What’s The Plan When There Is ‘No Planet B’?

A new era for science in America

Over the next two weekends, scientists are busting out of the laboratories, taking a break from field research, and getting political. On April 22, Earth Day, the March for Science will defend the basic principles of truth and scientific fact. One week later, many scientists will converge again on Washington, D.C., and other satellite locations to push their broad values into action at the People’s Climate March.

In scientific terms, the working hypothesis behind the scientific community participating in the marches is that by speaking up, scientists can actually influence political action in a way that protects the public.

I reached out to two young scientists who have waded into political advocacy over the past few years as they’ve seen the climate crisis deepen and elected officials fail to deliver solutions. Ploy Achakulwisut is a Ph.D. candidate in atmospheric science at Harvard University—a climate scientist, in other words. Geoffrey Supran recently earned his Ph.D. researching LEDs and solar photovoltaics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at MIT and Harvard, working on renewable energy modeling. I first met Achakulwisut and Supran at the United Nations annual climate conference in Lima, Peru, in 2014, where they were working the booth together for SustainUS, a youth-led group that advocates for justice and sustainability.

Achakulwisut and Supran will be participating in the March for Science’s satellite event in Boston, then traveling together (they are also a couple—the kind of couple that gives you some hope for the world) to Washington, D.C., to walk shoulder to shoulder with the masses as part of the “Defenders of Truth” faction in the flagship People’s Climate March. As Achakulwisut put it, “The Science March is about respecting science, the People’s Climate March is about acting on it.”

They were kind enough to indulge me as I tried to consider the March for Science and the People’s Climate March through the context of the scientific method, which, if you’ve forgotten your high school science fairs, involves asking a question, conducting background research, proposing a hypothesis, running an experiment, analyzing the results, and presenting a conclusion.

Question: Can scientists do a better job protecting the public from threats like climate change by becoming politically active?

Scientists aren’t typically known for their activism, but facing Trump administration cuts to science funding across agencies and policy proposals that flout scientific realities, researchers and engineers and modelers across dozens of scientific fields are feeling desperate.

Achakulwisut and Supran both said they got into science to help the world—to provide a valuable service, participate in a process that helps society, and “protect the people and places we love.”

“Attacks on science don’t just hurt scientists, they hurt scientists’ ability to protect the people, and climate change epitomizes that,” said Supran.

“Attacks on science aren’t new,” he continued. “Politicians and special interests have been undermining the role of science for years now on a number of issues. What we see, though, is that President Trump is a threat multiplier. He has essentially turned skirmishes and attacks on science into an all-out war, and in so doing is endangering the people and places we love by putting ideology before facts.”

Background research: science-based advocacy successes

Despite the general perception that scientists aren’t political, there is a proud—if limited—history of science-based advocacy.

“The ozone hole is maybe the greatest example,” explained Achakulwisut, “where you had a prominent scientist like Sherwood Roland, who won a Nobel Prize for his research on the issue, and was very vocal talking about the role of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in depleting the ozone layer and pushed for regulation despite industry opposition.

Supran went farther back in history, “Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr really stepped into the fray and were very vocal about the need for nuclear arms regulations. And far from undermining the credibility of scientists, they made their science relevant to real world problems.”

He also pointed me to a more recent example that is uniquely relevant to the current antagonism that American scientists face—the Canadian scientists who protested then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s crackdown on scientific research. There was even a “Death of Evidence” march in Ottawa that featured a mock funeral. One of the organizers of that march recently sent a message to American scientific colleagues in a New York Times op-ed:

Evidence and objective reality are the foundation of successful policy and governance. Openness is as vital to science as it is to democracy. We cannot allow hard-won knowledge to be ignored or distorted. To fight the snuffing of the light of scientific inquiry, learn from your neighbors to the north. Reject interference. Stay vigilant and stay vocal. In other words, stay scientists.

Some scientists still worry that their credibility is impaired by advocacy. Achakulwisut points to hard evidence that it doesn’t, in (of course) the form of a recent peer-reviewed study that found that public perception remains high for scientists who advocate publicly. The paper’s abstract states plainly that “climate scientists who wish to engage in certain forms of advocacy have considerable latitude to do so without risking harm to their credibility, or the credibility of the scientific community.”

Hypothesis: By engaging in politics, scientists can better protect the public from threats like climate change

As Supran noted, advocacy worked recently in Canada, in so far as the public became galvanized against Harper’s antiscience agenda and voted him out in the next election after the “Death of Evidence” action. In the case of the ozone hole and CFCs, public advocacy forced political action that actually solved the problem.

If you want to spend some time really marinating on this hypothesis, Supran recommended a great talk called “The Scientist as Sentinel” by Dr. Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard and Supran’s current advisor.

Experiment: marching for science, marching for climate action

This experiment is playing out in real time, as more and more scientists find their political voices and some feel emboldened to advocate for climate action like Roland, Molina, and Crutzen did for the ozone hole back in the 1980s.

When I asked Achakulwisut and Supran it they had specific motivations for marching, they gave a properly scientific response.

“There are behaviors and policies that we see are directly antithetical to our understanding of basic science and engineering,” said Supran. “And those are valid reasons for us as scientists to be motivated to march ourselves and to encourage our colleagues to do the same.”

Those reasons? First, explained Supran, is the climate denial at the upper reaches of government. “We know that the first step to solving a problem is recognizing that there is one. And this administration won’t even do that. As technical people, we know definitively that this is a real problem.”

Second is the concept of “unburnable carbon,” which Achakulwisut described:

“We know we can’t burn the majority of proven fossil fuel reserves and still stay below the 2 degrees Celsius global warming limit. This scientific finding opened our eyes to the urgency of the problem and it kick-started the divestment movement, which we are both involved with at our schools.”

Third and finally, they talked about the need for pricing carbon through the lens of “uncertainty” in climate modeling. “This going to get kind of technical,” Supran warned, “but if you look at the most advanced models we have for understanding what actions are necessary to keep temperatures below the 2 degree danger limit, the absence of a price on carbon creates the greatest uncertainty—more than geophysical uncertainties, social uncertainties, technological uncertainties. We can actually say plainly that this failure of politics to put a price on carbon in the broadest sense is incompatible with what we know we need to do. And that motivates us.”

Analysis: what to watch for

With the experiment underway, we can’t yet run a proper analysis. But we can point to the type of results that would be meaningful.

Achakulwisut and Supran both talked about how government data is “central to our ability to do work as climate scientists.”

“The fact that some climate-related data is disappearing from government databases is scary,” said Achakulwisut. “Data is our bread and butter. It’s how we understand the problem.”

Supran added: “Yesterday I must have pulled from six different government archives using data on solar and wind capacity and other things. Recently it’s been on the back of my mind—what if this disappears? I never used to think about it.”

It’s not just the preservation of existing databases that must be fought for, but the continued gathering of new data for long-term studies. “One reason we know so much about climate change is that NASA has deployed a fleet of Earth-observing satellites since 1999,” Achakulwisut described. “They collect data on everything from temperature and precipitation to underground aquifers and ocean currents to wildfires, soil moisture, and storms. These are all valuable data that underpin our research into how humans are changing the Earth's climate system. And now President Trump is proposing budget cuts to these Earth-monitoring programs. I use all that data in my research; it’s freely available. It will definitely impact scientists’ ability to do research if this data disappears or if the monitoring program is allowed to expire.”

But again, it’s not just the protection of science that Achakulwisut and Supran are marching for. It’s the hope that the science they work on will be put to use use and create meaningful public policy.

"I chose to pursue a Ph.D. in climate science because I thought that this was the best way I could contribute to addressing one of the world’s most pressing problems, and I think many climate scientists feel this way,” said Achakulwisut.

Conclusion and next steps: What should scientists do after the marches?

While we can’t yet offer a conclusion, Achakulwisut and Supran already have good ideas for how these “experiments” should proceed after the marches.

“We know that the marches won’t change everything. We do have a hope based on experience that the People’s Climate March can provide a waypoint for what social scientists call momentum-driven organizing,” said Supran.

Going forward, though, they argue that scientists need to embrace public engagement, a point that Achakulwisut hammered home in a recent op-ed for Scientific American. “I think we need to think about how we can be better communicators, how we can share why we do the science, and its importance and relevance in society,” she told me. “But there’s almost no real cultural incentive or professional incentive for scientists to speak out and do outreach. Many academic institutions—as signaled by faculty evaluations—currently don’t put any value on public engagement and advocacy, like presentations at local schools or working with community groups.”

“We need to do a better jobs as scientists to incentivize one another to reach out to engage both professionally and in the community,” Supran added. “Professionally, we can be more active providing feedback on government reports, in giving testimony, and speaking to the media in areas we study. But in the community, too, there are so many opportunities to provide the expertise and the enthusiasm about their scientific knowledge to local grassroots groups and to local schools.”

They give one great example of this engagement in action—perhaps a model for how scientists can make a real impact at the local level. A friend of theirs, Nathan Phillips, a professor at Boston University, has been working with the group Mothers Out Front to find methane leaks around the state. Because methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas, these leaks are speeding up climate change. Phillips is taking his climate science to the streets, working with community groups, and together they have successfully fought for new local and state policies that will combat this particular climate threat.

Achakulwisut and Supran see the March for Science and the People’s Climate March as critical for alerting the Trump administration and leaders in Washington that they “ignore climate science at their own peril.” But in two weeks when the marches are done, these young scientists will be back at work in their labs. And, critically, they will be bringing their work out into the world, using their knowledge and expertise to help push for good public policy that will protect us all from the worst threats of climate change.

Photo credit: Shadia Fayne Wood | Survival Media Agency

via Collection of the New-York Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. At the age of 10 he was given to the Auld family.

As a child, he worked as a house slave and was able to learn to read and write, and he attempted to teach his fellow slaves the same skills.

At the age of 15, he was given to Thomas Auld, a cruel man who beat and starved his slaves and thwarted any opportunity for them to practice their faith or to learn to read or write.

Keep Reading Show less
via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

On April 20, 1889 at the Braunau am Inn, in Upper Austria Salzburger located at Vorstadt 15, Alois and Klara Hitler brought a son into the world. They named him Adolph.

Little did they know he would grow up to be one of the greatest forces of evil the world has ever known.

The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

RELATED: He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

For years it was owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the original owners. The Austrian government made numerous attempts to purchase it from her, but to no avail. The building has served many purposes, a school, a library, and a makeshift museum.

In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

RELATED: 'High Castle' producers destroyed every swastika used on the show and the video is oh-so satisfying

In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

Austria has strict anti-Nazi laws that aim to prohibit any potential Nazi revival. The laws state that anyone who denies, belittles, condones or tries to justify the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity shall be punished with imprisonment for one year up to ten years.

In Austria the anti-Nazi laws are so strict one can go to prison for making the Nazi hand salute or saying "Heil Hitler."

"The future use of the house by the police should send an unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked," Austria's IInterior Minister, Wolfgang Peschorn said in a statement.

The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

The show is loosely based on an alternative history novel by Philip K. Dick that postulates what would happen if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan controlled the United States after being victorious in World War II.

Keep Reading Show less
via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

RELATED: The 1975's singer bravely kissed a man at a Dubai concert to protest anti-LGBT oppression

In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

RELATED: Alan Turing will appear on the 50-pound note nearly 70 years after being persecuted for his sexuality

Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?


Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet