‘We have to wake people up’

Climate scientists and activists go beyond protesting in light of an impending climate crisis.

Two men stand with their wrists chained to the front doors of a Chase bank as security watches.

Holding signs that read “1.5 C is dead! Climate Revolution Now,” dozens of scientists, academics and climate activists marched toward a JPMorgan Chase Bank on the corner of 7th and Figueroa Streets in Downtown Los Angeles on April 6 to illustrate the severity of the climate crisis. But they were also carrying something besides colorful protest signs: Chains, locks and white doctor’s coats.

Scientist Rebellion, a group of concerned scientists, organized worldwide strikes and occupations in what they claimed was the “largest ever scientist-led civil disobedience campaign.” In more than 25 countries — including Panama, Italy, Denmark and more — activists attempted to disrupt large businesses and organizations they believe are partially responsible for the climate crisis.

In LA, a climate scientist, a physicist, a science teacher and an engineer — donning the white doctor’s coats with the Extinction Rebellion logo — tied the chains around their wrists and the front doors to the bank, locking anyone from coming in or out.

As a result of the demonstration, the bank closed for the remainder of the day. Around three hours into the protest, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) shut down the intersection adjacent to the bank. Approximately 100 officers arrived on the scene in riot gear and warned the protesters to break up their assembly or risk being arrested or other police action.

When the protesters held their post, the four men tied to the bank doors were arrested by the LAPD. They were charged with misdemeanor trespassing, booked in the Van Nuys Jail and released Thursday morning.

Those individuals knew there was a chance they could be arrested but felt the gravity of the latest report from United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warranted the risk.

According to this report, it is crucial to try and limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to avoid worst-case scenarios of devastating climate disasters and suffering.

The report, published Monday, came with a warning: If humankind doesn’t severely limit its fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, the Earth will exceed the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal. Just three years remain to hit net-zero emissions and still have an impact in the long term. As one IPCC Working Group III co-chair Jim Skea said, “it’s now or never.”

A man waves a flag with the Extinction Rebellion logo amidst other protesters.

“I really want to raise public urgency,” said Peter Kalmus, climate scientist, author and one of the people who locked himself to the bank’s doors. “I want people to realize that this is a genuine emergency. And banks, like JPMorgan Chase, are still financing those [fossil fuel] projects, so they can make a quick and dirty buck.”

Three other protesters standing on the bank’s steps waved a banner that read, “Chase Fuels The Crisis.”

JPMorgan Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo and Bank of America account for the funding of one quarter of all fossil fuels identified over the last six years, according to the 2022 Banking on Climate Chaos report. Authored by Rainforest Action Network, BankTrack Indigenous Environmental Network and Oil Change International, among others, it notes that JPMorgan Chase has contributed more than $382 billion to the fossil fuel industry since 2016.

Several younger activists and students also joined the protest, including Moises Herrera, a graduate student studying geographic information science and technology at USC. They said that large-scale issues like climate change can often feel overwhelming and impossible to solve.

“But this is within our control,” Herrera said. “We can take immediate actions, we can protest, we can ask for better policy and we can engage in individual behavior that limits climate warming.”

However, some scientists feel as if they’ve been shouting into the void for years about the impending climate disaster while policy-makers continue not to make needed changes.

“We’ve tried writing papers and showing graphs for such a long time now and it hasn’t worked because of these power structures,” Kalmus said. “In order to catalyze this movement, to catalyze power from the people, they really need to see scientists acting like this is an emergency.”

To Kalmus, that meant locking himself to a bank in downtown LA, regardless of the consequences.

Three protesters carry a banner that reads "Chase fuels the crisis."

“The fossil fuel industry, the financiers of the fossil fuel industry and world leaders are basically colluding right now to a sort of systematic mass murder of young people and future generations,” Kalmus said. “It sounds so strident to say this, but I’ve been a climate scientist for 10 years. I think about this day in and day out, and I can’t come to any other conclusion.”

Allan Chornak, wildlife scientist and educator, was also locked to the bank for the demonstration.

“The least that I can do is speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves,” Chornak said from a bullhorn. “I’m fighting for the seven generations after us.”

Before he was arrested, Kalmus said he felt the danger laid out in the IPCC report warranted civil disobedience and hoped others would follow suit.

“Maybe more than anything, I want more and more scientists to get out from behind all of the ivory towers and into the streets taking risks,” Kalmus said. “When you’re doing science that clearly says our entire civilization is at risk and life on this planet is at risk, you can’t just sit there. We have to wake people up.”