Climate Activist Peter Kalmus Calls for a Global Earth Rebellion

"I don't see another path."

Peter Kalmus at a protest

Treehugger / Scientist Rebellion

Peter Kalmus is something of a climate change renaissance man. If you are familiar with his work as a climate scientist, zero-carbon pioneer, author, activist, and social media instigator, you will probably agree with this description.

For years, Kalmus has been sounding the alarm about extreme weather events through his work as a NASA climate scientist and on social media, using his @ClimateHuman Twitter handle to denounce oil companies and the hypocrisy of political leaders, while demanding strong climate action, and even urging his nearly 250,000 followers to revolt against fossil fuel capitalism.

He has made headlines for his efforts to radically slash his family’s carbon emissions, his bid to encourage climate scientists to stop flying, and his award-winning 2017 book “Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution.” He has written op-eds for leading outlets, including The Guardian and the Los Angeles Times, has given dozens of media interviews, and is the co-founder of the Climate Ad Project, an organization that produces online content to promote climate solutions and denounce greenwashing

Peter Kalmus

The problem with the climate movement really is that it has only activated a tiny proportion of the public. Everyone on the planet is affected by Earth’s breakdown, even the rich. So we need everyone to start prioritizing life on this planet.

Kalmus is also involved with Scientist Rebellion—a group of academics and scientists that engage in non-violent acts of civil disobedience to increase awareness about environmental degradation and demand systemic changes to decarbonize the world’s economy.

Treehugger recently talked with Kalmus about his efforts to help spark a “global Earth rebellion” to tackle the climate crisis. Here is a summary of our conversation.

Treehugger: What are your thoughts about the Earth Day celebrations a few weeks ago?

Kalmus: I've got mixed feelings about Earth Day. I do think about Earth's breakdown every single day and I’m constantly looking for ways to create more transformation in society. I’m glad that the Earth gets some attention that day, but I think there's also a lot of corporate greenwashing that goes along with that. At this point in the climate emergency recycling or changing your credit card is not enough anymore. We need to make this priority one for humanity and given the inertia and the lack of willingness from world leaders and the rich to make the necessary changes, we don't need an Earth Day, we need a global Earth rebellion.

What are your hopes when it comes to bringing about the systemic changes needed to tackle the climate crisis?

I think a lot of scientists and climate activists sort of assumed that those in power would wake up and make the necessary changes, but that hasn't happened. It’d be foolish to keep depending on that. So my strategy is to just keep trying to build the movement as quickly and as skillfully as I can, and with as much solidarity for the most affected people as I possibly can. I think that the change has to eventually come from the top down but to get the people in power to actually make the necessary changes, we need a global grassroots movement that comes up from the masses.

Peter Kalmus sitting on the ground at a climate protest with cops facing him and his peers.

Peter Kalmus

You were arrested on April 6 for protesting against JPMorgan Chase in downtown Los Angeles alongside other members of Scientist Rebellion. Can you tell me more about what happened that day?

We were charged with trespassing and the legal process is occurring now, so we'll see where it leads to. 

It was an incredibly powerful event that went around the world thanks to social media. I have mixed feelings about social media, but in this case, it saved the day and made sure that we actually had an impact because the corporate media is not reporting on the global Earth rebellion that Scientist Rebellion is part of.

It seems that your social media activism really helped to spread the message, right?

You're right. It was a valuable resource for the entire Scientist Rebellion. 

I've been working like crazy to create a platform, not for me, but to get the message of climate urgency out, as a tool for the movement so that we can start having more of a voice and having more of an impact. 

It seems that major media outlets did not report on the protests. How do you feel about that?

It's fantastic when outlets like Treehugger or Grist report on Scientist Rebellion but they reach an audience that already gets the climate emergency. What we need for social transformation is for the majority of people, the mainstream, to understand the real story. So that's gonna come out through venues like CNN, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and other major media outlets around the world. That didn't happen but some larger venues did cover the story because it went viral on social media. 

The problem with the climate movement really is that it has only activated a tiny proportion of the public. Everyone on the planet is affected by Earth’s breakdown, even the rich. So we need everyone to start prioritizing life on this planet.

I want a climate movement that's so big that it's just viewed as common sense. That's what a billion climate activists would mean, a movement that is so mainstream that basically people who aren't essentially climate activists are viewed very poorly by most of society.

So that would be what I call revoking the social license of the fossil fuel industry. Right now fossil fuel companies can still advertise, for example, in The New York Times. Right now, the fossil fuel industry still enjoys having a social license. People still brag about the three-night trip they take to Tahiti on their Instagram because they think it's cool but if the social media license of the fossil fuel privilege is revoked they wouldn’t brag about it. 

I agree, but how do we get there?

I've tried a lot of different things to wake up the public over the 16 years that I've been a climate activist but there is a greater sense of urgency now partly driven by climate disasters that are increasing in their intensity and their seriousness. It’s clear that there is a serious danger happening right now that has to be addressed right now.

I think there is more receptiveness to things like climate disobedience from Earth scientists now, for example. What I found by doing the experiment on civil disobedience is that it's an extremely effective communication strategy, more effective than other things I've tried. And now the public is getting more receptive to that because it's getting more and more clear that climate activists are on the right side of history.

I believe in the diversity of tactics within the movement but I think that right now more civil disobedience is a good avenue to pursue by everyone, especially Earth scientists.

Is there a risk that social disobedience could backfire, as it happened in the United Kingdom with the Insulate Britain movement that was criticized for blocking major roads?

It is much harder for mainstream media to discredit scientists engaging in civil disobedience, who are carefully choosing their actions and the targets of their actions. But yes, of course, it could become a huge movement with tens of thousands of people involved and lots of actions going on all the time, and some of those actions could be used by the corporate media to depict activists as dangerous radicals. But United Nations Secretary-general Antonio Gutierrez, who could be described as the leader of the whole planet, recently said that the dangerous radicals aren't actually climate activists, they're the countries that expand fossil fuels. 

When it comes to climate action, I think it is important to highlight the need for climate justice.

Obviously, this problem has primarily been caused by the global rich and is affecting primarily people in the global South. I think the richest 1% of people on the planet are responsible for 15% of overall emissions, while the top 10% are responsible [those earning more than $35,000 a year] for 50% of greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is indigenous people of color, low-income people everywhere, mostly in the global south but also within the U.S., who are already bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.

We're already at 1.2 degrees Celsius of mean global heating over pre-industrial levels, which has been primarily caused by burning fossil fuels and that is already not safe, especially in the global south. A few days ago, it was barely reported, but there was massive flooding in South Africa that killed over 400 people and displaced over 40,000 people.

But how do we get people to care about this? How do we mobilize a large percentage of the population?

It has to start with feeling compassion for and taking care of the most affected people in the world. And that necessarily involves a transfer of wealth from the billionaire class to working-class people and from the global north to the global south. Our leaders are not doing that.

For example, the Biden administration is complaining about high gas prices, and yet the fossil fuel CEOs are raking in record profits. If the White House wanted to, they could subsidize gas for working-class people, but they're not doing that. They could seize the assets of fossil fuel corporations and collectivize the industry and ensure that the ultra-rich don't make windfall profits off of the energy crisis, but they're not doing any of that because there's not a willingness by the rich to redistribute wealth to the poor.

To me, there's no way out of this without a redistribution of wealth and that's why I believe we need a global Earth rebellion. I don't see another path.