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Peter Kalmus: ‘As a species, we’re on autopilot, not making the right decisions’ | Climate crisis
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Peter Kalmus: ‘As a species, we’re on autopilot, not making the right decisions’ | Climate crisis

peter kalmus and colleague chained to the jp morgan chase building, los angeles, 6 april this year


LPeter Kalmus, a Nasa data scientist and entrepreneur, was interviewed last month. Chained himself to the entry doorsLos Angeles: The JP Morgan Chase Building. A video of Short speechThe speech he made about global warming before his arrest was shared numerous times on social media. In the clip, voice faltering, he told the public: “I’m here because scientists are not being listened to … we are going to lose everything and we are not joking.” He spoke to the ObserverIn a personal capacity.

What motivated you to peaceful protest?
It’s this mounting feeling that I need to do more. A wide gap between what science suggests society needs and how it feels, is making me feel desperate. World leaders and people not understanding that we’re in an emergency.

Then the question comes to me, if I’m sitting with the science every day, and I want to protect my kids and young people and non-humans, what do I do? I’ve been on this 16-year journey trying to answer that question, and civil disobedience seemed like something good to try. I’m ashamed to say that it took me this long.

Do you believe scientists should talk more directly to the public about their feelings?
Oh, absolutely. Because we’re not just brains in a vat, we’re humans. These living systems are being studied by ecologists, oceanologists, and climate scientists because they are deeply loved and cared about. Uniformly, across the board, they’re all seeing these massive declines and they’re seeing these systems dying in front of their eyes. I know they’re feeling strong emotions.

Civil disobedience has been far more effective at communicating urgency than anything else I’ve tried.

The UK Met Office reported last week that there was a 50% chance that the next five-years would see a significant increase in temperature.1.5C of warming will not be broken. The aviation industry was found not to have met Only one of 50 climate targets. Und a GuardianAn investigation revealed that fossil fuel companies plan to buy land. huge “carbon bomb” projects This will lead to climate catastrophe. That’s a pretty standard week in the global heating news cycle…
This has been happening over the years, just increasing and increasing. It’s only going to get more intense as we go forward. That’s why I feel this desperation to end the fossil fuel industry as quickly as possible. Ending the fossil fuel industry is the main thing we need to do to take the pressure off the Earth system and to at least start to stabilise at where we’re at. These news stories will then likely start to stabilize. But yeah, it’s getting more intense, isn’t it? That’s where we’re at now. That’s a normal week for 2022. What is 2024 going like? What’s 2025 going to be like?

With every tonne we burn fossil fuel, the average temperature of the planet continues to rise. At some point you’re going to surpass all of these different milestones. It’s no secret that the fossil fuel industry has been planning to make as much profit as they can from extracting and selling fossil fuel, no matter what happens to the planet, to us, and to future generations. I don’t think we should just talk about future generations any more, because people are dying right now, all around the world. That’s going to happen more as we approach deadly human heat thresholds in certain regions that the human body can’t actually live through. It’s diabolical that these industrialists wish to take short-term profits at the expense of literally everything.

Are the C agreements and pledges valid?Are op meetings effective or sufficient? Last week, Guardian ran a story revealing how few of the pledges have been acted on…
Michael Mann, the renowned climate scientist, wrote an oped right after Cop26. He declared victory. He stated that Cop26 was not a failure. I wrote an The next day, op-ed saying that it was absolutely a failure, and that it’s very dangerous not to recognise it as a failure, because that, again, decreases the urgency of dealing with the problem. If we consider that as not a failure, what happened at Cop26, then the public can sort of have this feeling that the “people in charge” are doing what they need to do, which is absolutely not the case. They’re not doing what they need to do.

The fossil fuel industry has deeply influenced politics and the Cop process. It will do anything to stop action from taking place and to put a wrench in the works. It’s up to the leaders of the world to stand up to that and to say: “A livable planet is more important than your profits. We are not going to allow this process of delay to continue.” What worries me is that, in this critical year between Cop26 and Cop27, every signal that we’re getting from world leaders is that fossil fuels will continue to expand.

President Biden is begging OpecTo increase production. He’s opening New lands for drilling In the Gulf of Mexico, and on public lands of the US. Right now, what I’m seeing from world leaders, including Biden, is that they’re using the bully pulpit of their position to urge the expansion of fossil fuels. They’ve completely stopped talking about taking climate action.

The Ukraine war has had a devastating effect on energy prices. This presents a great opportunity for huge investment in renewable energy, as well as phasing out of fossil fuels. But the political class doesn’t see it that way…
The world’s leaders are wasting an historic opportunity to transition to renewables. Instead, they’re using it as an opportunity to expand the fossil fuel industry, and the fossil fuel CEOs are rubbing their hands in glee at what’s happening right now. They can’t believe their good fortune that Putin invaded Ukraine.

Can you explain the monopoly that the fossil fuel industry holds over the American political system Sometimes, outsiders can see the Wildfires along the west coastYou will see that Florida is sinking, and it doesn’t make sense…
There’s this kind of equilibrium of corruption that has developed. They know which politicians’ campaigns to support for maximum return on their investment. For them, it’s a tiny investment. Then, somehow they’ve also managed to capture the media. They certainly have the Fox News network on their side, but somehow, even the non-conservative side hasn’t been reporting the story as it should, that this is an emergency for the planet. The public don’t sense any urgency from the media. The politicians who accept campaign donations from the fossil fuel sector are not being held accountable.

It runs deeper doesn’t it? Every politician who challenges the American dream of being able to drive anywhere and anytime gets a lot of backlash. The price of petrol or gasoline is an emotive matter.
Global heating accounts for three-quartersa result of burning fossil fuels. Everything else we talk about – planting trees, carbon captures, carbon offsets – is just rearranging deckchairs.

The thing we’ve got to do to avoid hitting the iceberg is to end the fossil fuel industry as quickly as we can. If we don’t protect the interests of the working class, they will protest any climate policies that make their lives difficult because of high energy prices. It was what happened a few years back with the Gilets jaunes [yellow vests]France

The only way to get the working class on board is for the transition away from fossil fuels to be effectively sub-sidised by the super rich. This would require a redistribution wealth.

You are referring to systematic change that leads towards a new economic system. When people hear that, they hear “degrowth”. They feel it’s going to impact their standard of living.
It is important to realize that all degrowth is actually a change in the goal of our economic system. We must change the goal of our economic system from accumulation of capital to the flourishing all people, not only people in the global nord, but also people in all parts of the globe, and the flourishing all life on the planet. Our economic system is embedded within the biosphere. If we take down the biosphere, we lose everything, and we don’t have an economic system any more. That’s why we desperately need to change the goal of the system to the flourishing of everyone and all life on the planet.

However, many people like to drive, fly and eat beef. They feel the climate movement wants to take away things they enjoy…
They do. There’s different kinds of pleasure in life, right? Like getting deeply involved in your community, or feeling like you’re involved in something deeply meaningful, like humanity getting on a better course and the future being better for your children.

These pleasures are more sustaining, according to my experience. They’re deeply satisfying. They’re less superficial. But yeah, I know that it’s a hard sell. It almost takes a spiritual discipline to be able kind of get out of the modern addictions, which can be very tempting.

This was why I I wrote my book [about reducing his carbon footprint by 90%], because I wanted to get the message out that there’s actually a lot of pleasure in making these kinds of changes. I didn’t know whether it would resonate with people or not. It was a much smaller proportion of people than I expected.

Are there any Americans in American politics you can look up to or a younger generation of representatives who could be able to communicate and sell this vision?
Not really, no, it’s pretty bleak. Bernie Sanders, he’s not young, but he was the closest one that I ever saw to articulating this vision. Just understanding that we’re at risk of losing everything. He would say things like: “I know my climate plan is expensive, but what’s the alternative?”

peter kalmus and colleague chained to the jp morgan chase building, los angeles, 6 april this year
Peter Kalmus and his colleague are chained to JP Morgan Chase building in Los Angeles, 6 April 2015.Photograph by Brian Emerson

We must do everything we can to save the planet. We risk losing everything if we destroy the planet’s life support systems. We’re going down this very dangerous slide and we don’t know exactly how far down it takes before we lose X, or before we lose Y, or before this system on the planet breaks down. But we know that the further down we slide, the more we’re going to start going past those sort of collapse points. That’s what Bernie Sanders understood. I’ve never seen anything that Joe Biden has said or done to convince me that he understands that. I don’t think he understands what grave danger we’re all in.

Why don’t you run for office, Peter?
Then, I’d have to stop being a scientist. There was a new poll that only allowed male respondents. 42% of Americans thought that climate change was a “very serious problem” – less than half of Americans. That’s a huge problem for electoral politics.

42% – that’s almost a half-full glass. Only a few more percent, you’re in business.
I will tell you that any elected leader who makes climate action a top priority and stops the destruction of Earth will be remembered as one of the most visionary leaders in history. Nothing could be clearer to me than this.

I do think there’s a way to sell this kind of stuff I’m saying to the American people. Because there is tremendous economic opportunity in the creation of new jobs.

There’s an incredible amount of stuff that we need to build, at least initially. Alternative infrastructure is needed to ensure that we can eat, clothe, and transport ourselves without the use of fossil fuels.

Do you feel your own mental health is suffering, because you’re so fluent in the data and the politics of global heating?
I’m constantly fending off this sort of ocean of climate anxiety that’s in my brain. When that ocean rises to a high enough level, I can’t really function any more. I get stressed. I’m not a very enjoyable person to be around. My writing ability is severely affected. Meditation is my best practice to keep the anxiety at bay. Vipassana.

This practice can be done in two hours each day. To build up the batteries, it takes a 10-day silent retreat once per year. But if I’m doing it, then I have zero climate anxiety. I’m fully aware of the emergency, but it unlocks my ability to be able to do everything I can, to work as hard as I can to sound the alarm, basically.

I used to take vacations in the High Sierra, to kind of recharge through nature, but it doesn’t work any more. Last summer, we went on a five day backpacking trip up there together with my younger son and my partner. It was too depressing to me, because in the two years that I’d walked on that trail, the John Muir trail, the tree mortality was just outrageous. The path was littered with dead trees. Two years ago, streams and ponds that were once flowing at this time of year were now dry because of the drought. I can’t go. It’s just too painful for me now. When I’m in the mountains, I’m constantly feeling climate grief. That’s not a way for me to deal with my climate anxiety any more, unfortunately.

Do you think it is understandable that some young people are refusing to have children due to the climate crisis?
If I was in their shoes, I would choose not to have children. It’s a hard thing to say. It’s so heartbreaking to have this sense that the future is getting worse, and that it’s going to be worse for your kids. Now it feels like it’s getting worse at a very fast rate. I want to feel better before I die.

That we’ve switched this corner and we’ve started to change the system towards flourishing for all, and we’ve come out of this madness of billionaires, and fossil fuel, and money in politics. That’s what I want to feel. I’ll feel grief from maybe the loss of the Amazon rainforest, and the loss of most of the world’s coral reefs, but mixed with that grief, I long for a feeling of solidarity. I long to feel a faith in humanity once again, because right now I’m not so sure. There’s some tremendous people out there, but it feels like, as a species, we’re just on autopilot and we’re not making the right decisions. I long to feel that we’re doing things better.


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