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You don't have to be angry to be a climate activist
Anger and disruption may get the most media attention, but solutions and beauty-focused climate activism is just as important, argues artist and climate scientist Mika Tosca.
Last week, HEATED wrote about two climate scientists who interrupted a panel at the world’s largest Earth science conference to protest inaction on climate change. One of those climate scientists, Rose Abramoff, lost her job at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a result of the protest.
In response, Abramoff wrote a viral New York Times op-ed about her experience, and lots of media coverage soon followed—including ours. Missing from most of that coverage, however, was context about the interrupted event: the American Geophysical Union’s first-ever panel about the intersection between art and climate science.
Many scientists who attended the event told HEATED they were disappointed that the panel’s solutions-focused message had been eclipsed by the protest. The panelists had included a diverse range of voices, including indigenous poet Kimberly Blaeser, and panel moderator Mika Tosca, the first trans scientist to lead a plenary session at AGU.
They noted that while disruption and anger are valid responses to climate inaction, there are other ways of being an activist that are just as, if not more, important. And given that our whole newsletter is for people who are angry about the climate crisis, we figured it was only fair to dig a bit deeper into that perspective.
So today, we’re featuring an interview with Tosca—an associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—about the more optimistic brand of climate activism featured at her panel. We talked about how the media’s “obsession with apocalypse narratives” can be harmful to young people; how queer history and community informs her approach; and how art can help us envision a better world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Arielle Samuelson: As has now gone viral, Peter Kalmus and Rose Abramoff interrupted the beginning of your panel at AGU. How did you feel when that happened?
Mika Tosca: I have no ill feelings towards Rose or Peter. I think that they are climate scientists who care really passionately about our planet and having a stable and habitable place to live. I just wish that we could be talking about more than just a 20 second protest.
I'm really interested in the media and the press getting away from their obsession with apocalypse narratives, and conflict and fear and despair over the climate crisis. And thinking about covering other stuff, like a really cool panel, which is sort of my own type of activism.
AS: Let’s talk about your type of activism. How would you describe it?
MT: I approach the problem from a more optimistic perspective. I recognize that fear is a really powerful emotion, but it's not something that can sustain us as we seek to address climate change over many years and decades. So I approach the problem by centering hope, community care, and joy.
We don't have to always frame the climate crisis as a story of loss and despair and apocalypse. We can frame it as a story of opportunity and world building and community. That's what I teach my Gen Zers [at the Art Institute of Chicago]. They hold so much anxiety and despair about climate change. These kids, they need hope. They need something to look forward to.
When everything is framed as an apocalypse, which the media and the press do often, it forecloses the potential for solutions and world building. What imperative is there for us to actually build a new world, if we think this one is lost and hopeless?
My main student that I work with is turning 23 next month. I hear this from him a lot, [the importance of] centering joy and community and building a new world as a queer person. As queer people, we build our own worlds all the time, our own spaces just for us to be safe. I think taking some of that and transporting it on to the climate crisis could do a lot of good.
AS: You’ve also said the panel was a form of activism for you. Why do you believe it’s important to have artists involved in solving the climate crisis, as well as scientists?
MT: We need to think about building a new and better world. That requires us to use our imaginations to explore potential possibilities, solutions, and outcomes. What better way to help us do that than art, which is able to reach the human imagination, the human psyche, in ways that traditional science hasn't always been able to do?
Data moves scientists emotionally, but data doesn't move the average person emotionally. Art is really effective at that. So I think there's a space for art to communicate science and help move us in the direction of imagining a better future.
AS: As a result of interrupting your panel, Rose was fired from her job as a federally-funded scientist. What do you think of the idea that scientists should remain neutral, and only use their voice on their personal time?
MT: I just really fundamentally disagree with that. I think that science is inherently political. It’s been politicized whether we acknowledge it or not. And it's conducted by human beings. We are humans trying our absolute best to uncover the truth about big questions. So I don't think it detracts from our work to also acknowledge that there's something going on that's a big deal, and we should do something about it.
There are rules if you work for a government lab that maybe you have to follow. But do I agree with those rules? Not always. I personally do not believe that being a vocal activist takes away from my science or in any way harms the scientific perspective I bring.
If you look at your history, science wasn't always like this. Scientists were philosophers, they were artists. And if you look in other cultures, especially indigenous cultures, the distinction between scientists and everybody else isn't so stark. It's really a Western Global North phenomenon.
AS: Do you participate in climate protests yourself?
MT: I've done disruptive protests where I’ve marched, and I've written letters to Congresspeople and my institutions. I also have a big role at the school, and higher ed in general.
It's a different kind of activism than Rose does. I'm not chaining myself to fences. Not that I'm against it; it's just not what I have time to do. But I do consider myself an activist.
AS: Do you think that the way AGU reacted will have an effect on how safe scientists feel in the future to launch a similar protest?
MT: I don't know, but I hope not. I hope that people keep fighting the good fight and pushing. There's going to be bumps along the way. But I hope that people stay focused on the main goal, which is solving the climate crisis.
AS: I saw that you and Rose appeared together on the BBC’s podcast Science In Action. So it seems like you connected afterwards.
MT: We've been in contact, and actually, we agree on a lot. We're both very committed to being climate activists and thinking about climate change through an activist lens. We've definitely been brainstorming about tactics and approaches and ways that we can collaborate on these big issues. I'm looking forward to it, actually.
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