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From Scientist to Activist

A personal journey to the climate strike

Climate strikers in Seattle.

Climate strikers in Seattle. (Photo: Heather Price)

"Dr. Doom." A few students joked, as we walked out of the seminar room. I didn't laugh. I was uneasy, wondering if some of the climate forecasts from today's chemistry department seminar would come to pass sooner than expected.

It was 1998, and this was the response from a few of my fellow University of Washington grad students, and when I first felt the unease of understanding the climate crisis. The talk was presented by Dr. Richard Gammon, one of my PhD advisors, and a co-author of the First Scientific Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 1990). Dr. Gammon's seminar included overheads of the latest scientific findings, forecasts, and implications of the 1995 IPCC report and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. This was my first time truly understanding the science and implications the climate crisis.

In November of 2000, I attended the Conference of the Parties (COP 6) climate negotiations meeting at The Hague, Netherlands, joining about 30 other graduate students from around the USA, with a youth group called Ozone Action. We observed the conference and attended presentations on the state of climate science; one by Dr. Robert Watson, the Scientific Chair of the IPCC, and another by Dr. Stephen Schneider, a climate scientist from Stanford. Both Drs. Watson and Schneider reiterated the data and forecasts that I had learned from Dr. Gammon. COP 6 was the first time I recall feeling climate grief. I felt like Cassandra. I had knowledge, and I shared it with my friends and family. And like Cassandra, no one listened. Not even my own parents.

When I taught my first climate class at UW in 2001, the El Nino year of 1998 was the warmest year on record and carbon dioxide was 367ppm. Today, that record breaking year, 1998, doesn't even rank among the top ten hottest years. Carbon dioxide reached a new high of 415 ppm in 2019, and the five hottest years are now 2014–2018. This year, 2019, is shaping up to be the new hottest year on record.

In 2004, I was among the first postdoctoral researchers to join the Program on Climate Change at the University of Washington. I switched my focus away from my PhD research with Dr. Dan Jaffe, making analytical chemical measurements studying the photochemistry and transport of air pollution, and on to computer programming and chemical modeling. My postdoctoral research was a collaboration with Dr. Lyatt Jaeglé in Atmospheric Sciences at UW, Dr. Daniel Jacob's atmospheric chemistry modeling group at Harvard, and Dr. Paul Quay's chemical oceanography group at UW. My research incorporated the isotopic measurements of hydrogen and deuterium from Dr. Quay's group into the GEOS-Chem model, a global chemical transport model of the atmosphere based at Harvard.

In grad school and during my postdoc (1998–2008) I heard stories of colleagues at other institutions, such as Dr. Michael Mann, professionally maligned by climate deniers and harassed by fossil fuel industry stooges. I'm afraid to admit, his experience scared my younger self away from speaking out for climate action. I was a 'good scientist'. In my climate talks, I 'stuck to the science' and didn't interject my views regarding action or solutions. As a young scientist I saw the need to raise awareness, but only through my role in educating students and the public on the science of climate change and atmospheric chemistry. I didn't yet view my role as an activist or in encouraging others to act.

I kept journals during graduate school that detail my awakening to the climate crisis. In my September 18, 1999 entry, I said, "I'm probably an expert on climate change compared to my peers and the general public. I need to share my knowledge." Then I went on to list the specific areas I felt the public needed to know: "Climate change, coral bleaching, ozone hole, air pollution, and mass extinction." I feel a sense of missed opportunity as I re-read my journal entries from grad school. I clearly felt a sense of urgency in 1999, but didn't do much beyond teaching and public talks.

I wasted so much of my time in my early climate talks (1999~2008) debating the science and debunking common climate myths. I also had successes, discussing climate impacts and forecasts for Washington State with congressmen and women at my state capital, with Tacoma City Council members, in Washington DC, and with faith groups in Tacoma, Washington. Additionally, I taught climate science to K-8 teachers and high school students.

Watching fellow scientists around the world speak out over the decades, witnessing the crisis accelerate, impacting people's lives and livelihoods directly, and inspiration from youth and adults doing climate actions around the world, has led me to retool my climate talks in recent years.

Though he may not recognize himself as an activist, Dr. Mann is also among the climate heroes. He stood up in the early days of the climate debate, to the fossil fuel juggernaut of disinformation along with Drs. Stephen Schneider, James Hansen, and Carl Sagan. Their actions inspired me to continue teaching and giving public talks.

When I reflect on what has spurred me to further action, I recognize the contributions of women climate scientists, activists, and children, who have inspired me to join them and raised my awareness of climate justice. Fellow women and men scientists and communicators like Mary Heglar, Drs. Sarah MyhreKatharine HayhoePeter Kalmus, and many others. Also youth climate activists like Jamie Margolin and Greta Thunberg along with my own children, have all inspired me to step out of my comfort zone, act, and encourage others to act with us.

Social media has also been an important factor in my climate outreach and activism. I have had the honor to connect with many of my fellow climate scientists and activists through social media platforms. I am surprised by how many journalists, climate scientists, and activists are organizing and sharing information through social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and Facebook. I have been approached via Twitter for a public radio interview, a podcast, and for TV commentary. I was contacted through Reddit to consult on an article on climate anxiety for People and Kaiser Health News. It was through Facebook that I was invited to speak at the Seattle Youth Climate Strike on March 15, 2019. I have not actively sought out media opportunities to speak, but I now say yes when I can. I see it as my duty to share my expert knowledge, and my own sense of urgency, with the public.

If I, a climate scientist, don't share what I know and how I feel, who will? How many atmospheric chemists are out there who can explain the science in a way that the average person can understand and connect it to justice and equity?

Today, I see myself more as a doctor advocating for a patient. My patient is the Earth. Just as medical doctors specialize in specific parts of the human body and specific age ranges, we Earth scientists specialize in specific areas and ages of the Earth. Atmospheric scientists study the dynamics and heat exchange of Earth's airflow like a Pulmonologist studies the human airways. Physical oceanographers are the cardiologists of the Earth studying the upwelling, flows, and heat exchange within the great ocean conveyor belt. Chemical oceanographers and atmospheric chemists are the Earth's toxicologists, studying the chemicals including greenhouse gases as they flow and are building up in the ocean, land, and air. Paleo Scientists, studying sediment, coral, permafrost, and ice cores are the pediatricians studying the past, young Earth.

I'm an atmospheric chemist, one of those Earth toxicologists, studying the chemical changes occurring in Earth's atmosphere today. My patient is now in the emergency room suffering an acute fever as toxins building up in her cardiovascular system. The toxins are greenhouse gases that are building up and affecting the energy balance and chemistry of Earth's ocean, land, and air.

The Earth is my patient, and like any good medical doctor, I am compelled to advocate for her.

It's not enough to just study and report on the fossil fueled climate changes that are occurring. I must now sound the alarm, and protect human civilization from climate breakdown. And not just me. All of us who have the information, also have a duty to sound the alarm and share what we know. Just as you don't need to be a doctor to tell someone to stop smoking around a baby. Same for climate. All of us with knowledge of the climate crisis have a duty to speak up.

I still love teaching and research, but I've come to understand that it is activism, sharing what we know, and speaking out that will change the world.

I used to focus my climate talks and discussions entirely on the science and solutions. In my most recent presentation in an undergrad geology class, I spent the first day talking about the science. The second day was spent on where fossil fuel emissions are coming from and the possible solutions for where and how we can transition off fossils fuels, to renewables with energy storage. It took me decades to realize that just presenting the problem and the solutions isn't enough to affect change. What was missing from my previous talks was a call to action.

My talks now include a call to action, and how action feeds hope. I tell the audience, "You now know more about climate science, impacts, and solutions than most people in the world. Go out and share what you know. Talk about it."

I have also started to remind students of the civil rights and women's rights heroes of the past: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, suffragettes. I remind and introduce them to the climate activists heroes today: the Keystone Pipeline protesters, valve turners like Michael Foster, and scientist turned activist, Dr. James Hansen, the retired Director of NASA. All these heroes did peaceful direct actions and all were subjected to imprisonment for their peaceful direct actions. These are my activist heroes.

Being a parent has changed my focus as well. As I said earlier, it is also my own children who inspired me to climate action.

My kids hear daily discussion of science, economics, music, arts, politics, and especially climate change at the dinner table. They hear me practice my chemistry and climate lessons and peer over my shoulder as I watch climate presentations, videos, and political negotiations on my laptop. They understand more about the climate emergency at 11 and 13 years old than most adults.

It was my son who first showed an interest in doing something about the climate crisis. We watched video of Greta Thunberg's speech at COP 24. He also watched videos of thousands of youth activists climate striking in Australia and Copenhagen. At COP 24, Greta wanted to raise awareness of the failure of the climate negotiations at Katowice Poland. She called on the youth of the world to school strike for climate on Friday December 14, 2018, the final Friday of COP 24.

While watching videos of the crowds of youth striking for climate in Europe, he asked me, "Why isn't this happening here?"

I answered, "No one had started it yet."

He asked, "Can I do that?"

I said yes and sent out a couple emails and texts to his friends' parents to see if anyone wanted to join him. No one was available, though everyone voiced encouragement via email and text.

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I told him he might be the only person on strike. I was nervous for him, but he was undaunted and excited. "That's ok." he said.

On Thursday night, December 13, 2018, he picked out a bright orange poster board at the local drug store and some colorful markers. The result was this, his first climate strike at Seattle City Hall on December 14, 2018.

He has asked to do a climate strike nearly every Friday since, either at Seattle City Hall or with classmates at his elementary school

My daughter and her friends have also joined for a few of the climate strikes. She joined the millions on climate strike March 15, 2019, and at a die-in at Seattle City Hall in May, to pressure the Seattle City Council and Mayor Durkin to declare a climate emergency and to push for a Seattle Green New Deal.

When I asked my daughter what she feels about the climate breakdown, she said, " I feel stress, like I'm stuck in the back seat of a vehicle headed for a cliff. I'm only 13 so I don't have a say in politics. And my generation is going to be the one most screwed over by this." She also said that my working on climate helps alleviate her anxiety about the climate crisis.

A recent conversation at dinner made me aware of just how psychologically impacted our kids are by the climate crisis. My daughter shared a conversation she had with a classmate, lamenting with her friend about losing sleep over an upcoming exam. Her friend, a 9th grader, shared that she'd been losing sleep too, but over climate change. My daughter told her friend she doesn't worry much about climate change because, "my mom is working on that." Our children are bearing the brunt of the physical and psychological impacts of the climate crisis. Adult actions, whether we are parents or not, show children that we care and gives them hope.

I have hope that as we address the climate emergency, we'll make an even better, more equitable and healthier world, in the process.

The science does not give me hope. The science and evidence is clear. Our patient is in the ER with a fever over 1.0 C, it's getting hotter, and the toxic buildup in her systems is reaching critical limits. The science and evidence of climate change keeps me up at night and brings on my own climate anxiety.

What gives me hope is our human capacity for love, ingenuity, faith, and my knowledge that we already have the solutions to address the climate crisis.

I am actually thankful that this is a man-made crisis. Burning coal, oil, and gas, and land and ocean degradation is what made the mess, which means we also have the capacity to clean it up. The best time to quit smoking and burning fossil fuels, was 30 years ago when scientists first raised the alarm. The next best time to quit smoking, and transition to cleaner, cheaper, and healthier renewable energy, is today.

The solutions to address the climate crisis are already available in the form of solar and wind, energy storage, and land use change. These solutions include both collective and individual changes, a hundred of which are detailed in the book Drawdown. I find hope in the healthier, more equitable, and more peaceful world we will create as we address the climate crisis.

No one gets cancer from a windmill. No one gets asthma or emphysema from a solar panel. And it's hard to imagine wars fought over who controls the wind and the sun.

I also recognize and speak out about the injustice of climate impacts. The burden of responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of corporations and the rich whose emissions got us into this mess.

The lifestyles of the richest 0.54% in the world (~42 Million people) are emitting more greenhouse gas emissions than the poorest half of global population (3.8 Billion people).

The rich don't intend to destabilize climate and hurt the poor and the most vulnerable, yet rich lifestyles do exactly that. As with all issues of equity and justice:

Thanks to the inspiration of fellow climate scientists, activists, and youth climate activists, I am compelled to step out of my comfort zone and act. I encourage everyone with knowledge of the climate crisis to step out of your comfort zones and act too. You have knowledge that the media and public need. Every scientist I've spoken with feels a sense of urgency around the climate crisis. Urgency that we should all be sharing with our families, our colleagues, and the public.

You don't need to be a scientist, or an expert, or even an adult, to speak up. Everyone is needed and everyone is welcome. We are all on this planet now, at this time of incredible change and choice. This is the dawning of the climate crisis. It is up to us all, to step up and act, and to share what we know.

My activism today is taking the form of speaking out, showing up, and educating my peers, students, and the public. I was honored to be invited to give a speech at the March 15, 2018 youth climate strike. I say yes to testifying against the continued poisoning of my patient, in the form of a liquified natural gas plant in Tacoma, Washington. I say yes to media requests for interviews to explain climate science and discuss climate anxiety. I say yes to guest lectures, meetings, calls, and workshops to educate reporters in the media, students, the public and my fellow faculty. I say yes to joining the youth on Friday climate strikes.

I say yes to supporting climate action organizations such as Our Children's TrustClimate Action Families, 350.org, and Citizens Climate Lobby. I share my knowledge on social media and challenge climate deniers and delayers when they lie, obfuscate the science, or malign my fellow scientists, educators, and activists. I am also considering saying yes to peaceful direct action to protect my patient.

Peaceful direct action scares me, but it feels necessary. No one wants to be a political prisoner, even those whose imprisonment brought about great change in the areas of civil rights, women's rights, and voter rights. As a society, we honor the memory, but have mostly forgotten the sacrifices required for change.

What would have happened if Martin Luther King Jr had only preached to his own congregation?

What would have happened if the suffragettes had not marched?

What would have happened if Rosa Parks had not sat on that bus seat?

These activists did not act alone either. They each had hundreds, if not thousands, of supporters with them.

Together with their Peaceful Direct Action, they were able to affect lasting change. Even though it scares me to protest and be involved in direct action, I heed the call of my children and the other Fridays for Future youth climate strikers. I am compelled, encouraged by historic peaceful direction action activist of the past and present.

Join a climate action near you on Sept 20, 2019: the Global Climate Strike.

Everyone is needed! Everyone is welcome!

Heather Price

Heather Price

Heather Price is an atmospheric chemist, climate scientist, researcher and educator in Seattle Washington.

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