Jess Phoenix is likely one of the only would-be U.S. politicians with a favorite volcanic eruption. (The 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, if you were wondering.) She’s almost certainly the only one who’s led expeditions to active volcanoes around the world.
But while eruptions are near and dear to this volcanologist’s heart, they aren’t why she’s decided to run for Congress to represent California’s 25th district. The catalyst for that would be Steve Knight, the notoriously anti-environment Republican who currently represents her district. And, more broadly, President Donald Trump, who has elevated science deniers to positions of power and launched an all-out war on environmental regulation and land protections.
Since announcing she would be running as a Democrat last spring, Phoenix, a 36-year-old with a geology background and a penchant for horse rescuing, has garnered national media attention, a sizable social media following, and broad grassroots support within her conservative-leaning northern Los Angeles-area district. Her campaign is supported by 314 action, a non-profit launched in 2016 that’s helping scientists around the country run for political office, with the hope of solving problems based on data rather than ideology.
Earther caught up with Phoenix to chat about volcanoes, Star Trek, and what it’s like being a scientist-turned first-time candidate. Below is a condensed and lightly edited version of our conversation.
Maddie Stone/Earther: I feel like most people, myself included, have a pretty glamorized idea of what being a volcanologist actually entails. So, uh, what’s actually the best part?
Jess Phoenix: I get calls all the time from TV producers who wanna make movies about volcanoes. I have to burst their bubble and tell them that you cannot just walk up to a volcano any time—you’re not going to go right up to an eruption. Sampling flowing lava is going to be dramatic.
My favorite part is really learning about the personality of each volcano. Each one is alive in a way—they have periods of activity and dormancy. I was a history major before getting into geology, so I like to learn about about the local beliefs surrounding volcanoes, see the ways people have worshipped them.
MS: Are there any good Hollywood representations of a volcano?
JP: Hollywood has kind of done us a disservice as presenting volcanic eruptions as something you can survive. [In the new Jurassic Park movie trailer] Chris Pratt’s character outruns a pyroclastic flow. You would die.
The best one is actually the BBC. They did a [film] called Supervolcano that was really good with the science.
MS: It’s been reported that the Trump administration’s war on science helped convince you to run for office. What can you bring to the table that can help combat this incredibly anti-science climate we seem to find ourselves in?
JP: Trump was a good catalyst. But what has really helped sustain me, and made me realize this needs to happen, is Steve Knight, who I’m running against, who’s so bad on so many issues. He’s just doing such a poor job representing our community. Every vote possible about the environment, he votes anti-environment. [The League of Conservation voters has given Knight a lifetime score of 0% for his environmental voting record.]
I think for me, I am such a different sort of candidate. I didn’t have infrastructure or institutional support. So I was able to change directions with this campaign, steer it toward a wholehearted grassroots effort. When you have lots of people contributing small amounts, you can actually get out and talk to them rather than [courting] rich people to give donations, which is usually how politics gets done.
MS: You’ve talked a lot about bringing evidence-based policy making to Congress. How do you see yourself doing that?
JP: Fortunately for me, I have experience teaching. [In addition to running an educational nonprofit that teaches students about desert ecology in the Mojave, Phoenix used to teach at California State University, Los Angeles.] I figured out that kids, young adults, everyone really, often hold beliefs that aren’t based in facts. What I have to do is ask questions and really start a dialog.
So when it comes to making laws, I see that as, ‘okay, you believe x about climate change’, they explain their thought process, and then you can say ‘do you know blah blah blah is true’. It’s nice when you’re actually conversing with them, rather than talking down to them.
And the neat thing about being a scientist is, we all learn the scientific method, which applies across disciplines. We all know how to come up with a hypothesis and test it. I can take a paper on a specific type of cancer, read that, and while I’m not a cancer researcher at all, I can look at the data, and see if it’s helpful. I’d love to take that to all areas of policy.
MS: I want to push back just a little bit here, because I think it’s clear some folks in our government are blatantly ignoring facts and scientific evidence. How do you hope to navigate that?
JP: Yea, I mean look, Trump believes in climate change. He’s proven that by putting in an application for a sea wall for his golf course [in Scotland]. Objectively, he knows climate change is real. The U.S. military knows climate change is real. So I think, it’s uncovering the motives at that point, [figuring out] what’s the cause of the opposition, and really being prepared to address things in committees.
Also, this is why grassroots is so key. If your donor base isn’t just rich people but a whole group of citizens, you’re gonna see change. A lot of these career politicians want to keep their power. I think it’s refreshing to people to see someone who’s very principled, who’s not afraid to stand up for what matters.
It’s a combination of being prepared and doing your homework and saying, here’s what the people believe.
MS: You’ve made climate action an important part of your campaign. But there’s this traditional wisdom that climate change isn’t really an issue people vote on. How do you make it a voting issue?
JP: I think the key is to relate it to things happening locally. In California we have such a close relationship with our environment. Even in my community, if you’re conservative, you’re preparing for wildfires.
If you’re in tornado alley, mention that. Mention the Dust Bowl. That was something that affected a lot of people, and was environmental. So I think we can draw on history and current experiences. Showing people people pictures of what LA’s smog looked like 30 years ago versus today just shocks them. And [the difference] is because of environmental regulation. Nobody wants to breath polluted air. And when you tell them that’s what’s going to happen, that’s what humanizes it to people.
One other thing I try to do: I really want to make my community a global hub for green tech research and development. That’s something we can do—we have a strong history of aerospace manufacturing, and we’re so close to JPL [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory] and CalTech. Even if someone doesn’t relate on believing man-made climate change, the jobs of the future are in green tech because we’ve got automation and such a challenge with folks running out of service sector jobs. We have a community prepared to be the vanguard for it.
MS: Another thing that really interested me about your campaign is how you’ve received support from a few Star Trek actors, and you’ve talked about bringing ‘Star Trek values’ to Congress. Can you explain what that means? And are you a Trekkie yourself?
JP: So I always knew about Star Trek because I had an uncle who was die hard into it. I knew a lot of the pop culture references. But I started looking into it more a few years back—I’m watching Discovery now—and the cool thing for me is the value system. It’s this society a few hundred years off where they’ve solved a lot of the problems facing us today—homelessness, joblessness, food scarcity. And now they’re gong out to learn as much as they can about the universe. It shows you when you solve basic problems it opens a lot of doors for where we can go as a species. That message is awesome.
I also love the Vulcan credo for infinite diversity. I see the infinite diversity in our world and think we get a lot of our strength from it. Having our representation look more like our country is only going to strengthen us.
MS: What’s coming up next for you?
JP: Well, we’ve got the Women’s March on the 20th, the Science March in April. We’ve got a lot of fundraisers, some hosted for me by other people. So there’s gonna be some of that, and a whole lot of door to door work. We’ve got people all over the country helping out and people internationally who want to help. It’s just amazing to see how many people are excited [about this campaign], keeping up the momentum, driving it forward.