Shortly after the New Year, I was fired from Oak Ridge National Laboratory after urging fellow scientists to take action on climate change. At the American Geophysical Union meeting in December, my fellow climate scientist Peter Kalmus and I unfurled a banner that read, “Out of the lab & into the streets.” We implored our colleagues to use their leverage as scientists to wake the public up to the dying planet.
Soon after this brief action, the AGU, an organisation with 60,000 members in the earth and space sciences, expelled us from the conference and withdrew the research that we presented. It began a professional misconduct inquiry. (It’s ongoing.)
Then, on Jan. 3, Oak Ridge, the laboratory where I had worked as an associate scientist for one year, terminated me. I am the first earth scientist I know of to be fired for climate activism. I fear I will not be the last.
Oak Ridge said I misused government resources by engaging in a personal activity on a work trip and because I did not adhere to its code of business ethics and conduct. When Dr. Kalmus and I decided to make our statement, I knew that we risked being asked to leave the stage or the conference. But I didn not expect that our research would be removed from the programme or that I would lose my job.
The retaliation I faced highlights a disappointing reality: that scientific institutions will not support scientists interrupting a meeting for the climate. I’m all for decorum, but not when it will cost us the earth.
I used to be a well-behaved scientist. I stood quietly on melting permafrost in Utqiagvik, Alaska, and measured how much greenhouse gas was released into the atmosphere. I filled spreadsheets and ran simulations about how warming temperatures would increase the carbon emissions from soil.
To do my job, I dissociated the data I was working with from the terrifying future it represented. But in the field, smelling the dense rot of New England hemlock trees that were being eaten by a pest that now survives the warming winters, I felt loss and dread. Though I saw firsthand the oncoming catastrophe of climate change, I felt powerless to help.
I did believe that if scientists told the truth about the climate emergency, our institutions would get out the message to policymakers, media and public.
Scientific institutions should support activism and advocacy, especially by experts. The AGU should do more to publicly support policies informed by its members’ science, such as declaring a climate emergency and ending fossil fuel extraction and subsidies.
I did not make the decision to become an activist lightly; I recognised that my actions would have consequences, and I knew that I could face retaliation. But inaction during this critical time will have far greater consequences.