Scientists skip COP28 to demand climate action at home

Concerned about safety at the global climate summit and wanting to make their protests count, researchers stage demonstrations elsewhere.

By Anil Oza

Scientists blocking a coal track in Amsterdam, calling for a rapid phase out of fossil fuels.
Members of two activist groups, Scientist Rebellion and Just Stop Coal, blocked a train track on 4 December to demand that the Netherlands rapidly phase out fossil fuels.Credit: Scientist Rebellion NL & Kappen Met Kolen NL

Some scientists-turned-activists have changed tactics during this year’s United Nations climate summit. Rather than staging demonstrations in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, at the meeting itself, they are coordinating protests against governments’ lack of progress reining in greenhouse-gas emissions closer to home — by blocking parts of fossil-fuel operations in their own countries and appealing to local governments.

Although the United Arab Emirates has pledged to allow peaceful protests and “the expression of values” at the 28th annual UN Climate Change Conference (COP28), the country normally bans unauthorized protests and prohibits criticism of its rulers — so some protesters feared for their safety if they went to the summit. Others say that flying to Dubai would have unleashed even more carbon pollution into the atmosphere, for very little in return. How effective are climate protests at swaying policy — and what could make a difference?

These summits, which have been held since 1995, have been “a massive failure”, says Fernando Racimo, a Copenhagen-based evolutionary biologist and member of activist group Scientist Rebellion, who has helped to organize upcoming protests in Denmark. “Almost 30 years of promises, of pledges, and yet carbon emissions continue to go up to even higher levels. As scientists, we’re recognizing this failure.”

Researchers have found that publishing papers, drafting policy briefs and even talking to high-level political leaders hasn’t translated into policy action, so they are now stepping out of the laboratory to demand change, says activist Rose Abramoff, a climate scientist at the Ronin Institute, an independent research organization in Montclair, New Jersey. And they have discovered that demonstrating at global summits such as COP28 doesn’t accomplish much.

Scientists are particularly dismayed that this year’s conference is being hosted by the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s largest oil producers, when there is mounting evidence that fossil fuels are warming the planet to dangerous levels. “It’s not just a failure,” Racimo says. “This time, it’s a mockery of the whole democratic process.”

Local efforts

Scientist Rebellion, an international group of researchers that uses civil disobedience to prompt climate action, has organized protests across 23 countries throughout the COP28 meeting, between 30 November and 12 December. It has also crafted an open letter encouraging others to fight climate change that has garnered more than 1,400 signatures. “We need you,” the letter says. “Wherever you are, become a climate advocate or activist” to help create a liveable future. Outcry as scientists sanctioned for climate protest

In the Netherlands, scientists partnered with the local activist group Just Stop Coal on 4 December to block a coal-carrying train — with the goal of pushing the Dutch government to phase out fossil fuels. “Governments are not blocking [the construction of new] fossil-fuel infrastructure, which is their duty to us and to future generations to provide a safe, liveable world,” says Fabian Dablander, an interdisciplinary scientist at the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics at the University of Amsterdam, who helped to organize the protest.

After blocking the train, 15 protesters were arrested and released shortly after being charged, according to Marthe Wens, a drought-risk scientist at the Free University of Amsterdam.

In Mexico, about a dozen protestors marched past a UN building on 2 December and through wealthy neighbourhoods in Mexico City, sticking copies of scientific papers showing the effects of climate change to cars and windows. “People just really need to understand the gravity [of climate change] and the fact that the emissions of the elite are unsustainable,” says Ornela De Gasperin, a biologist at the Institute of Ecology, a public research centre in Veracruz, Mexico.

Over the coming days, members of Scientist Rebellion and others will be staging a ‘die in’ in front of the Danish parliament building to protest the lack of action by politicians and negotiators at the climate summit. They’ll also be calling for private jets to be banned in Denmark.

Scientists as activists

Becoming an activist hasn’t come naturally for many of the researchers demonstrating during COP28. “I’ve been trained to see science and politics as separate,” says Aaron Thierry, an ecologist-turned-social-scientist at Cardiff University, UK, who now studies activism among scientists. But “we’re seeing increasingly that scientists are becoming much more comfortable being activists”.

Dablander and his colleagues conducted a survey of about 9,200 academics. The researchers found that 51% of scientists agreed or strongly agreed that other scientists should engage more in advocacy — and 36.7% said that they should engage more in legal protests1. The results were posted on the preprint server PsyArxiv on 29 November and have not yet been peer reviewed. Microbiologists at COP28 push for a seat at the climate-policy table

Researchers are still piecing together how much climate protests can sway public opinion and actually trigger change. But emerging evidence shows that protests can have an effect on the countries they take place in. For instance, one study2, which surveyed people in the United States before and after the March for Science and the People’s Climate March in 2017, found that after the protests, “Americans that we sampled, felt more optimistic that humanity could get together and solve big problems”, such as climate change, says study co-author Nathaniel Geiger, a social psychologist at Indiana University Bloomington.

Another survey3, of 1,200 people in Switzerland, reported that famed Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg and her Fridays for the Future protests — in which she and others sat in front of the Swedish Parliament once a week — influenced up to 30% of participants to be more concerned about the environment than they were previously. “It shows that there were some quite important impacts in terms of awareness, and at least the attempt of changing behaviours,” says study co-author Livia Fritz, a social scientist at Aarhus University in Denmark.

Scientists could help to influence the public because of their expertise, say sources who spoke to Nature, even though trust in science has taken a hit in the past few years. According to a survey published last month by the Pew Research Center, a think tank in Washington DC, the percentage of people in the United States who have a large or fair amount of trust in scientists fell by 14 points after the COVID-19 pandemic began, to 73%.

But the figure is still high compared with groups such as politicians. On the basis of his findings, Geiger says, researchers can still have an influence: “If scientists can show that their advocacy is based both on a combination of the science and values that they share in common with regular, average Americans, the more their efforts will potentially resonate.”


  1. Dablander, F. et al. Preprint at PsyArXiv (2023).
  2. Swim, J. K., Geiger, N. & Lengieza, M. L. Front. Commun. 4, 4 (2019).Article  Google Scholar 
  3. Fritz, L., Hansmann, R., Dalimier, B. & Binder, C. R. Sustain. Sci. 18, 2219–2244 (2023).Article  Google Scholar 

Anil Oza is the spring 2023 Color Code intern at STAT. He previously covered all things science, from grassroots efforts to study the effect of urban heat to the elusiveness of urban rats, for NPR’s Short Wave, Science News, and Science.

This article was published on December 5, 2023 at

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