Climate scientists and activists work tirelessly to get the attention of the mainstream media, political leaders, and industry leaders, in hopes that someone with significant power will finally heed their message: If we don’t take drastic climate action immediately, we are headed to catastrophic climate breakdown. Recently, NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus made a speech on that very topic while protesting Chase Bank, the No. 1 fossil fuel-investing bank in the world — and it went viral.
The speech, which Kalmus tells Green Matters he made up on the spot, was given as part of a series of Scientist Rebellion protests against big banks held on April 6, 2022. All across the internet, people shared clips of Kalmus' tearful speech, applauding his willingness to take risks to protect the planet for his sons. Plus, he and the three other scientists who led the protest were promptly arrested, which always grabs some public attention.
Peter Kalmus’ book was all about reducing individual reliance on fossil fuels — but he discovered that civil disobedience can be far more effective.
After about a decade of trying “dozens and dozens of different kinds of activism,” including Peter Kalmus’ book about reducing his environmental impact, Kalmus discovered something interesting during that Chase Bank protest: “The only [form of activism] that's been able to break through [those sugarcoating the truth about the climate crisis] in any significant way has been civil disobedience.”
To learn more about the Chase Bank protest, as well as how Kalmus thinks the world can end the climate crisis, we recently caught up with the NASA scientist over the phone. Kalmus gave this interview to Green Matters on his own behalf, and not in relation to his position at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
GREEN MATTERS: What was going through your head as you made that speech in front of Chase Bank?
PETER KALMUS: I had all this adrenaline and felt like I should say something. That was the moment, right? I hadn't thought about what I was going to say ahead of time. I just started talking. We weren't even organized enough to have a portable megaphone. So I just spoke from the heart, said a lot of things that I've been thinking.
When I think about my sons, I feel a lot of emotion. And that's probably the main reason I'm a climate activist at all. When I started being a climate activist it coincided with the birth of my son, and I don't think that's a coincidence at all. It cracked my soul open and made me stop just thinking about myself.
GM: Have you gotten any response from Chase since the protest?
PK: No. Jamie Dimon has not texted me yet.
But the campaign’s not over. There have been groups that have been organizing around that for a while. I'd like to keep boosting that, because I think it's something that the movement could actually potentially get a victory on. It's good to bite off something that's big enough to matter, but small enough that you might be able to win.
If we can get a popular movement going where people start to leave Chase and Citi and Wells Fargo — which I think are the top three worst banks in the world for funding fossil fuels — that would be huge.
These institutions, these corporations — and this is a huge problem with the way our whole economy and society is set up — they don't care about doing the right thing. They only care about profits. So if people get mad enough at them to actually start affecting their bottom line, then once they realize that they lose more from people leaving than they would lose from their fossil fuel investments, they'll stop doing the fossil fuel investments.
GM: What are the most impactful things individuals can do to live more sustainably?
And then flying less or not flying. If you're a frequent flier, that's by far the best way to reduce your own impact on climate change. But even better would be to start advocating for an end to the aviation industry.
GM: Why do you think some people take climate change seriously, whereas some people just ignore it?
PK: At the time my book came out, [reducing one's emissions] was always framed as this horrible, hairshirt sacrifice. That wasn't my experience. So I wrote the book. And it was an experiment. And unfortunately, the results of that experiment were maybe one-tenth of 1 percent of people will actually try it too.
There are so few people that are willing to even give it a try. For whatever reason, that's not a fast path to social change. So that's why now I don't push reducing emissions. I still think everyone should do it because it's fun, and you don't feel guilty anymore. But it's not going to change society, which is what we need.
I've done many, many other experiments to see what would work, and what would create social change. And finally, I got enough courage to try civil disobedience [at the Chase protest], and for the first time, the results of that experiment were: Yes, this creates a huge amount of change. It wakes people up.
My goal is to make people realize that the fossil fuel industry is imperiling our species and all life on this Earth, and that the leaders of that industry shouldn't be billionaires. We shouldn't be rewarding them. They should be in prison.
GM: If you had billions of dollars, what would you do with it to halt climate change?
PK: You need to get the mainstream, the bulk of the population thinking about and talking about this as urgently as me and some of the other activists that are maybe on the alarmist end of the spectrum. We used to be called alarmists and now, I think a lot of people are recognizing that we were just right.
If I had those billions, I would hire the best PR people in the world. And I would mount a massive education campaign to wake people up and to tell them the real facts and to tell them that carbon capture is a dangerous distraction, to shape the narrative in the right direction, basically away from what the fossil fuel industry wants it to be.
GM: If you had a meeting with President Biden, what would you tell him?
PK: The president has to stop kowtowing to the fossil fuel industry and to their lobbyists. This is a time for the president to put it on the line, because our planet is at stake. It's time for a president to use the bully pulpit to do that education campaign I was talking about, that's No. 1.
Let's just go all in on climate, even if it means potentially losing the next election, it’s that important. It's a leap of faith. Because we all know how awful Republicans are. But you have to take a long-term view that even if you lost an election, that by going all in on climate, there would be echoes and networks formed, and action happening behind the scenes because of that, that would build a foundation for the policy and systems change we need in the future.
The only thing that future people will care about is climate. It's going to get so bad over the next 10 years, over the next 20 years, that it's going to eclipse everything else. We’re going to be struggling to have enough food for everyone. We're going to be struggling with water and infrastructure, and there could be a billion people trying to get out of the Global South and go to someplace that's not too hot. So immigration, food, inflation, the economy, warfare, security — everything is going to be tied to climate.