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This Scientist Was Fired by the US Government After Engaging in Climate Protests

Rose Abramoff plans to continue with both research and activism, and hopes to mobilize many more scientists to action.

It was a dramatic scene when scientist and climate activist Rose Abramoff joined fellow scientist Peter Kalmus in December to disrupt the world’s biggest meeting of scientists who study Earth and space: the American Geophysical Union. The nonviolent protest was meant as a call to action to address the climate crisis. She and Kalmus went up on stage and unfurled a banner that read, “Out of the lab & into the streets.” This was not Abramoff’s first protest. She previously chained herself to a White House gate and to a fence at Charlotte Douglas International Airport as part of a series of global protests coordinated by a group called Scientist Rebellion to raise awareness of how luxury air travel contributes to the climate crisis. Until earlier this month, Abramoff worked as an Earth scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. But in a New York Times opinion piece this month, she announced, “I’m a Scientist Who Spoke Up About Climate Change. My Employer Fired Me.”

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

Tens of thousands of climate activists have protested this week against the controversial expansion of a German coal mine. Police evicted climate activists who occupied the deserted town for months to prevent the area from being mined for lignite, a highly polluting type of coal. Police used tear gas, water cannons, batons to clear the encampment. Medics say at least 20 climate protesters were injured. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg joined the protest and was detained twice.

GRETA THUNBERG: The fact that all of you are here is a sign of hope. This is only a part of a much larger global climate movement, a movement for climate and social justice and racial justice. Lützerath — what happens in Lützerath doesn’t stay in Lützerath. Germany, as one of the biggest polluters in the world, has an enormous responsibility. …

You are showing clearly today that the changes will not come from the people in power, from governments, from corporations, from the so-called leaders. No, the real leaders are here. It is the people who are sitting in treehouses and those who have been defending Lützerath, for example, for years now. …

The carbon is still in the ground. We are still here. Lützerath is still there. And as long as the carbon is in the ground, this struggle is not over.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has condemned fossil fuel executives for deliberately misleading the public about the threat posed by their products, after a new study found Exxon was aware of the link between fossil fuel emissions and global heating as early as the ’70s, and even before, but spent decades refuting and obscuring the science in order to make maximum profits. He warned the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius is, quote, “nearly going up in smoke,” and without further action, the planet is headed toward a 2.8 degree Celsius increase.

Well, now we turn to a dramatic scene in December, when the scientist and climate activist Rose Abramoff joined a fellow NASA scientist, Peter Kalmus, to disrupt a meeting of the world’s biggest meeting of scientists who study Earth and space: the American Geophysical Union. The nonviolent protest was meant as a call to action to address the climate crisis. Rose Abramoff and Kalmus went up on the stage and unfurled a banner that read, “Out of the lab & into the streets.”

UNIDENTIFIED: The science director at the Nurture Nature Center.

PETER KALMUS: Our science is showing that the planet is dying. It’s terrifying. Everything is at risk. As scientists, we have tremendous leverage, but we have to use it. We can wake everybody up.

ROSE ABRAMOFF: Please, please, please, find a way to take action.

AMY GOODMAN: This was not Rose Abramoff’s first protest. She had previously chained herself to a White House gate and to a fence at Charlotte Douglas International Airport as part of a series of global protests coordinated by a group called Scientist Rebellion to raise awareness of how luxury air travel contributes to the climate crisis. Until earlier this month, Rose Abramoff worked as an Earth scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. But in a New York Times opinion piece this month, she announced, “I’m a Scientist Who Spoke Up About Climate Change. My Employer Fired Me.” Her employer is the U.S. government. Rose Abramoff joins us now from Knoxville, Tennessee.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dr. Abramoff. It’s great to have you with us. Can you talk about the action you engaged in and your response to your firing?

ROSE ABRAMOFF: Sure, Amy. Thank you.

So, like you said, I was attending the largest annual gathering of Earth scientists. This was in December of last year in Chicago, where I presented work on the effect of climate and land-use change on carbon cycling. And Peter, my friend who was holding the banner and NASA climate scientist, was presenting on extreme humid heat in urban areas. So these are very relevant studies.

After we were finished with our professional obligations, we unfurled this banner at the plenary and made our plea to action. We were very quickly escorted off the stage by organizers of the meeting. We were expelled from the conference. And most troubling to me is that our work was removed from the conference program, which we had presented earlier that week, as if it had never been presented. And then, of course, as you describe, a few weeks later, I was fired by my employer, and citing this incident.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And how exactly did they explain that? What were you guilty of in participating in this action?

ROSE ABRAMOFF: Yeah, there were two explanations that were given to me on the very short piece of paper that was my termination letter. One was that I violated the business code of conduct, which contains quite a lot of things, and they didn’t specify what exactly I violated. But there’s language about maintaining the credibility and the reputation of the laboratory. There’s language about not misusing government funds, which is also separately cited as the second reason in the letter, because I was doing this, I was unfurling this banner, on a work trip.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And talk about the group Scientist Rebellion. What kinds of actions do they engage in?

ROSE ABRAMOFF: Sure. So, Scientist Rebellion is an international group of scientists who are concerned about climate change and believe that the mandate of scientists, especially Earth scientists, really needs to expand. So, we typically engage in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in order to demonstrate to people the urgency and the severity of the climate crisis. So, part of our work is speaking up, so that people understand the level of risk we’re in, how much time we have left, what the carbon budget is like. And another part of it is advocating for what we think are obvious policy solutions, obvious policy implications of our research, things like ending fossil fuel extraction and subsidies, canceling Global South debt so that they can facilitate a green transition, banning luxury travel, such as private jets and yachts, and taxing — adding progressive taxes on frequent flying. And so, those are just an example, examples of some of the campaigns that we’ve participated in, advocating for loss and damage, for example, at the Conference of Parties that occurred in Egypt.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Dr. Rose Abramoff, why did you risk your job? And did you realize you were doing that? Talk about your philosophy around being an Earth scientist, working at a federal lab and engaging in climate activism. Some might say that that should be your responsibility as an Earth scientist.

ROSE ABRAMOFF: Right. I mean, I think recent events have really brought up a lot of these fundamental questions about what the mandate of Earth scientists, especially those of us who study climate change, are. You know, most scientists of every flavor were originally trained by our institutions to be carefully policy neutral in all of our communications, both with each other, with our institutions and with the press, and leave any political commentary, however obvious it may be, to basically everyone else. And I find that it’s really — that seems interesting to me that we sort of allow the fossil fuel industry, economists, politicians, celebrities, random people on the internet, you know, the youth which are leading the climate movement — everyone has a stake and a right to comment on these climate policies, except, it seems, those of us who have subject matter expertise in the area. That seems like an odd policy to me, and I take issue with it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Abramoff, could you also talk about some of your concerns now about where the climate debate is going? A number of people have criticized the decision by the United Arab Emirates, which is hosting the next round of U.N. climate talks. They have appointed the CEO of one of the world’s biggest oil companies to preside over the talks. Your response?

ROSE ABRAMOFF: Right. I think this is just another example of the way in which the fossil fuel industry has essentially captured every aspect of our politics, you know, that they’re heading this, what is the climate — it’s supposed to be the climate mitigation conference. And it’s also troubling that there’s so much, you know, either tacit or explicit support from our leadership.

I think that, you know, there’s a lot of friendly rhetoric from the fossil fuel industry that they believe in the green transition and that they’re planning to be carbon neutral by 2050, but I’m an Earth scientist, and I’d rather look at the numbers. And so, let’s take one example. The Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, which is the company which Sultan Al Jaber heads, is still planning to increase their production of crude oil from 4 million barrels per day to 5 million barrels per day, while at the same time the UAE maintains that they’re going to be carbon neutral by 2050. I don’t see how those two things are going to happen at the same time. And everything else that I’ve seen, more generally, in terms of plans for production and expansion from the fossil fuel industry, across the world, leads me to believe that this friendly rhetoric, this “We’re going to transition,” is — and I can’t think of a better way to say this, but it’s just total BS.

You know, the study that you referenced last week which was published in the journal Science confirms using yet another line of evidence that ExxonMobil knew about climate change very accurately since at least the ’70s, and likely earlier than that. And, you know, we know about the misinformation campaigns that they’ve been leading, and obscuring, essentially, bringing to a halt any significant policy action since those decades.

And so, if, as a society, we’re going to be successful in making a near-complete transition away from fossil fuels, we really have to remove the power and, importantly, also the funding of the fossil fuel industry — their power, legitimacy and funding. I think that’s the only way that we’re going to dismantle it, essentially, successfully.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Abramoff, we are speaking at a time when this report has come out: Greenland is the hottest it’s been in a thousand years. These massive protests in Germany, where, among many others, Greta Thunberg, the famous Swedish climate activist, has been detained twice, and she said, “Climate protection is not a crime.” We’re talking about the head of the oil company being named the head of the U.N. COP for next year in UAE, and Biden’s climate envoy, former Senator John Kerry, hailing him as a great leader of the COP, endorsing that decision. And under the Biden administration, you have been fired. Can you appeal, since you work at a federal lab, for them to rehire you? What message do you have for the Biden administration?

ROSE ABRAMOFF: I’m not sure that I can appeal, mostly because I work in the state of Tennessee, which doesn’t have very many employment rights. So, UT-Battelle, which is the kind of defense contractor which manages Oak Ridge National Laboratory, employs people at will, which essentially means I can be fired for any reason. I don’t necessarily — they didn’t need to have given me a reason.

But, you know, I do have appeals to make, so my very first action when I chained myself to the White House gate was an appeal to the president to declare a climate emergency. You know, there has been some passage of policies since then, but nowhere near what we need in order to maintain the habitability of our planet, to stay below the safer level of warming, 1.5 degrees Celsius, which we expect to breach, at least temporarily, this decade.

AMY GOODMAN: Rose, we just have 10 seconds. What are your plans now?

ROSE ABRAMOFF: I’m planning to continue with both research and activism, and I hope to mobilize many more scientists and everyone else to the cause. Please help.

AMY GOODMAN: Maybe you can be the next climate envoy of the United States. Dr. Rose Abramoff, Earth scientist, recently fired from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory after urging other scientists to take action on climate change. We’ll link to her New York Times op-ed, “I’m a Scientist Who Spoke Up About Climate Change. My Employer Fired Me.” I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.