sacked scientist legal challenge over refusal to fly

  • Post last modified:February 22, 2024
  • Reading time:8 mins read

A member of activist group Scientist Rebellion has begun a legal challenge against his former employer. It comes after bosses dismissed him for refusing to travel by plane. Instead, Dr. Gianluca Grimalda decided to do his 28,000km journey via low-carbon transport. So, the university he works at sacked him.

Grimalda: taking a principled stand

Dr. Grimalda, a social scientist and climate activist, is starting a legal battle to regain his job after being sacked by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW) on 9 October 2023 for his refusal to travel by plane.

He spent seven months in Bougainville, an autonomous province of Papua New Guinea, to study the impact of market integration and the climate crisis on social cohesion. His fieldwork was delayed six weeks due to security threats, natural hazards, and logistical constraints.

Faced with the injunction to fly back within five days to make up for the delay, Dr. Grimalda preferred to slow-travel back to Europe as he had originally planned:

He sued the Kiel IfW for unfair dismissal, arguing that there was no reason he could not fulfil his work responsibilities remotely on his journey back to Kiel. The first hearing of the legal dispute was held on 13 November 2023 while Dr. Grimalda was travelling, with the second hearing being held on Thursday 22 February at the Kiel Labour Court of Justice.

This is the first known case of an employee losing their job for their refusal to fly.

Making a long journey

Dr. Grimalda studied cooperative behaviour and propensity to protect individuals against collective risks in 30 villages from rural areas of the Bougainville archipelago:

Starting his journey in mid-October 2023 by cargo ship, it took 72 days to travel over 28,000km and 16 countries by ferry, train, coaches, vans, and trucks:

According to his estimate, slow-travel reduced greenhouse gases emissions by ten times. Greenhouse gases are responsible for increased temperatures and extreme weather events:

Dr. Grimalda has been slow–travelling for 15 years to minimise his carbon footprint.

He said:

Many people ask me whether I would take up the job if I won the legal case. Of course I would. One thing I learned in Papua is that there is no conflict for which a resolution process cannot be found. Maybe even more than getting back my job, I want to enshrine into German law that an employee cannot be sacked for conscientious objection to flying.

As ecosystems are dangerously close to “tipping” into irreversible states of disaster, and as the recent COP28 failed once again to phase out fossil fuels, it is all the more important that scientists take extraordinary actions to signal the severity of the crisis.

Grimalda: bosses’ attitude a “retaliation” for his activism

While the legal case takes its course, Dr. Grimalda has taken up a six-month visiting fellowship at the University of Passau:

Many people told me that losing one job not to catch a plane is madness. I reply that in the current era of continuous, reckless use of fossil fuels, it is madness to get on with business as usual.

He has participated in several actions of civil disobedience with Scientist Rebellion in 2022.

Julia Steinberger, Professor of Societal Challenges of Climate Change at Lausanne University and lead author in the latest International Panel on Climate Change report, said:

It is extraordinary that a research institute dismissed a researcher for doing his job too diligently and for avoiding flying during a climate emergency. Kiel IfW seems mainly to retaliate for Gianluca’s past participation in civil disobedience on climate change with Scientist Rebellion.

Dr. Nana-Maria Grüning, Molecular Biologist, said:

It is unusual that someone actually lives as if the truth of climate and environmental breakdown is real. Gianluca does it. This is remarkable in a society with a high level of denial. Populist politicians criminalise climate activists rather than protecting our life sustaining systems. That the IfW is punishing their employee for just acting in touch with the physical reality is a scandal and beyond shameful for a scientific institution.

More than 9,000 people signed a petition to reinstate Dr. Grimalda in his job. You can sign it here.

Featured image and additional images via Scientist Rebellion

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