On Tuesday morning, Americans woke to the news of Donald Trump’s latest Cabinet nominee. For the position of energy secretary—a post that includes the oversight of nuclear materials and was previously held by a theoretical physicist—the president-elect chose Rick Perry, a darling of the oil and gas industry and a vocal climate change denier. In response to a devastating drought that was setting off wildfires across Texas in 2011, then-Governor Perry called not for ecological intervention, but for three days of prayer. “The issue of global warming has been politicized,” he remarked that year. “I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.”
Since the election, analysts have spelled out the ways in which the incoming administration might spell catastrophe for immigrants, young women, and frontline communities of color. Rarely do we consider the research scientists, a demographic armed with advanced degrees and insulated within elite institutions. But in the months leading up to the election, the scientific community—and, in particular, those focused on climate—has begun to awaken to the threat posed by a Trump presidency. They fear not so much individual harm, but, rather, a wholesale affront to free scientific inquiry—to an evidence-based mode of investigating the world.
Hundreds gathered in Jessie Square Plaza with placards that said, ‘Stand Up for Science,’ ‘Exxon knew and lied,’ and ‘Ice has no agenda; it just melts.’
As it happened, on the day that yet another climate change denier was appointed to the cabinet, many of these concerned scientists were convened on one city block in downtown San Francisco. The American Geophysical Union with 62,000 members is the world’s largest organization of earth scientists, and the fall meeting takes place every December. This year, the AGU teamed up with the Natural History Museum and ClimateTruth.org to host The Rally to Stand Up for Science, with a goal of galvanizing scientists to fight disinformation in the coming era. Hundreds gathered in Jessie Square Plaza with placards that said, “Stand Up for Science,” “Exxon knew and lied,” and “Ice has no agenda; it just melts.” Many wore blue AGU lanyards over their coats, and they were joined by laypeople and activists.
“These are dark times,” one AGU member standing beside me observed. As I wove through the crowd before the rally began, I heard snippets of conversation that spoke to a communal sense of worry. To Catherine Davis, a scientist who studies the changes in the ocean, the greatest concern is the way our society has begun to treat objective knowledge. Increasingly, in the media, Davis says, “scientific, peer-based evidence is getting equated with opinion.” Then there are the other fears: of funds getting cut, or of data getting erased. At stake is the nature of truth itself—what forms of knowledge will have the authority to sway the direction of humanity.
The rally officially began when a group of scientists donned white lab coats and gathered on the plaza steps, facing the crowd. Standing beside them were indigenous leaders and community organizers from the Bay Area. Over the next hour, a succession of speakers beckoned the research community to make political resistance a part of their work. “We have for too long as scientists rested on the assumption that, by providing indisputable facts and great data, that we are providing enough of an attack to counter the forces against science,” said earth and atmospheric scientist Kim Cobb. “That strategy has failed—miserably. What we need right now are for our scientists who care so deeply about their work, their facts, and data, and truth to shake off the fear that holds them back from engaging in this space.”
What we need right now are for our scientists who care so deeply about their work, their facts, and data, and truth to shake off the fear.
“The politicization of science is nothing new,” Andrés Soto told the crowd. Soto, a Bay Area native, is an organizer with the Communities for a Better Environment; he was working in Richmond, California, when the Chevron Richmond Refinery exploded and sent hundreds of residents to the hospital. Corporations, he reminded everyone, have always used their capital to dictate what facts and evidence reach the mainstream public, all in service of their own interests. Soto says the gun industry and the tobacco industry were both undergirded by massive disinformation campaigns—so is today’s fossil fuel industry.
The false dichotomy between science and politics had already begun to crumble. A broader paradigm shift is taking place within the scientific community, as earth scientists—whether they study changes in the sea, the soil, or the weather—have begun to realize that they can no longer neglect the political dimensions of their work. Davis has attended the AGU meeting every year for the last six years, and she says that 2016 is the first year in which current politics has come up in every meeting of friends and colleagues.
The politicization of science is nothing new.
After the rally ended, I met another scientist named Adrian Broz, a graduate student in environmental and agricultural science at California Polytechnic State University. Broz researches the changes happening in the soil. He says that, for years, he didn’t draw a direct line between his work and the broader field of climate research. He wouldn’t, for example, have considered himself a climate scientist. “But it’s all inextricably connected to climate, as we’re all finding out,” Broz says. Now, in the face of mounting political scrutiny and an ever-escalating catastrophe, Broz is learning to embrace the label of “climate scientist”—along with all of the political and ethical responsibilities it may soon entail. “There’s a degree of fear in that association,” he says. “But also, pride, of course.”
Image by Beka Economopoulos via Facebook