Last April, Tennessee-based soil scientist Rose Abramoff was arrested after chaining herself to a White House fence. She was one of about 1,000 scientists around the world who engaged in civil disobedience that week, organized by Scientist Rebellion. They demanded “emergency decarbonization” and wealth distribution.
Before then, she says, she had done her best to remain apolitical. She worked behind the scenes to support activism but had not risked arrest. But after that action in Washington D.C., she jumped headfirst into protesting for urgent climate policy. She was one of several people who chained themselves to the entrances to a private jet terminal in Charlotte, North Carolina, this past November, calling for a ban on private jets.
But a recent protest cost Abramoff her job as an associate scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She and fellow activist Peter Kalmus attended the American Geophysical Union meeting in December; just before speakers were set to begin, Abramoff and Kalmus went on stage and unfurled a sign that read “out of the lab & into the streets.” AGU expelled them from the conference and withdrew the research Abramoff was set to present that week. In response, she wrote an op-ed for the New York Times.
Oak Ridge National Lab said Abramoff misused government resources by engaging in a “personal activity on a work trip” and claimed that jumping on stage with the sign went against the lab’s code of conduct, Abramoff wrote in the op-ed. She knew she risked being removed from the conference, but she didn’t expect to have her research pulled or to lose her job.
“The retaliation I faced from the A.G.U. and Oak Ridge ultimately highlights a disappointing reality: that established scientific institutions will not even support scientists interrupting a meeting for the climate,” she wrote. “I’m all for decorum, but not when it will cost us the earth.”
I spoke to Abramoff about her activism, the op-ed, and what she thinks may be in store for disruptive climate activism in 2023. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Angely Mercado, Earther: Has this experience changed how you feel about your activism and any future actions you’ll participate in?
Rose Abramoff: I don’t think it’ll change my decisions. I knew what the risks were. Ecosystem degradation is occurring so quickly right now. It’s terrifying to us, and it’s pushing us to take these risks.
Earther: What has the public response been like?
Abramoff: The social media response has been fairly supportive. I think climate scientists are really reaching a breaking point. I think a lot of them feel silenced, not specifically by the American Geophysical Union, but by their institutions. And by the sort of assumed role that scientists have, which is essentially to deliver the numbers and go back to your office and not make any political comments. Just watching the climate crisis deepen for decades is really taking a toll.
Earther: Why write the op-ed?
Abramoff: I wanted to frame the narrative. I felt that I really needed to try to deliver a hopeful call to action. I worried that if I just let regular reporting happen without saying my piece first, that this story would essentially be “step out of line and get fired.” I don’t want to discourage scientists from taking action, but at the same time, this retaliation is a real threat. Our membership is not feeling safe. When they take these actions, they know that they’re putting their careers at risk. We’re doing it because we’re getting desperate.
Earther: Would you encourage scientists and activists to continue protesting, despite the risks?
Abramoff: I understand asking people to risk their jobs or to risk their freedom by engaging in civil disobedience is a really high bar. But there are actions all across the spectrum of risks that people can take. The most important thing, I think, and the thing that offers the most protection, is to not take action alone. The more people that you can bring with you, the safer you are. They can’t fire all of us. Maybe they can, but I hope not. Part of what I hope comes out of this is a greater sense of community and cross-pollination within the [climate] action community.
Earther: What do you think is going to happen with disruptive climate protests in 2023?
Abramoff: I’m happy to say that I don’t really know, because what I think is going to happen is unprecedented creativity. I don’t think you’re gonna see exactly the same thing as the soup [thrown on a famous painting] action again. Now we’re going to try something else. Like Extinction Rebellion is taking a short pause from disruptive action to build up mobilization in London. It’s a period of experimentation.
Earther: What do you think of the angry reactions to those protests?
Abramoff: I find the ethical argument behind activism really interesting, because they’re often the actions which are the most straightforward. For example, occupying the space in front of a pipeline. Or valve turning, like directly protesting against fossil fuel infrastructure. They can sometimes have a direct effect… they can be effective in delaying projects, to the point that they might be canceled.
I also think that there’s a historical perspective to take. What Scientist Rebellion and Extinction Rebellion and other groups are doing now may seem very extreme. But when you look at it through the lens of history, it’s not so extreme. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. [went to jail] 29 times for nonviolent civil disobedience. We don’t have a problem with the suffragettes, who were actually taking arguably violent action. They were breaking windows and destroying property during that period of trying to get the vote for women.
Humans really evaluate what’s extreme based on the social norms of the day. It can seem like we’re really out there. But when you think of it from a much longer perspective—seven generations from now. Future generations will say we were not extreme enough.