Peter Kalmus is a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He’s also a climate activist who has been arrested in actions organized by two groups that promote nonviolent direct action to address the climate crisis, Extinction Rebellion and Scientist Rebellion. Kalmus also works within his community to help neighbors, cities, schools, and churches access technology to use less fossil fuel and reduce carbon emissions.
His award-winning book, “Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution,” provides real life solutions to move away from a consumerist lifestyle that isn’t making most people happy.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Kalmus when both were at a protest against the Mountain Valley pipeline the week of Sept. 4. When completed, that controversial pipeline would send fracked gas through 302 miles of rural Virginia and West Virginia. Here he talks about his work, the complicated role of a climate scientist and activist and the importance of sharing emotional truth as well as scientific facts about the climate crisis.
PETER KALMUS: I would say the project that I’m the most excited about right now is projecting health impacts of extreme heat on the human body. So, under different emission scenarios by 2035 or 2040 or whatever year how that’s going to affect humans in terms of how many people will experience humid heat conditions that cause them to become hyperthermic so they can’t keep their core temperature from rising anymore.
I feel like heat waves that kill a million plus people and then heat waves that kill 10 million-plus people in just a few days in a particular region and then on up from there — that’s the pathway we’re on right now with all these pipelines and drilling and world leaders and both political parties in the United States expanding fossil fuels as quickly as they can. That’s the path we’re on right now. But my goal is to try to quantify that with some degree of precision which hasn’t been done yet.
MELINDA TUHUS: Did Scientists Rebellion come out of Extinction Rebellion?
PETER KALMUS: Not exactly. I think there was a sense among many climate scientists that possibly scientists could play a specifically important role by expressing urgency through their actions and through their words as opposed to just writing papers doing science.
So personally, my theory of change has to do with, “Does the public have mechanisms to sort of imagine that we’re still not in emergency?” I personally believe we are in a climate emergency, but I feel like the way psychology works is that for most people, if there’s a plausible way for them to avoid that acceptance that we are in an emergency, they will take that because then their lives can go on as normal. They don’t have to have all that anxiety and all that grief. It’s just a much easier path.
And if scientists don’t seem very worried and they’re not doing things like civil disobedience and they seem all calm and they’re saying, “Stay calm, everybody,” as some scientists still are doing today, the public’s like, “Well, those guys, those scientists, those men and women are the people in the front row.They’re the ones who are the experts in what’s happening to the climate. If they’re not worried, then why should I worry right now?”
So, you know, I’ve long kind of experienced that it’s important to present emotional truth as well as scientific factual truth to sort of actually connect with people and to start cutting through that multi-layer onion of climate denial that we all sort of start out with.
MELINDA TUHUS: Is it actually difficult for scientists who are so public about their political perspectives and taking a side, as it were—is it hard to stay employed as a scientist?
PETER KALMUS: I’ve only been arrested twice and I would’ve been arrested probably 10 times by now if I thought I could keep my job and keep doing those arrestable actions. So yeah, it’s pretty tricky. I’m constantly thinking about how I can contribute the most to stopping global heating and earth breakdown, how I can contribute the most to this movement to save life on planet Earth. And it’s not always clear.
The science is really important, I think. Especially the science of extreme heat. But there’s a lot of people that are doing good work there, so I’m not irreplaceable by any means. Same thing with the arrestable actions. You know, there’s a lot of people now that are taking those risks and doing arrestable actions.
I’ve decided to devote my life to doing everything I can and I’m just trying to kind of figure out what’s the most useful way for me to apply myself. It really irks me that NASA as an institution is kind of—and I guess you could say in some sense—ashamed of my climate activism. To me, climate activists are doing probably the most important work on planet Earth right now, bar none. And our institutions are lagging behind and they haven’t realized that.
For more information, visit Peter Kalmus’ website at peterkalmus.net.
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