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I'm a Geographer: Rose Abramoff, soil scientist and climate activist

I'm a Geographer: Rose Abramoff, soil scientist and climate activist
20 Apr
Rose Abramoff is a climate scientist who recently made headlines while participating in climate protests led by Scientist Rebellion. Geographical caught up with her to talk about activism, education and the importance of soil

On Tuesday 5 April, Rose Abramoff drove the seven hours from her hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, to Washington DC. She was then arrested, twice. Alongside a handful of others, she had chained herself to the fence in front of the White House, demanding that President Biden declare a climate emergency. Later that same week, she joined indigenous activists in blocking a major highway in the country’s capital.

Abramoff was one of 1,000 scientists around the world taking part in disruptive, non-violent acts of civil disobedience that week. The protests were organised by Scientist Rebellion, an international collective of activists from different scientific backgrounds that work within the same framework as Extinction Rebellion. Until recently, Abramoff had remained fairly ‘apolitical’ in her efforts to educate people on the effects and causes of climate change. She has taught in elementary schools and volunteered for climate change advocacy groups, as well as serving as a reviewer for the IPCC 6th Assessment Report and contributing to policy reports.

But moved by a growing sense of urgency in the face of the negligible global response to the climate crisis, Abramoff faced her climate anxiety by taking action. She later posted on Twitter: ‘I was arrested twice this week in climate actions and the unspoken sense I got from climate activists was “Thank you” but also “Where have you been?” and “Where are the rest of you?”’

Starting out as a forest ecologist, where she studied land management and roots and soils, Abramoff has become increasingly interested in carbon sequestration in soil. These days she spends less time out in the field and more time working with large data sets and computer simulation modelling, ‘its lots of crunching numbers on the computer, which I actually find quite cool and interesting. But it's not for everybody.’

Rose AbRose Abramoff at a Scientist Rebellion protest outside the White House on 6 April. Image: Scientist Rebellion

Q: What motivated you to take part in the recent climate demonstration in Washington?

RA: What immediately inspired me was seeing other scientists taking direct action and leveraging the authority that they had as scientists. At COP 26 in Glasgow, a group of scientists risked arrest by blockading the King George V Bridge. That was really successful in getting a lot of people mobilised, even though Glasgow itself was a monumental failure in terms of increasing climate pledges or paying countries that are already being affected by climate change.

I’ve been indirectly inching more and more towards activism over time since high school, whether taking part in the odd climate march or in more educational ways, like teaching children's classes and putting together lesson plans about climate change. But those were all fairly apolitical and non-confrontational ways to engage the public and, despite trying nearly everything, I didn't see any progress happening in the world. There’s a long history of nonviolent direct action, from the suffragettes to the civil rights movement, and the success driven by this nonviolent confrontation and resistance really convinced me that there was potentially another way forward. So, psychologically, that’s what brought me to a place where I was ready to take a higher risk.

Q: Have you noticed a similar trend within the science community?

RA: There's certainly a growing unrest and growing frustration that's translating to more action, whether that action be low or high risk – there's a quite broad spectrum of what people are willing to do. But on a global scale you can see that it’s growing quite quickly. Scientist Rebellion started out with two guys in 2020 pasting papers on the doors of The Royal Society in London, and now it's made up of many hundreds of scientists. And I'm always trying to encourage people to contact Scientist Rebellion if they have any interest.

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Q: How has your work given you an insight into the climate crisis?

RA: I'm a plant and soil scientist, having started as a forest ecologist studying the seasonality of carbon dioxide uptake by plants and the storage of carbon in the soil. In more recent years I've been much more soil-focused, looking at the maximum capacity of carbon storage and the role of soil in mitigating climate change. 

I’m hugely enthusiastic about my research and there are a lot of interesting, useful technologies and ways of managing land that can help restore degraded lands and recapture some of the carbon dioxide that we've released into the atmosphere. But I always caution people that so-called nature based climate solutions are not a replacement for ending fossil fuel emissions. If anything, we need to do all of them at the same time, one cannot replace the other or else we're still just treading water, and that water is rising.

Q: In terms of nature based solutions, is the role of soil in carbon storage often overlooked?

RA: The focus is often overwhelmingly above ground. We tend to ignore our soils and our roots and our mycorrhizal fungi, which really do play a magnificent role in storing carbon. Soils store over twice the amount of carbon than the atmosphere and all plants combined. I think that's just because we can see the results. When we plant a tree and it grows, that carbon accounting is very simple. Measuring how much carbon has increased in the soil is very difficult, imagine dropping one or two drops of food dye into a massive pool. It might take many years to tell whether or not you've made a difference.

Q: What first attracted you to your career?

RA: In addition to being fascinated by the natural world, I was also concerned about all of the changes that I was seeing around me. It doesn't take an expert to see that the lands we have all around us are not natural lands, that the forests we have are not even primary forests. If you live on the east coast of the US they were cleared around the early 1800s and then abandoned for agriculture around the Industrial Revolution. Although all of those secondary forests are still beautiful and productive and hold a lot of biodiversity, we've really altered almost all of our landscape in irreversible ways. That thought really struck me and made me want to understand what we were doing to our Earth and what the ramifications would be for us as a species.

Q: In the UK, the Department of Education has just announced the launch of a new natural history GCSE, focusing on how pupils can protect the planet and gain a 'deeper knowledge of the natural world around them'. Do you think more school education about our environment is needed?

RA: One of the things that shocked me most, and that shocked the primary school children that I was working with the most, was just how little they knew about our natural history. They had this understanding that the world around them was the natural world - the lawns, parks and the agricultural fields, that those pastoral scenes are nature. They were suprised to learn that those are all highly engineered by us. So I do think it's really important to teach students what the world was before us and what the world after us may look like, or what a world that is better managed by us might look like.

You can join Rose, alongside fellow scientists Peter Kalmus (climate scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab) and William Livernois (researcher at University of Washington and specialist in carbon sequestration) for a brief analysis of the latest IPCC reports and a panel discussion on Sunday 24 April at 8pm BST, organised by Scientist Rebellion USA. Follow the link here

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