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Climate Change Was the Epicenter of March for Science

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The roar of the crowd of thousands of scientists and supporters rippled up and down Constitution Avenue like a wave on Saturday. It found two fitting sounding boards on either side of the street.

On one side, the Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum and research program. It’s a literal institution in the science community, with its research cutting across all disciplines. In many ways, it’s above reproach and apolitical, something march organizers said was a central tenet of the march.

Scientists rallied on the National Mall before marching in the streets of Washington, D.C.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: Brian Kahn

On the other side, the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency run by an administrator that denies the established science of climate change and an organization that the Trump administration has proposed radical cuts to. It’s the epicenter for a war on science increasingly being waged on partisan grounds, and one that marchers were intent on pushing back against.

That paradox is also why climate change emerged as a central part of Saturday’s march and the movement surrounding it, which organizers said included more than 600 marches around the world (Climate Central was among the organizations that partnered with the march). The reality of climate change has turned into a left-right issue despite being indisputable and posing an existential threat.

“The signs around here say it all,” said Liz Kohan, a fifth-grade teacher from Columbiaville, Mich., as she stood on the National Mall ahead of the march. “There is no Planet B.”

The marchers, who braved a mist that turned into a steady rain, said they were trying to reclaim the high ground and advocate for policies based on the best science. Many said the partisan divide had left them no choice but to mobilize and make their voices heard.

Climate change was a central theme of the March for Science, with signs about it throughout the protests.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: Brian Kahn

“The only politicization of science that’s new is what Republicans have been doing in rejecting mainstream science (of climate change),” John Holdren, Obama’s former science advisor, said. “The questions of whether you need government support for science, whether you need science advice in the White House. That’s the new politicization that’s driving people into the streets.”

People took the streets in droves, marching en masse but also fanning out across Washington in smaller groups. Many found their way to the White House, mingling with Royal Air Force cadets, middle schoolers from Jasper, Ind., and selfie-seeking tourists in bus tour ponchos. They wanted to see the source of their frustrations and voice them.

Michael Freeman, a Masters student studying forestry at the University of Washington, held up a graph of the past 800,000 years of atmospheric carbon dioxide as the rain picked up ahead of the march. He said the Trump administration’s lack of climate expertise coupled with the impact of the proposed funding cuts convinced him to join the march.

Michael Freeman (left), a University of Washington Masters student studying forest ecology, having his photo taken by his parents at the White House ahead of the March for Science.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: Brian Kahn

“Not hiring new grad students, that has direct implications four years down the road on the scientific enterprise,” Freeman said.

The White House did not directly address the march, but it did release a statement for Earth Day that tied directly to science.

“My administration is committed to advancing scientific research that leads to a better understanding of our environment and of environmental risks,” Trump said. “As we do so, we should remember that rigorous science depends not on ideology, but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate.”

Later in the day, Trump also tweeted that “economic growth enhances environmental protection,” an assessment some economists were quick to dismiss as too simplistic.

While the partisan divide in Washington was a driving force for the march, the goal for many in the streets was to bring science back from that brink and draw attention to the very real threats that cutting science budgets would pose, not just to science, but to society as well. And when it comes to climate science, the risks are manifold because climate change permeates every facet of the world.

Families marched together on a rain-soaked day.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: Brian Kahn

“If funding gets cut, especially satellites, we lose our ability to follow the changing planet,” Kelsey Reider, a PhD candidate studying climate change and biology at Florida International University, said.

“They’re deciding that in there,” she said, pointing to the Capitol. Wanting to get the message across the Congress is what drove her to attend the Washington march rather staying in Miami.

While Congress’ authority extends to federal science grants that help fund university research, it also hold the purse strings for federal agencies’ own research budgets.

Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), the only physics PhD in the House, said he thought the thousands of scientists in town “can raise the profile of science that our economy and society is absolutely dependent on. It can do that, I hope, across the aisle.

“I also hope it can get scientists involved with public service. If you look at the decisions we have to make, almost every issue has a technology edge to it. That part of the decision has to be made correctly from a scientific point of view. There’s no substitute for having that technical competence in the U.S. Congress.”

A number of scientists and their supporters carried signs advocating for inclusivity in the research community.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: Brian Kahn

Of course, the march was just one day and one step for many of those involved. A number of groups have sprung up encouraging scientists to run for office at the local and national level. Whether they make in-roads remains to be seen, with the 2018 midterms being a good early test. But beyond running for office, scientists are also taking the march as an impetus to engage with their elected representatives and provide them with the science they need to make informed decisions.

Reider, the Florida International PhD candidate, said she was planning to go back and engage with her local politicians in Miami where sea level rise is a major concern.

Michelle LaRue, a biologist at the University of Minnesota who studies seals that are climate indicators for Antarctic sea ice, used her time in Washington to lobby Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar about science funding.

“It’s my first time doing that,” she said. “It came to a tipping point. What we’ve been doing hasn’t been working.”

The march potentially represents a major shift toward a more politically active research community. Now that community faces the challenge of remaining active while not getting sidelined as just another partisan interest group. When it comes to climate change, putting science in its rightful place in policymaking is of utmost importance, in part because time is running out to avert the worst impacts.

With a federal government that’s been slow to address climate change, citizens have taken action to make it speed up the process. That includes a group of children that are suing the president (the case started against Obama but has since switched to Trump). Climate science is central to their case.

“We couldn’t have a case if it weren’t for science,” Julia Olson, the lawyer representing the kids in court, said. “We need our human laws to match up with the laws of nature.”

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