The Climate in Emergency

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

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What the Science March Was Like

I went to the March for Science, as promised, on Saturday. My husband went to our local satellite march (he was brainstorming chants for days ahead of time. My favorite of his: Science Yes!/Silence No!), but I felt a need to be in DC. So, I arranged to spend the week with my mother, and she and I bought tickets on a bus chartered by the university in my hometown. We went marching together.

My mother, incidentally, is a scientist, a geologist, specifically. I am trained as an ecologist, though I’m a science writer, rather than a researcher. It was our march.

It was not an ideal day for marching. The rain started just as we got on the bus, and the sky proceeded to variously spit and drizzle throughout the day, while the air temperature held steady around 60° F. Hypothermia weather. Heat travels much faster through water than through air, so wet weather gets dangerous at a much higher temperature than dry weather does. A four hour rally preceded the actual march, which took an additional two hours or so, a long time to stand or walk out in the rain. We kept ourselves as dry as possible and checked in with each other frequently.

I’ve been cold in DC before. At my first climate march, four years ago, the weather was cold and blustery. But that was in February. This time, in April, the grass had greened up, most of the trees had leafed out, the spring color enlivened and relieved by white and pink flowering dogwoods and the blond and white monumental architecture of the city. Tiny, winged elm seeds and fallen, string-like, oak flowers clotted together in the streets, and the slicked and flowing water turned everything silver and vague beneath dark, grey cloud. Sometimes the pavement shone with isolated grains of glitter, presumably shed from someone’s costume or sign. There is a loveliness possible, on a rainy day.

Our bus dropped us off near the Capitol Building, but the rally and the beginning of the march was at the Washington Monument, so we had to walk a good distance just to start. Clumps and clots of people, some carrying signs, moved in the same direction, presumably fellow marchers. One of my favorite things on march days is watching people converge, seeing actual, undeniable evidence that other people–maybe a lot of other people–are showing up.

As we arrived, we could hear the rally already in progress. The grounds were full of streaming lines of people. We went through security (a simple, efficient process, but one that did not occur on prior marches) and joined the crowd, which seemed largely organized around a big stage and a scattering of large video screens and tower speakers hung from cranes.

Unfortunately, I’m somewhat sensitive to sound. I don’t mean my hearing is especially acute, I mean that noise that is too loud drives me nuts. We found that there was no happy medium between being too close to those giant speakers for comfort, and too far away to clearly hear what the people on the stage were saying–which was too bad, because some of them seemed like they would have been interesting. Bill Nye was one of them. I have no idea what he said. Some of the others introduced themselves by saying their names, institutional affiliations, and the proud shout “I am a SCIENTIST!” Everybody cheered. I have no idea what they said, either.  But there were bands playing in between each speech, and the music was good.

Instead of listening to the people I couldn’t hear (I really hope all of that is posted online somewhere so I can watch it), I milled around, trying to spot anyone I might know, looking at signs, and people-watching. A few people wore pussy hats. One person wore a polar bear costume. Two dressed as dinosaurs and fought with each other and inspired frantic barking by various small dogs. At least one person wore a Beaker costume, as in the anxious Muppet who says “meep!” and works as a lab assistant to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. Beaker showed up on a lot of signs, too. He seemed to be popular, as were t-shirts from my beloved XKCD (the best geeky internet comic, ever).

Organizers had suggested we either wear whatever we normally wear as scientists or dress as our favorite scientist. Accordingly, I saw several Einsteins and Darwins and at least one Bill Nye (other than the real Bill Nye, of course, whom I did not see except on the giant screen). I had been planning on wearing a hat similar to one worn by one of my science heroes, Tom Wessels, and I wished sincerely I had not forgotten it–that hat would have kept the rain off my head.

Finally, we surged out of the rallying grounds and onto the march route…and then we stopped, standing still in the road. After a few minutes, a strange sound issued from up ahead and grew and swelled…people were cheering! The wave of cheering passed over us–we duly cheered as well–and swept on behind us, and no, none of us knew why. We advanced maybe fifteen feet and stopped again. This went on for almost an hour, start and stop and start again, interspersed with cheering, and by the end of that hour we’d traveled only a few hundred feet.

“This is a good sign,” I told the people behind us. “The same thing happened at the climate march in New York, and that march was really big.” They seemed to agree with me, so I said it again to someone else. I meant that maybe there were so many people that we’d clogged up the route. I really hoped that was the case. Another wave of cheering passed over us.

In the middle of a demonstration, you can’t tell how big it is or why anything is happening.

I people-watched some more, and found the Wonder Twins, in full regalia, holding a banner, which I forgot to read because I was busy reading the Twins’ capes–which identified the scientific specialty of each and the fact that one of them was transgender, the other cisgender. The original Wonder Twins did not wear capes and had nothing to do with science that I remember, but I liked the costumes and we chatted for a while.

I read more signs.




BF IS MY BFF! (BF Skinner reference)

MY MONKEYS CAN WRITE BETTER EXECUTIVE ORDERS! (under copies of two paintings that did appear to have been made by monkeys or apes)


There were a lot of signs in which SCIENCE was an anagram for something, or written out using the Periodic Table or other suitably sciency symbols. There were quotes from Einstein, Thoreau, Emerson, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan. There were lots of signs using “trump” as a verb, as in “facts trump opinions.” There were puns on the word “resistance” involving electronics. There was a sign with the words SCIENCE and TRUMP separated by three parallel lines with a slash across them. I asked the man holding it what the symbol meant. “Exact opposite of,” he said. A popular sign read “science is like magic, except real.”

Which is pretty much true. It’s common knowledge that many branches of science grew out of magic–chemistry began as alchemy, and so on. Arguably, it remains magic, it’s just effective magic. I mean, any good wizard claims to have special knowledge and insight into how the world works and to be able to transform the world as a result. Scientists and engineers do just that. It actually is possible to make lead into gold, and gold has been made from bismuth. It is possible to change the entire climate.

What this march reminded me of were the Druids. I cannot find a really reliable source to cite here, so please don’t take my word for this, but I have read that the Druids and bards together were the educated class of the Celts and performed social roles that we now might identify with clergy, law, art, and science. And they were politically powerful, standing up to fight the Roman Empire. Everyone knows that the Romans tried to eradicate the Christians, but they quite literally slaughtered the Druids, too. Well, maybe the Druids are rising.

Perhaps the people carrying the REVENGE OF THE NERDS signs harbored a similar sentiment.

Other than the mysterious cheering, we were mostly quiet. A group of men beside us discussed possible chants: “If P is low/the null hypothesis has got to go!” which is definitely catchy, but instead of chanting it they began quietly discussing whether they were remembering the principal correctly, given that one of them hates statistics and the other is a physicist with dyscalcula (the math equivalent of dyslexia). I have a similar problem, and the physicist and I commiserated for a while. We never got around to chanting about P values. Around then was when I spotted the glitter floating by on the rainy street.

We still hadn’t gone anywhere. The advantage to not going anywhere was that we were still relatively close to the stage, and we danced to keep warm as long as they kept playing. My mother recognized the groups, though I did not. It was fun.

Finally, we got going, and some chants did start up. “Science, not silence” was popular. My favorite was “don’t pretend that you don’t care/science gave you back your hair!” My other favorite was “What do we want? SCIENCE! When do we want it? AFTER PEER REVIEW!” Which is extra-awesome because I first saw it as a joke on social media captioned “why scientists can’t have protest marches,” or some such. But we can, and we did, and peer review is important, so there.

We continued marching, without incident, back to the Capitol building and our bus home, though we did pass a few counter-demonstrators who seemed to think that we were all atheists (they held signs asking whether we had been brainwashed by professors who denied and mocked God. Of course, I can’t imagine any real science professor even mentioning religion in class, much less mocking it). Other demonstrations seemed to be embedded in ours, like inclusions in some larger mineral mass. We passed socialists handing out leaflets, anti-fascists with their own signs and chants (I suspect most of us agreed with them, but they did seem to be their own group and held their own miniature rally at the end of the march), and an abortion rights contingent, complete with their own counter-demonstration of pro-life people. I’ve never seen anything like that before, this symbiosis of highly disparate groups within the same overall system. My mother and I stopped, once, so she could buy lunch from a food cart, and once again so she could buy a dry sweatshirt to wear on the bus. Did I mention it was raining?

I was struck, all but literally, by how different this march felt from every other political protest or demonstration I have attended. There was no sage smoke. There was very little drumming, and no one costumed as Uncle Sam or Big Daddy Oil, or other such motifs. At all of the others I kept seeing the same signs and hearing the same chants, from march to march, regardless of what the specific event was supposed to be about. At the pipeline rallies, a large number of participants carried signs that had nothing to do with the land use issues and Native American rights placed front-and-center by organizers. No, it seemed to be just the usual suspects in for a generalized pro-environment event. But at the science march, it was all science.

A few “I’m with her” signs with pictures of the planet on them could have been previously used at other events, but mostly it was incredibly focused. Even the typical chants were missing. We knew them–someone started up with “show me what a scientist looks like/this is what a scientist looks like,” a clear riff on a recurring chant about democracy, but even that died out pretty quickly. It was just a different type of crowd.

When we, the marchers, spoke to each other, we tended not to make statements. Instead, we asked questions, mostly about what each others’ signs and shirts said or meant. “What kind of scientist are you?” was frequent. The kind who asks questions, apparently.

This march even felt different.

In every other demonstration or protest I’ve been on, there has been a definite pep-rally vibe. Someone starts chanting “the PEOPLE, UNITED, will NEVER be defeated!” and you feel all optimistic, like yeah, power to the people! And only later, afterwards, do you remember that if the people were actually united around progressive politics, we wouldn’t have elected Donald Trump, and anyway, united people are defeated routinely by folks with money and guns. We come back, but we do get defeated. The pep rallies help, of course, for a while.

This time, I felt no such surge of optimism–but no pessimism, either. We didn’t need to boost ourselves up. Our message wasn’t “we’re going to WIN,” but simply “we are here.” And, even more simply, “the world is what it is.” After all, we’re scientists. As many of the signs pointed out, facts don’t care whether you believe in them or not.

Whether we win or not, global warming is real. Whether scientists get the funding they need to watch it or not, anthropogenic climate change will continue to happen until we collectively stop making it happen. The world needs scientists, and individual scientists, of course, are part of the needing world. But the truth of that need exists whether the rest of the world recognizes it or not. There is a certain serenity in that.

It was nice to rally with the scientists, to see signs and hear chants that you actually need to think, to know something, or to ask questions to understand, to be in among the crowd that has never been the in-crowd, and know that today, this is our place, 40,000 of us strong. Today, we are the cool kids.

But it wasn’t a pep rally. It didn’t need to be. It was just rockin’ with the Druids in the rain.


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The Fault Lies Not in Our Stars

I recently happened upon an article about a prediction that today would see massive earthquakes caused by a planetary alignment. Apparently, Nostradamus predicted something of the sort as well. The author (quite correctly) explained that the movement of other planets does not and cannot cause earthquakes–he quoted a “contrary view” (contrary to the earthquake prediction) that the gravitational influence of the moon is much greater than that of the other planets, and that because its orbit is elliptical, the moon’s gravitational influence on us varies every month. Since we do not get massive earthquakes as the moon moves around, there is no way the other planets could cause earthquakes.

Well and good.

But the author went on to state that in his “opinion,” the sun has a stronger effect on earthquakes than other planets or the moon. And that is a very odd word to use in this context–“opinion.”

I do not mean to make fun of this man, or the several people who commented on the article. They are all obviously thinking carefully about important issues, and they all apparently care about the truth, reject fear-mongering, and support critical thinking about what they read and hear. What they’re not doing, though, is thinking scientifically. Lots of people don’t think scientifically–I’m willing to bet that even most scientists don’t think scientifically all of the time. There are, in fact, some things science is no good for. But I’ve encountered a lot of misunderstandings about what science actually is and these misunderstandings make public discussion of issues like global warming much harder.

Science is a process.

It is not a world view. There is no reason, for example, that telepathy is not scientific. It’s true that science has found no evidence confirming the existence of telepathy, and it seems unlikely at this point that it ever will–but it has found evidence that some animals can sense electrical signals from the muscles of other animals, which sounds at least as fantastic, if you think about it. The history of science is full of things that intelligent, reasonable people considered impossible turning out to be true. World views, lists of things understood to be true or not true, possible or impossible, are the result of science, or of the other processes humans have developed for understanding our world. It’s not what a person thinks that makes him or her a scientist, but how.

The how of science is that you start with verifiable facts, look for patterns in those facts, and then go look for more facts that either confirm or refute the patterns. You keep track of the facts you verified and the patterns you noticed and how they were either confirmed or refuted.

My favorite example involves baseball.

Randall Monroe, famous among nerds everywhere for the webcomic, xkcd, also has both a blog and a book called What If? in which he uses physics to answer frankly ridiculous questions. One such question was “what happens if you try to hit a baseball that is going 90% of the speed of light?” After deciding to ignore just why and how the hypothetical baseball accelerated, Mr. Monroe explains that because air cannot move out of the way of an object going that fast, the atoms of the air and of the ball would actually undergo nuclear fusion, causing a massive explosion. Also, the batter would be considered “hit by pitch” and could advance to first base, except for being dead.

Mr. Monroe acknowledges that he’s not sure this is exactly what would happen, and obviously the experiment cannot be performed. But the point is that he did not just think up a scenario that seemed plausible to him–he used what we know of physics to make an educated guess. He could, if he wanted to, defend his guess by citing his sources and constructing an extended “if-then” argument stretching all the way back to actual observations of the behavior of air molecules and subatomic particles. Other physicists could then either confirm or refute the plausibility of his guess by constructing arguments of their own. So we might not know for sure what would happen to a baseball pitched at 90% of the speed of light, we can use reason and experience to talk about what might happen with some confidence.

It’s worth noting that an experiment on a similar scale of outlandishness has been tried–when the first nuclear bomb was detonated, obviously no one has any experience with that type of explosion. Yet the physicists responsible for the bomb predicted fairly accurately what would happen–that the thing would explode, that it would explode upon deliberate detonation and not before or after, and that the observation bunker and the people inside it would not be destroyed in the process. That is an amazing degree of predictive power.

The simplicity of the scientific process means that arguments about science work differently than arguments about anything else (at least in principle–scientists are human beings, and as such are just as capable of unexamined bias and threatened egos as anybody else). You simply find out what other people have observed and what theories about those observed phenomena have been supported, and construct a reasoned argument, the same way you might build a tower of blocks. Your opponent in debate then either offers competing observations and theories or demonstrates that you made a mistake somewhere.

There is no reason why a scientist should ever qualify a professional statement with “in my opinion,” or “I feel that….” As a teacher of mine once said, we don’t care how you feel.

We don’t care what your opinion is, does the sun actually cause earthquakes? Has anybody checked? How do you go about finding out if the sun does cause earthquakes? (What you do is keep track of changes in solar behavior and see if any of the things the sun does or any changes in the relationship between the sun and the earth correlates consistently with changes in earthquake behavior–and yes, it has been done, and no, No, the sun does not cause earthquakes).

More importantly, is the earth warming up? Do certain gasses trap heat in the atmosphere? Are human beings increasing concentrations of those gasses to the point that it is changing the climate? Has anybody checked? How do you find out?

Yes, of course, lots of people have checked, and yes anthropogenic climate change is quite real.

And yet the public discourse on the matter proceeds, like that little online discussion I found about earthquakes and astrology, by statements of opinion and belief, and by confident appeals to various emotionally potent tropes (conspiracy, for example–somehow, the idea that some powerful organization is suppressing information makes an assertion seem more believable). And none of that is necessary. A climate scientist does not have to be likeable, popular, possessed of the same political and cultural affiliations as you, or able to argue well in the public sphere in order to be right. All he or she has to do is construct a sound connection between observation and prediction. And you can always check on the validity of that connection yourself, if you want to (you may have to get a science degree or its equivalent, but you are free to do so. The information is not secret).

It’s worth noting that the scientific process is the best means of figuring out how things work that human beings have ever come up with. There are issues it is no good for (like “what is the meaning of life” and “how do I be a good friend right now?”) but if you can read these words, then you have proof that science works.

So, let’s not allow anyone to drag the discussion into the realm of opinion, ok?


Climate Change and Religion

This is the conclusion of my series on climate and religion, which profiled Catholicism, the evangelical, mainline, and African-American wings of Protestant Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and American Neopaganism. These are hardly the only religions, or even the only ones in the United States, but together they are dominant voices. If anyone wants to see another religion profiled, just let me know.

Throughout writing this series, I was struck by a recurring pattern; America’s religions are mostly pro-climate, and American people are mostly religious, and yet America as a whole is decidedly climate denialist. Meaningful climate legislation won’t pass Congress.


Seriously. Leaders and representatives of every group I researched had published pro-climate statements and only among the evangelical Christians could I find any organized dissent on the issue. On the face of it, that implies that religious people are generally pro-climate, with the exception of some (not all) evangelicals. And yet, there are simply too many religious people in the country, and too few who take climate change seriously, for religion to actually be the pro-climate force that it repeatedly says it is. In polls, only 16% of Americans identify as unaffiliated with any religion. Just over 26% identify as evangelicals. Since some evangelicals are climate activists and climate scientists, as are some unaffiliated people, that means that less than 42% of Americans should be indifferent or hostile to climate. Everybody else belongs to religions whose leaders who have come out in favor of the planet. And yet fully 50% of Americans actually describe themselves as “unconcerned” about climate. Only 5% consider climate change our most important issue. Only seven US states are not currently represented by at least one climate denier in Congress; 11 states have Congressional delegations with a majority of climate deniers.

So what is going on? How and why is there such a disconnect between what American religious leaders say and what American political leaders actually do?

Part of the issue is simply that many religious groups are less interested in climate than their leaders’ public statements suggest; according to polls, only a little over a third of all Americans “often” or “sometimes” hear their clergy discus climate change. Of white Catholics, 40% never hear about climate change in church, despite Pope Francis’ outspoken environmentalism. Of white mainline Protestants, 37% never hear about climate change from their pastors, again despite public pronouncements by church leaders. Those religious people who do hear about the issue from their clergy are significantly more likely to believe in climate change and take it seriously than those who do not.

Are we looking at a case of religious hippocracy, where church leaders say one thing but do another? Possible, but I doubt it. I suspect that most American clergy, of whatever stripe, are not hostile to climate so much as uninterested in it. Those who do care, and who publish statements on global warming, are met, not with controversy but with silence. The result is that, except for evangelicals, the only voices an outsider like me hears on the subject are those of the vocal minority who are climate-concerned.

Another part of the issue is that many people who do accept climate change are happy to vote for political leaders who do not, provided they like the rest of the candidate’s presentation–but climate deniers will not vote for a candidate who does accept climate change. The result is that candidates put together winning coalitions by denying climate change.

Climate deniers are louder, politically speaking, than the climate-accepting majority, in part because many evangelical Christians have, rightly or wrongly, linked climate science (and evolution) to other issues that are also important to them. As political liberals have shown themselves more concerned over climate change, climate has become identified with the “liberal agenda,” such that a vote for climate is, by proxy, a vote for social changes conservative Christians do not want.

In contrast, people who do accept climate change seem not to have made equivalent conceptual links. Just 5% of Americans consider climate change the country’s most pressing issue, while many more consider the gap between rich and poor (18%) or health care (17%) the most important–even though climate change is closely related to both economics and public health. Only 25% say climate change is even the most pressing environmental problem, while 29% say the worst environmental problem is pollution and 23% say it is water shortages and drought–even though climate change is caused by pollution and is an important cause of water shortages and drought. It seems that many people who believe climate change is real still don’t believe that it is important because they do not see the connections between climate and the other issues they care about.

It’s also worth noting that the electoral results relative to climate change do not exactly reflect the will of the American people right now. A huge amount of money is being poured into electoral politics in support of climate denial candidates (and candidates who are otherwise in favor of big business)–and those efforts are succeeding. While liberal candidates raise huge amounts of money, too, and some of their donors are indeed very rich, no one is in the same financial league as Charles and David Koch–who get much of their money through the oil industry. The electoral landscape of the United States is now a direct result of the fact that climate deniers–of whatever religion–have substantially deeper pockets than climate activists do.

So, what is religion good for?

So, if religion in America is not the force for climate sanity that it looks like it should be, what is it good for?

The simple answer is that if religious leaders who do support climate action organize themselves better and do more effective outreach among their colleagues, we could indeed see a major cultural shift on the subject–and we may be heading in that direction. Let’s give those leaders their due.

But mobilizing congregations is only one of the possible roles of religion in climate change, and it may not even be the most important role. Not all religious people take the advice of their clergy to heart, after all, especially in areas of life not considered obviously religious. And non-Christian religions are such small minorities in the United States that mobilizing those congregations on climate will not, by itself, swing the national conversation very much.

What religious leaders can do is give the national conversation more depth of meaning. Religion can host an exploration of why climate matters.

“Religion” means many things, including a dimension of the collective human soul. By this definition, even many atheists are religious, because they wrestle with meaning, priority, and morality. Specific religions are entities dedicated to discovering and spreading particular visions of the meaning of life. Religions are places within the culture set aside for discovering what matters and why, what our ideals are, and what our standards are, just as sciences are zones within the culture set aside for discovering what exists and how it works. Science can tell us that the planet is heating up because of human activity and it can predict the kinds of disasters we face if we don’t stop warping the sky very soon. But science cannot tell us why that’s a problem or why the planet is worth fighting for. That’s what religion can do.

Science can tell you that if you point a loaded gun at somebody’s head and pull the trigger, you’ll probably kill the person, but only religion can tell you that it’s murder.

The religions, collectively, can host a discussion of the moral dimensions of climate change. They can be our conscience, and they can serve that function not just for their own adherents but for all of us. I don’t have to be Buddhist to have my conscience pricked by a Buddhist teacher who calls out climate apathy as a failure of awareness and compassion. You don’t have to be Wiccan to be inspired by a vision of the planet as an entity to whom we owe a debt of care. Neither of us must be Christian to consider that perhaps we only become most fully alive when we dedicate our lives to the service of something larger than ourselves.

Apathy, cowardice, gluttony, denial, and greed have the capacity at this very moment to render our beautiful planet something less than what we were given to care for. Fortunately, there are people who know how to cope with and combat those darker tides of human nature. We should listen to them.