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Climate Activism in Academia

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During a recent seminar at the James Hutton Institute, Howard Frumkin - the head of the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Our Planet, Our Health’ initiative - caught my attention when he spoke of the ‘fierce urgency of now’ in describing the consequences of deteriorating planetary health. This phrase was taken from a speech Dr Martin Luther King gave in 1963, which called for ‘immediate, vigorous and positive action’ on civil rights. So, in this post, I ask: how should we academics and institutions working on issues relating to climate, ecological and human health be responding to this urgency?

Dr Martin Luther King, during the civil rights march on Washington DC in 1963. Image: Wikimedia commons

One response may be that we need to collect more data, and get better at analysing it, writing reports and publishing articles. Others may judge we need to urgently improve the way we communicate data, as articulated by Jacqueline McGlade during this year’s TB Macaulay lecture. However, even as our understanding of the planet’s climate grows (currently there are a quarter of a million peer reviewed climate change articles), it appears more science and more reports are either not working or not working fast enough to avert climate breakdown. The pumps and excavators of the fossil fuel industry show no real sign of stopping. As the recent IPCC report suggests, if current levels of fossil fuel consumption are maintained, the global carbon budget for a 1.5 degrees of temperature rise could be blown as early as 2030. This would be catastrophic because it would signify that people alive today (including my own son) would in their lifetime be subjected to the devasting consequences of an earth that is 4 – 6 degrees hotter than pre-industrial levels. So, while data may help, to me, more data analysis isn’t the ‘immediate, vigorous and positive action’ that will arrest this great acceleration. It is a moral imperative for someone like myself working within sustainability science to question what else can I do, and then act upon it.

One way scientists could do more is to go beyond simply observing and describing how the world works and instead advocate how the world ought to be through explicit public policy recommendations. It’s often assumed that advocacy will compromise the credibility of scientists; however, a recent study suggests climate scientists who present evidence on rising greenhouse gas emissions and the associated risks may have considerable scope to engage in certain forms of advocacy (such as calling to limit emissions from coal plants) without risking harm to their credibility (Kotcher et al., 2017). This type of advocacy is one of many forms of activism that academics have regularly engaged in. Via a quick search on Google Scholar, I excavated various descriptions and typologies of activism within academia, which included the process of producing knowledge to inform progressive social change and conducting research that itself involves social change (e.g. action research).

More recently, many notable academics have come out to endorse forms of activism that are more aligned with the word’s most common meaning, as defined by [The Oxford Dictionary]:‘the use of vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change’.

Screenshot from @KateRaworth Twitter account

These include Jason Hickel and Kate Raworth - to name just a few - as well as heads of universities and parliamentarians. They all support the #extinction rebellion, a new ground up campaign inviting people to ‘commit repeated acts of disruptive, non-violent civil disobedience’ with the aim to create a national conversation about ecological crisis and climate breakdown.

Coincidentally, I was down in London for ‘Rebellion day 1’ and witnessed first-hand the demonstration on Southwark bridge, one of 5 central London bridges ‘taken’ during the day. The organisers hope the disruption caused by this and future demonstrations across the UK and around the world will bring governments to act decisively on climate change and the wider ecological emergency. Inspired by social movements led by the likes of Mahatma Ghandi and Dr King, an articulate young woman on Southwark Bridge paused and turned to a Police officer mid-speech to ask him directly if he understood the pain she felt in revealing her decision not to have children due to the bleak future they would likely face on this planet. It was a peaceful, sombre and inspiring speech, after which she was arrested.

ExtinctionRebellion Day 1. The speaker on Southwark bridge just prior to being arrested. Image S Herrett

However, some academics have opted for even more radical measures. One high-profile example is Simon Roscoe Blevins, a soil scientist from Sheffield who was recently sentenced to prison (which was later quashed for being excessive) for protesting against operations at a fracking site near Blackpool operated by Cuadrilla.

Some may argue that academics engaging in civil disobedience may indeed undermine their credibility or be seen by managers as risking their institutions’ reputation or more pertinently go against their values or policies . The institute where I work does research on many areas that are highly contested. On almost all of these there will be different positions taken by staff, let alone by stakeholders and funders. Thus, decisions on what to work on, or who to accept funding from, are taken on a case-by-case basis, judged against the values of the Institute as a whole which may or may not align withmy own. Knowing where the boundaries lie within my institute is increasingly difficult and is, as yet, untested. Would I or colleagues face censure for having engaged in civil disobedience to protest against further oil and gas exploration in the north sea, which is in part, like the James Hutton Institute, publicly funded?

Soil scientist Simon Blevins story. Image from INDEPENDENT online.

I’ve just written to both Aberdeen MPs asking how their support for continued hydrocarbon exploration in the North Sea is compatible with our commitments under the Paris agreement. This apparent contradiction is born from our reliance on fossil fuels and feeds our addiction to convenience, especially in the global north, which supports and normalises the social, economic and political structures that maintain the current status quo. For example, at the very moment Howard Frumkin was speaking at the James Hutton Institute, a 200 mph ‘monster’ Typhoon called Yutu was engulfing the Northern Mariana Islands. Yutu was yet another record-breaking storm to leave a wreckage of broken lives. And while all this was happening in the South West Pacific, UK oil and gas representatives were announcing new developments and plans to extract another 17 billion barrels from the North Sea. If we are to have any chance of keeping within the 1.5 degree target then we need to keep at least a third of oil reserves and half of gas reserves in the ground as highlighted in this study and indicated within the recent IPCC report.

So, it’s easy to understand in this reality we find ourselves in why some scientists and academics have resorted to activism. And I believe too it’s a moral imperative to directly mobilise with others in the academic field and within our communities, to pool knowledges and energies for the immediate, vigorous and positive action that is all too clearly needed.


Kotcher, J. E., Myers, T. A., Vraga, E. K., Stenhouse, N., & Maibach, E. W. (2017). Does engagement in advocacy hurt the credibility of scientists? Results from a randomized national survey experiment. Environmental Communication, 11(3), 415-429.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.



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Printed from /blogs/segs/climate-activism-academia on 25/02/24 01:43:48 AM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.