let them summarise our findings, publish their reports, and consider it a communication job well done. But there are two problems here, and the first is simply that climate policy is not making enough scientific impact, not by a long shot. The rhetoric used in documents like the Paris Climate Agreement and the IPCC’s (International Panel on Climate Change) latest report doesn’t seem to be lighting any fires under our governments to actually legislate the kind of change that scientists uniformly agree we need to survive as a species.

Second, throwing numbers and technical terms around can be utterly counterproductive when speaking to the people who really want to listen to us — concerned citizens. We’re right in the middle of one of those pivotal points in human history, when governments are failing in their duties to the people, and these concerned citizens are the ones pushing for change. But if you don’t already have a brain full of maths, it’s mentally exhausting to try and work through what these numbers and technical terms actually mean, only adding to the psychological weight of climate change.

“Extinction Rebellion gives us, the scientists making these dire claims, a public platform to address our leaders, where everyone can see and hear us, and it helps us develop skills to communicate effectively with the general public.”

We, scientists, are the people who are best able to visualise the scope and breadth of this crisis, because we’re the ones doing the research and generating these data. It is our sole responsibility to get out of the lab and make these numbers real for people. The importance of translating our perspective into one cohesive message, understandable by and accessible to the general public, cannot be overstated. I think a lot of us operate in a bubble; we write scientific articles which are peer-reviewed and published by other experts, and the closest we get to engaging the public is writing funding proposals. In a silly twist, writing this article has been an exercise in communication for me, despite how strongly I believe that science should be accessible to all. It’s just not always easy to break out of the normal, but we are, as a planet, facing some pretty abnormal circumstances.

Rebecca J. Wicker in the lab.
Rebecca J. Wicker in the lab.

These abnormal circumstances are nothing less than a global climate emergency. In response, internationally synchronous mass mobilisations are occurring on an unprecedented scale. But when people see climate strikes and marches in the media, and they don’t see scientists out there screaming ‘CLIMATE ACTION NOW’ at the top of our lungs, how can they believe we’re as scared as we are about this? By inaction, we’re invalidating the urgency of our message. It is absolutely critical for scientists to embody the warnings we’ve been giving by engaging in activism and showing everybody, governments and general public alike, that we mean it when we say, ‘climate emergency’.

When I first encountered Extinction Rebellion (XR) at a Helsinki Climate March, I was admittedly critical of the message I felt they were sending. It seemed overly negative and pessimistic, which adds to that mental weight of climate change for the average person. I talked with a few of my friends among their ranks, however, and we realised that we agreed; this is precisely the message we should be sending to governments and policymakers. They introduced me to XR’s community events and online resources, designed to help empower the average person and bolster a sense of hope for the future.

Through XR, scientists and concerned citizens can act in concert. Extinction Rebellion gives us, the scientists making these dire claims, a public platform to address our leaders, where everyone can see and hear us, and it helps us develop skills to communicate effectively with the general public.

Extinction Rebellion is, as a whole, the largest international grassroots climate movement in which I’ve ever participated, and by far the most organised. This is really new to me; it’s been my experience as an activist that as movements grow, they can quickly get messy. XR has grown exponentially since its inception just over a year ago (October 2018), and it hasn’t lost an ounce of coherence. Scientists for XR is one of their many subsets, each of which organises members by their expertise, so that we can all contribute according to our individual talents. And, importantly, there are a lot of people who want to participate in activism, but don’t want to (or cannot) engage in civil disobedience. By structuring the movement like this, there’s no pressure for anyone to step beyond their comfort zone, while still giving them the opportunity to shine with their own light.

I don’t know of a better example of this individualised structuring than my own work with XR. There is no official Extinction Rebellion chapter in my town in Finland, let alone a Scientists for XR group, so I can’t often be physically present at XR proceedings. The XR Global framework allows me to contribute remotely to both national and international initiatives, as a scientist, a translator, a writer, and an activist. Indeed, it was through this framework that I came to write this article. Apart from being wildly effective, and speaking as a self-declared person with a brain full of maths, this kind of methodical structuring and planning is highly satisfying.

Scientists for XR has coalesced the skills and abilities of hundreds of concerned scientists worldwide, on a single platform, and towards a unified set of goals. It gives us a new type of bubble, where we can organise and share ideas in scientific language, and then help each other translate it for everybody else, inside and outside the global XR movement.

I left the United States (my birth country) for Europe in 2015, looking for a research environment more conducive to climate change studies. I really found what I was looking for; I spent my first three years here studying what we call climate feedback loops (natural carbon cycles that are being disrupted by climate change), and frankly, I was so thoroughly shaken by my findings that I made the switch to solutions-focused research for my PhD. What I couldn’t seem to find was a community of other thoroughly shaken scientists, who were ready and willing to stand up, speak out, and really get involved with direct climate actions… until Scientists for Extinction Rebellion found me.


I’m proud to announce our new Scientists for XR webpage, and particularly proud of the FAQ section (answering all your questions about the science of climate change): https://www.scientistsforxr.earth/

For more information about Extinction Rebellion Global, please visit: https://rebellion.earth/


 

Rebecca J. Wicker, PhD Researcher at the Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Eastern Finland. Rebecca J. Wicker graduated with her MSc in environmental biology, with a minor in international law and policy, from this same university in 2017. She has also spent a year working in biogeochemistry at the University of Southern Denmark, and several months with an environmental NGO called Organization Earth, in Athens (Greece). Rebecca J. Wicker master’s studies and research in Denmark both explored the problem of climate change; specifically, the intricacies of the geochemical cycling of methane and potential climate feedback loops. “Frankly, those three years studying the problem scared me into solutions-focused research, and now I am focusing my PhD research towards “eco-engineering” — applying biological systems and communities to solve the current climate and energy crises.” Most of what Rebecca does for Extinction Rebellion is translation, from Finnish to English (media content), but she also attends every demonstration she can, and encourages other scientists to get involved. “I took up my minor studies in law for the same reason that I engage in public civil disobedience; we have a truly existential crisis in front of us, and scientists are the people best equipped to translate it to legislators and average citizens alike.”


 

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