After the March for Science, Keep Moving

This weekend’s march is a start. A climate scientist urges us to follow through in our personal lives as well as in our community.
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Just how effective is marching to address the system of power that’s killing the biosphere?

Image courtesy of marchforscience.com.

When something is clearly wrong, speaking out is always better than staying silent. The March for Science is one way to speak out.

Something is clearly wrong with the climate, and the situation may be more urgent than you think. As a climate scientist, I’m constantly revising my own sense of urgency as I take in new information. Consider the following basic plot of the Earth’s global surface temperature change through 2016, relative to the 1850-to-1900 average:

The data are from the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature time series, a project started by physicist Richard Muller.

When I made this plot for my forthcoming book, I was amazed to see that 2016 was already 1.3°C warmer than the pre-global-warming baseline. I’d been thinking we had experienced just 0.8°C of warming. And, of course, in 10 years it will be hotter. And in 20 years it will be hotter still. The situation worsens each day on a planet teeming with cars and airplanes. Global warming is a slow-rolling crisis unfolding over decades, but even so, I can barely keep up with the change.

This simple plot speaks volumes. It speaks to impacts you’ve heard so many times you may feel numb to them, such as sea level rise, drought, and agricultural failure that could together contribute to global migration on scales so far unimagined and geopolitical conflict likely involving nuclear regimes. It also hints at timescales that we humans find difficult to grasp: a hotter planet for tens of thousands of years and impoverished global biodiversity for millions of years. All for a few short decades of fossil-fueled consumer excess.

The plot speaks to a need to stop burning fossil fuels. Meanwhile, our government has been overrun by science deniers who want to head precisely in the opposite direction. So those of us who know what’s at stake had better speak out. And marches are one way to say, “Something’s incredibly wrong here.”

This raises an important question: Just how effective is marching to address the system of power that’s killing the biosphere?

The March for Science is a safe act of civil disobedience—safe in that it carries no personal risk. It’s a way to speak truth to power, which is important, but perhaps we need to consider going further. Two other dimensions of protest are just as important.

The first is self-change. Within the context of global warming, a key facet of self-change is dramatically reducing one’s own use of fossil fuels. Demanding an end to fossil fuels makes little sense unless you first examine your own life and take serious steps in that direction. This isn’t a big deal, especially to people who value science: Quantify the sources of your emissions, and use that information to guide your reductions. You may find this means gradually reducing, and then eliminating flying. Ultimately, you may find that significantly reducing your emissions turns out to be satisfying and meaningful.

The second is a constructive program: building a sustained community that defines the new vision and moves toward it. Whereas civil disobedience points out what’s wrong, a constructive program builds what’s right. The many forms this can take will always be action-oriented: holding elected officials to account, and perhaps running for office; biking instead of driving, and pushing for new bike infrastructure; growing food in your front yard, and then working with city officials to create a community garden; organizing with like-minded people to lobby for a revenue-neutral carbon fee. Both self-change and a constructive program must be sustained.

These three dimensions of protest—civil disobedience, self-change, and a constructive program—support and strengthen each other, and create a framework within which we can journey ever deeper into realizing a new vision. Marching is only the beginning. To stop the massive, wealthy, and violent system of power destroying the planet, we’re going to need to stand up to power with our entire beings.

So go out and march. But after the march is over, keep walking with great purpose.