Did the Marchers for Science Hijack Earth Day 2017?

Coping in New Delhi

Earth Day, April 22, 2017

Earth Day’s a day for making a statement, and around the globe – on six continents – there was a March for Science. In Antarctica’s research centers 1,000 scientists call home, nobody marched, but there were cheers. Scientists and common folks joining the march stood up against today’s politicized attack on science and the scientific method. As one of the marchers, Cara Santa Maria, said, “The very idea of evidence and logic and reason is being threatened by individuals and interests with the power to do harm.”

My good friend, Julia Olson, Executive Director of Our Children’s Trust, participated in the March for Science in Washington, DC, and gave a stirring talk at the National Mall. With her were some of the 21 gutsy kids who are suing the Federal Government, as Julia put it, “about their rights to life, liberty and property. It’s also their right to have their public trust resources, like their atmosphere and their oceans, protected for them and for their kids and grandkids.” (For those who may not follow these blogs, for background, I refer you to The Press Conference that is a “Must Watch.”)

In an articulate 4-minutes, Neil de Grasse Tyson’s April 19 Facebook posting slammed science deniers for dismantling our “informed” democracy. Tyson’s post quickly went viral, seen by over 24,707,700 viewers.

For Tyson and the marchers, it’s clear that now is the time to speak out and stand up. No more alternate facts. Now is the time to deal with reality and solve problems, not deny their existence.

But, wait a minute!

Is the March for Science, as Francie Diep wrote in I Never Expected to Have to Defend Science: “[T]he greatest show of political activism among American scientists in a generation?” Or is it a mistake? That’s what Robert Young, Western Carolina University Geology professor, contends in A Scientist’s March on Washington is a Bad Idea. Young wrote that the March for Science “will serve only to reinforce the narrative from skeptical conservatives that scientists are an interest group and politicize their data, research and findings for their own ends.” Young concludes:

“Scientists marching in opposition to a newly elected Republican president will only cement the divide. The solution here is not mass spectacle, but an increased effort to communicate directly with those who do not understand the degree to which the changing climate is already affecting their lives. We need storytellers, not marchers.”

There’s a lot to say in favor of Young’s conclusion: “We need storytellers….” In Wonderlust I agree, closing with a storyteller challenge:

“What must we do? Create the right stories for our inner self that will lead to the right actions by our outer self. Our choices of stories will carry us on a journey of illuminating Sunrise or a journey of darkening Sunset.”

Unfortunately, too frequently, the storyteller’s agenda is shaped by the storyteller’s bias rather than by the underlying facts of his or her story. Our belief systems frame our minds, limiting the information we let in – like the viewfinder of a camera frames the scenes selected by a photographer. It takes a great deal of effort to make decisions based on information that conflicts with our deeply held beliefs. Understanding the limitations of mind frames as shaped by our belief systems has been the life work of cognitive scientist George Lakoff, and is a subject I explore in some depth in Wonderlust.

Storyteller’s mind-framing came to the fore as I read Tom Harris’s post for The Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, titled “Earth Day Has Been Hijacked by the Climate Change Movement, Leaving Sensible Environmentalists Behind.”

Himba Villager

Harris writes, “[I]n recent years, Earth Day has been hijacked by the climate change movement….Besides the strategic blunder of focusing so much attention on an issue that polls show the public do not particularly care about, there is a serious ethical problem that will come back to haunt Earth Day if they don’t soon change focus.” Harris reports that “climate campaigners assert that ‘the science is settled.’ We know with certainty, they claim, that our carbon dioxide emissions will cause a planetary emergency unless we radically change our ways.” He continues:

“The consequence of this overconfidence is tragic. According to the San Francisco-based Climate Policy Initiative, of the $1 billion spent worldwide each day on climate finance, 94% goes to mitigation, trying to control future climate. Only 6% of global climate finance is dedicated to helping vulnerable people cope with climate change today. In developing countries, even less, an abysmal 5%, goes to adaptation. Based on a theory about climate, we are letting people die today so as to possibly help people in the distant future. As the public come to understand how immature the science of climate change actually is, they will regard today’s funding situation as immoral and the focus of today’s Earth Day ridiculous. That scenario, not hypothetical future climate states, is what should most concern Earth Day organizers.”

As I read Harris’s blog, I reflected on my treks in our globe’s developing countries, and the misery so many people are suffering. The slum-dwellers in New Delhi who lack water and essentials. The Himba villagers in Africa’s Namib Desert, suffering unbearable heat.

Many of the chapters I wrote in Wonderlust ponder those kinds of concerns. “What Happens When the Well Runs Dry?” “How Do We Share Our Earth’s Precious Resources?”

Is Harris right? Has the climate movement lost its focus? Are we spending too much on mitigation to improve the unknown and distant future and not enough on adaptation to take care of the suffering present? Are the Earth Day Organizers “leaving the sensible environmentalists behind?”

Then I read the Climate Policy Initiative’s “Global Landscape of Climate Finance 2013,” Harris’s authority. The Report’s Executive Summary includes:

“The Global Landscape of Climate Finance 2013 finds that global climate finance flows have plateaued at USD 359 billion, or around USD 1 billion per day – far below even the most conservative estimates of investment needs.”

Harris’s numbers are correct, but his conclusion is not. Mitigation is for today’s problems, not for tomorrow’s unforeseeable problems.

From page 10 of the Report:

“As in previous studies, Landscape 2013 highlights that the vast bulk of climate finance, or 94% of total flows, went to support mitigation. Figure 4 shows that investments in renewable energy generation alone attracted 74% of total climate finance flows with USD 137 billion going toward solar (including PV, thermal, and households’ investments), followed by USD 85 billion for wind (onshore and offshore). We have better information about energy efficiency and find that public actors invested USD 32 billion (9% of the total amount) in energy efficiency.”

Could it be that Harris’s conclusions are intended as support for continuing fossil fuels and reducing our efforts to become renewable energy independent? Renewable energy expenditures account for almost 80% of the mitigation spending.

The developing countries, less politicized than we are, lead the way. In his 2016 article, Developing world invests more in renewable energy than rich countries for first time, new study says, Ian Johnston reports:

“Investment in renewable energy was higher in the world’s poorest countries than the richest ones for the first time last year, according to a major new report.,,, ‘What is truly remarkable about these results is that they were achieved at a time when fossil fuel prices were at historic lows, and renewables remained at a significant disadvantage in terms of government subsidies. For every dollar spent boosting renewables, nearly four dollars were spent to maintain our dependence on fossil fuels…. Bangladesh is the world’s largest market for solar home systems, and other developing countries (e.g., Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in Africa; China, India and Nepal in Asia; Brazil and Guyana in Latin America) are seeing rapid expansion of small-scale renewable systems, including renewables-based mini-grids, to provide electricity for people living far from the grid.’”

The 2016 study Johnston references, Renewables Global Futures Report, is the work of the Renewable Energy Network for the 21st Century.

There’s no connection between the Report Harris uses for authority and Earth Day or the Science March. And mitigation is for our today as well as for our children’s tomorrows. In addition to wind and solar renewable energy, mitigation expenditures included energy efficiency, improvements in agriculture practices, forestry and live stock management. All are solutions for today’s challenging climate change and diminishing natural resources, not wild hopes for an unknown future.

Putting off a power conversion to renewable energy, improved agriculture practices, forestry management and other mitigation strategies in process would be dead wrong.

Doing so would be like spending our tax dollars to treat smokers suffering from cancer while publicly promoting and subsidizing smoking.

Doesn’t that reasoning make sense for today’s “sensible environmentalists?”


P.S. There’s another climate march April 29th – the People’s Climate March!

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4 Comments on "Did the Marchers for Science Hijack Earth Day 2017?"

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You’re a great writer. The problem is that climate change is inherently political because it cannot help but be a direct attack on the most political issue in the world, fossil fuels. Oil is the biggest business on Earth by far. It’s the main revenue asset of many countries. It IS the Republican Party. No matter what we do or say, there’s no stopping climate without stopping oil. Oil’s also a top line item on war budgets. So not only do we fight wars to get or keep oil, we use a massive amount of oil fighting wars. People apparently… Read more »

thanks for looking deep into the issue to get the facts straight. Hope to see you soon!

Well said. Let us hope the world is listening.

Lois and Ralph Patton

Dick, as always…well researched and well-stated. You always make us think! Thank you.