Naomi Oreskes has received death threats for stating a simple fact: that climate scientists are nearly unanimous in thinking humans are warming the planet. For the Harvard scientist and historian, the weekend’s marches were bittersweet.
“On the one hand I'm happy that my colleagues are here speaking up but I'm also sad that it's taken us this long and it's becoming this bad,” Oreskes said. “Scientists had to wait until direct attacks, direct cuts, huge egregious insults to the scientific community, and that's been a wake-up call for a lot of people.”
Thousands of scientists and their supporters gathered in Boston to call for increased research funding and science-based policy making, with chants like “Ho, ho! Hey, hey! Give us back our EPA!”
It was a similar scene in Washington D.C., where cheers went up as marchers filed past the EPA building on Constitution Avenue. One marcher yelled, “We love you EPA, just not your new director.”
It was one of many thinly veiled references to the Trump administration during an event that was overwhelmingly positive and non-partisan, but definitely political. Standing just blocks from the Capitol, honorary March for Science co-chair Lydia Villa-Komaroff made a direct plea to federal policymakers, and was roundly cheered by the crowd.
“Support for science has been declining for decades,” she said. “Mr. President, members of congress, support our future, invest in science!”
Boston was among the largest satellite marches of anywhere in the nation. But about two dozen researchers from Woods Hole decided it was worth enduring overnight bus rides to and from Cape Cod in order to join the flagship march in the nation’s capitol. For Phil Duffy, it was his first political action since he was a college student protesting apartheid.
“It’s important to remind folks about how important science is in so many aspects of our lives – our health, our prosperity, our military strength,” he said.
Duffy is president and director of Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, the world’s top-ranked climate change think tank. He says he often gets asked if we really need climate science anymore.
“The premise of the question is, we know we need to reduce emissions,” he explained. “Climate science has taught us we need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. We’re not doing that. Or, at least, we’re not doing it enough. So why do we need more science?”
Duffy insists we do still need science to track and predict the effects of climate change, to monitor greenhouse gas emissions, and to devise new technologies to slow and cope with climate change.
Not surprisingly, that was a message many speakers and marchers were pushing. Climate change is perhaps the most dramatic example of the Trump administration’s departures from the scientific mainstream. And with the March for Science held on Earth Day and co-organized by the Earth Day Network, it was bound to come up.
Back on Cape Cod, the environment was front and center at the Falmouth March for Science. Conservation biologist Jessica Lambert handed out postcards to the 600 or so people in attendance.
“We are supporting a new climate change bill that would help to have Massachusetts come onto the Paris Agreement as a non-signatory participant,” she said.
That kind of advocacy is exactly what worried some in the science community who opposed the March for Science. But Lambert rejects the idea that scientists should stay out of politics, and says scientists can be politically active without being partisan.
“I don’t think this is a partisan issue, frankly," Lambert said. "Clean air, clean water, these are things everybody believes in … because we know the most about the issue.”
Erin LaBrecque is an ocean ecologist who was considering attending the Falmouth event. She agrees that science and scientists should inform policy decisions, but she doesn’t think a march is the way to do that – especially in this divided political climate. After discussing her reservations with local march organizers, she decided to sit this one out.
“This March for Science is trying to recreate something the Women’s March was doing,” she said. “But in doing that, it would make the divide bigger. It wouldn’t close the divide. And I didn’t see that as a productive way to move forward – to move science forward.”
LeBrecque is far from alone. This march has revealed deep divides within the science community and, if nothing else, sparked a vibrant debate about the role of science and scientists in our society.