The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

The Science of Climate Marches

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So, this coming weekend is it–the march in New York City in support of DOING SOMETHING about climate.

It’s still up in the air whether I can go, personally. It depends on whether I can get various logistical issues sorted out in time. If I do go, it will be my third climate change demonstration, the other two having been in Washington, DC. In the lead-up to the others, I sometimes encountered friends who said some version of “marches are pointless. The political leaders will do what they do, and there is no changing that.” No one has said that yet this time around, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone does. It’s an old debate.

So, let’s hash it out, shall we?

First, I want to get any and all cynicism out of the way. One part of the “marches are pointless” argument is the assertion that any political activism is pointless, that the political process is sealed against any and all influence by ordinary people. Anyone who believes that needs to stop complaining and foment a revolution, because for the people to influence the government is the whole point of democracy.

But whether protest marches and demonstrations are a useful form of activism is a separate and important question.

Much ink has been spilled here, most of it by authors who simply assert their stance, for or against, as a statement of fact readers are supposed to take on faith. Obviously demonstrations work, or obviously they don’t. The author then goes on to explain his or her “fact,” again without giving the reader any reason to believe the explanation is accurate. This rhetorical strategy is ironic as applied to climate change marches, because science is so very much an issue with climate change and arguing based on unverified assertion is so very much not scientific.

There are a lot of popular ideas about what science is and is not, and most of them are completely wrong. As usual, XKCD says it best.

That means that is someone says a thing is so, a scientist will ask “how do you know?” If a person can’t produce a well-reasoned argument based on well-documented observation, the answer is that we don’t know yet. So then we can go find out. That’s what makes the arguments of competing climate “facts” so ridiculous (the climate is warming! No, it’s not, it’s in a “pause.” No it isn’t! Yes it is! No it isn’t! Is! Isn’t! Is! Isn’t! Rabbit season! Duck season–fire!*). If everyone were in the habit of asking the scientific question, “how do you know?” then most of these arguments would disappear.

So, do protest marches work? As it happens, somebody actually did a scientific study on it, and the short answer is yes, they work. You can read the whole thing here.

What the authors (four people from Harvard: Andreas Madestam, Daniel Shoag, Stan Veuger, and David Yanagizawa-Drott) did was actually pretty elegant. They looked at the first big Tea Party protests on April 15th, 2009, because it happens to be pretty easy to collect data on the Tea Party. Their challenge was you can’t just look at whether the protestors got what they want, because that might happen for some reason unrelated to the protest. Nor can you just look at whether large protests get what their organizers want more often than small ones, because maybe a lot of people showed up at the protest because the issue was popular, and because the issue was already popular it did well politically–and would have even if there had been no march. So, what Madestam et. al. did was to look at each area that held a Tea Party rally that day and see whether nice weather there predicted an increase in Republican votes in that area at the midterm election in 2010.

Isn’t that great? Here’s how the logic works: if the weather is nice, more people are likely to come out to a protest than if the weather is unpleasant, and since the weather on the 15th had nothing to do with how popular the Tea Party cause was before the rallies, and nothing to do with any other part of the political process, the only way the weather could predict an election would be if something happened at the rally that changed the election.

The authors further noted that a lot of Tea Party organizers hadn’t known each other before the rallies but worked together after, suggesting that the rallies worked because they introduced people.

But, if course, part of the objective for the New York climate change march is on a tighter timeline than that–the idea is to show political leaders than they should act now because the political will is there to cover them later. Does that tactic work for a march? Madestam et. al. didn’t address that aspect of things, so in proper scientific fashion, we have to say “we don’t know. Let’s go find out.”

So, let’s go find out!


*This is a reference to a Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck cartoon you really should see, if you haven’t yet.




Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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