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Rebel scientists at COP26: ‘They can’t dismiss us as hippies’


Astrophysicist Tim Hewlett on the River Clyde.


Katie Collins/CNET

Astrophysicist Tim Hewlett was blowing up his rubber dinghy and tying the paddles to a banner when a couple of police officers on patrol stopped and lingered nearby. To avoid being seen, Hewlett hid the boat under the banner and lay in a patch of brambles for a half hour until they moved along.

It wasn’t until he launched the dinghy onto Glasgow’s River Clyde on Thursday afternoon that Hewlett realized  the brambles had punctured the rubber boat.

“It was a bit precarious and was taking on a bit of water by the end,” said Hewlett over text. “Good fun though, and if people think that looks precarious, they should see the projections of the future of the climate!”

Hewlett is a member of Scientist Rebellion, a climate activist collective made up of, well, scientists. Over the past two weeks as the UN climate conference COP26 has been taking place in the Scottish city, the group has used nonviolent direct action to protest what it sees as the lies and lack of urgency at the summit.

COP26 has brought many different styles of protest to Glasgow, including two huge marches last Friday and Saturday, rallies outside of banks and other buildings, walkouts within the walls of the summit and performance art. Various factions within the climate justice movement have led most of the protests, but Scientist Rebellion is focused on government inaction that its members feel flies in the face of what the science tells us about climate change

Decades of research prove the threats posed by climate change are real and are already present in rising sea levels and increasingly extreme weather patterns. This set of scientists isn’t happy to sit back and allow it to be overlooked by the rest of the world.

But the group doesn’t give the rest of the scientific community a pass. “One part of our argument is that if scientists don’t act like this is the fight for our lives that the science shows it is, then how can we expect people to trust the science?” said Hewlett.

Scientists being involved in activism lends credibility to the extent of the problem, added US environmental scientist Nate Rugh. “They can’t just dismiss us as a bunch of hippies.”

Scientists protest outside of Scottish Power

Scientists protest outside of Scottish Power.


Katie Collins/CNET

Rugh was present at another Scientist Rebellion protest the same day. This one had a more specific message. Five people glued themselves around the Scottish Power building in the center of Glasgow, splattered the building with green paint and held up copies of recent academic papers detailing the scientific realities of climate change. They were accusing the power company of greenwashing and obfuscating its role in harming the environment by claiming to be 100% green. (Scottish Power did not respond to a request for comment.)

The main protesters remained stuck to the ground for two hours before they were arrested and taken away. CNET couldn’t get close to them due to a police cordon, but spoke to Rugh, who stood nearby holding a banner. He explained that they’d all been driven to protest by the climate grief (psychological upset as a result of the climate crisis) that they’d experienced when faced with the realities of climate science in the course of their work. It had even caused Rugh to drop out of his Ph.D. program.

A scientific paper stuck to the Scottish Power building.

A scientific paper stuck to the Scottish Power building.


Katie Collins/CNET

For the protesters who were taken away in the back of a police van, the experience was nothing new. Last weekend they were all among 21 people arrested after members of Scientist Rebellion chained themselves to a Glasgow bridge.

Though Hewlett was able to avoid spending the night in the cells with his compatriots on Thursday, he didn’t escape the ire of police entirely after they intercepted his vessel on the Clyde. He said that after debating for a while whether he’d done anything illegal, they charged him under what he describes as “an obscure maritime law” and confiscated his props before releasing him.

Even though he was cold down in the water, he said he’d still enjoyed the experience  and he looked in his element as he floated under South Portland Street Suspension Bridge. As he briefly sailed from Glasgow city center in the direction of the summit, he smiled and held aloft his banner, which read: “Tell the truth or we will lose everything.” 

He said his message was aimed at the governments and delegates at COP who he sees as paying lip service to green issues while being complicit in making matters worse, and at academics, universities and members of the public who need to be honest with themselves about the realities of the climate crisis. “It’s a very broad request, but one I think everyone can heed.”



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