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Conservation value of paddy wagon currency: civil disobedience by scientists

I am addressing this letter to colleagues with research careers because I am compelled to share what I learned recently by crossing a new threshold. For years I have been talking and writing about the climate change crisis. As intellectually rewarding and therapeutic as it has been, these letters to government, meetings with Members of [the Canadian] Parliament, and articles for conservation-minded audiences have accomplished nothing of substance.

Others feel similarly. Prominent academics, fed up with governments that ignore science and heed the priorities of corporations, have turned to civil disobedience. James Hansen, a senior climate scientist with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, led by example last year when he got himself arrested in front of the USA’s Whitehouse to protest the proposedKeystone Pipeline that would carry oil from the Alberta Tar Sands to the USA. That was his third arrest in three years; the previous two involved civil disobedience against the mining of coal, a huge contributor to greenhouse gases.

In the wake of Hansen’s arrests, on 05 May 2012, Mark Jaccard—a prominent economist, IPCCmember, and professor at the Energy and Materials Research Group of Simon Fraser University—got himself arrested in White Rock, British Columbia, for blocking a coal train carrying US coal for export to China via British Columbia ports. There were 12 others with Jaccard, among them a man in his 80s, several men in their 60s and 70s, and a few youngsters like myself and my good friend Lynne Quarmby. Lynne happens to be chair of the Department of Molecular Biology at Simon Fraser University.

Shortly before the arrest, as we sat on the tracks, I told Jaccard that I had been teetering on the decision to come, but his announcement to participate sealed my decision. Jaccard replied that, given what he knew about the climate crisis and the consequences of inaction, it was impossible for him to not be here. He was echoing sentiments shared by all 13 of us on the tracks. Later, as we were released from jail, Jaccard wondered out loud whether the arrest would affect his ability to travel for work. Then he said something to the effect that, “You can forever come up with excuses, or you can get real and just do it.”

Civil disobedience has a long-standing tradition of enabling change. It goes back to at least the 18th Century, when British citizens organized themselves to protest, continually for about 50 years, until British Slavery was abolished. In the early campaign stages abolition would have seemed as ludicrously impossible as abolishing fossil fuels today. Yet they did it. A precedent, perhaps, that if enough of us were to “get real”, fossil fuels could be abolished before runaway climate change becomes inevitable.

Our act of civil disobedience last Saturday went smoothly. The White Rock detachment of theRoyal Canadian Mounted Police was a stellar example of decency and professionalism. They were honest communicators who fulfilled their obligations to public safety while allowing us to exercise our democratic rights.

Moments before the arrest, several of us spoke to the surrounding media and observers about intergenerational justice and the millions of people already suffering from climate change today. There were no hasty moves during the hand-cuffing and ride in the paddy wagon. There was no property or personal damage. There were only carefully crafted ideas and deeply held convictions. Fellow protester, Kevin Washbrook, said it best: ‘Saturday was a good day to be a Canadian citizen’.

Yet as buzzed as I am by the success, I am also overwhelmed by how much remains undone. All of you with science careers know what is wrong, what is at stake, and what needs to change. Civil disobedience is a personal choice which carries many potentially serious implications. It is not to be taken lightly. It is to be considered seriously by anyone who understands the current state of the world and the consequences of inaction.

Thanks for reading.

Alejandro Frid

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