Climate Data and Climate Activism, with Meg Ruttan Walker and Lucky Tran

This episode is all about the intersections of climate data and climate activism. Jacquelyn and Ramesh speak with two climate activists, Meg Ruttan Walker and Lucky Tran, who have come to this work from very different backgrounds, but who both realize that it takes a diversity of voices and tactics to achieve success.

Show Notes:

Emma Marris’s Nature article about scientists getting political.

314 Action

The New York Times article about scientists finding a political pulse:

Jacquelyn’s Rally for Science remarks

H. Holden Thorp’s recent editorial, “Let’s Not Overthink This”:

Meg Ruttan Walker on Twitter

Material Memory Podcast

350.org

An article that goes into greater depth about the importance of 350ppm

Photos of the climate protest that Ramesh’s students organized:

You can find out more about Lucky Tran on his website and on Twitter.

Lucky Tran’s 2020 talk at the American Geophysical Union, “How Activism and Movements Advance Science Policy and Social Justice.”

March for Science

The IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C Warming, as opposed 2°C Warming:

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The full transcript of this episode can be found below.

Jacquelyn Gill
In December of 2016, I got a phone call from Josh Morrow, the Executive Director of 314 Action. They’re an organization with a mission to elect more scientists to Congress. Josh had read an article by Emma Marris that had just come out in Nature, about whether Trump’s election might push more scientists towards activism. I had been quoted in the article, commenting on the fact that for most scientists, the extent of their political engagement was to sign public comments about policy issues. “It is fine if you want to sign respectful letters,” i’d said,” but that better not be all you do.”

In our phone conversation, Josh reminded me of what I’d said in that Nature article. “Speaking of how we need to do more than write letters, have you ever considered running for office?”

I hadn’t, to be honest. But in the aftermath of the 2016 election, I felt adrift, like so many of my colleagues. Trump’s election felt like a total gut punch on so many levels — it was a rejection of science, of qualified women in leadership, and of a dream of a more just and equal America that serves everyone, not just a select few.

In Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech earlier that year, she had urged us all to “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can.” I kept coming back to this idea of what it meant to “do good.” How could I keep showing up to my job at the Climate Change Institute every day when people in the highest offices of power didn’t even believe that climate change was real? Not to mention the fears felt by so many of my students, friends, and colleagues — immigrants, fellow folks in the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and others who were afraid of what the next four years would bring.

Identifying pollen grains in sediment cores, applying for grant proposals, or filling out expense reports felt pointless in the face of all of that. Was that what “doing good” really looked like?

So I started exploring the idea of a Congressional run, with support from Josh and the others at 314 Action. There were planning phone calls, some vetting, even a feature in the New York times. Everything was moving really quickly, and the pace was frankly a little scary, especially as the media attention picked up. But more importantly, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I didn’t want to step out of science and into political life. I wanted to have a political voice from within science.

And that’s not just because I didn’t have a cushy nest egg to support me while I took leave from my job to explore a run for Maine’s second congressional district, though that didn’t help. And I genuinely do believe that having more scientists in office is a good thing. But as the months went by, I came to appreciate just how much we need scientists to be outspoken advocates for change from within the scientific community. So I ultimately decided against a Congressional run for myself, though 314 Action ultimately helped put a record-breaking eight other scientists in Congress in the 2018 midterms.

And as scientists, we did find our collective political pulse, not only running for office and writing letters and op-eds, but marching in the streets, starting or joining non-profits, speaking out on social media or in the press, calling our elected representatives, starting boycotts, striking, raising funds for mutual aid, and getting out there in visible ways to show not only that science matters, but the practice of science is deeply connected with all of our social institutions. As I said in my remarks at the Rally to Stand Up for Science in Boston: These intersections between science and politics may feel new, but they’re not. The outcomes of our research have always extended well beyond the lab or the conference room. Our work has implications to the environment, public health, civil rights, economics, education, and national defense. This means science has always been political. And I believe that this is a feature, not a bug.

The intersections between science and politics are what make our science relevant. But just because science is political does not mean that needs to be partisan. When science is for everyone, it transcends boundaries and barriers. It revitalizes our communities even as it energizes our research and gives it meaning.”

I read an article the other day by Holden Thorp, the editor-in-chief of Science Magazine, one of the top scientific journals in the world. It’s titled, “Let’s not overthink this,” and suggests that once Trump is out of office, scientists can quietly go back to work. We don’t need to worry about our climate-denying, Trump supporting uncle, he argues, because he’ll benefit from the covid-19 vaccine either way.

But I would argue that this is exactly the wrong kind of lesson to take from the last four years. Sending out the occasional paper airplane from our ivory tower with the latest data is not what doing good looks like. It’s exactly the kind of attitude that got us here in the first place — where the climate deniers aren’t just the crackpot uncles, but leaders of the free world.

And when it comes to the climate crisis, we need new approaches to leadership and problem-solving. Because we know, now, that all the data in the world won’t save us if we don’t do anything about it. And going from knowledge to action? Now that sounds like doing good to me.

Fortunately, we don’t have to figure this out on our own. Activists and community organizers are all about raising awareness and driving change from the grassroots. Many have been doing exactly this for decades, challenging existing power dynamics, diagnosing problems, offering solutions, and holding our leaders accountable. For this episode, we’re sharing conversations with two people who came to climate activism from different paths — one a concerned citizen and mom, and the other a refugee scientist. Their journeys offer lessons for all of us who want to take all this data and roll up our sleeves and help.

For our first conversation, we’re talking with Meg Ruttan Walker, a climate activist and organizer in the Waterloo region of Canada. Meg and I met on Twitter, where she’s known for her sharp commentary on the intersections between climate change and social justice.

[music]

Jacquelyn
Meg, it’s so good to have you on the show, because I think what you do is such a good model for how there are pathways for anyone to pitch in and get involved. For those who might be new to activism, or maybe have never even attended a protest, what does organizing look like? How did you get started?

Megan
So what I do is very local. I go out into the community and there’s a group of us (it’s not just me; it’s me and a lot of other people who are very dedicated) and we coordinate community action to bring more attention to the climate crisis and specifically leverage pressure on our politicians — our local politicians. So for example, right now what we’re doing is we have been organizing a campaign to ask — or demand — our region (Waterloo region in southern Ontario) to halve its emissions by 2030. So that’s one example. I was running Fridays for Future climate strikes for a while. I was helping the young people — [laughs] the young people — the younger people come out, set up the structure for them to be able to strike every day. I was in coordination with some schools and some teachers locally. I’m generally just a loud pain in the ass. I try to be as public as possible, which is why my Twitter is as public as it is. It makes me a little bit uncomfortable but when I realized I was going to have to do this work, I knew I was going to have to be out and in my community and talking to people. So essentially it’s about trying to empower people to act on climate. The hardest part of it is sort of figuring out what your talents are and where you can contribute and empower them to do that, but also, make sure that our leaders or at least try to make sure our leaders know exactly what we should be doing to combat this crisis.

Jacquelyn
It sounds like you do a couple of really important things: you’re helping other people figure out how they can slot in and where they can be the most useful. But you’re also actively organizing to direct pressure on the people in charge. And your goals (like halving emissions) sound very-data driven. As an activist, how do you decide on those targets? Do you actively keep up with the research on climate change?

Megan
I read a lot of climate studies. It is very data driven. We listen to the science and I know that the first step in what we do is we look at the science and we listen to experts. We see what the recommendations are and we try to take them directly to policy makers because I think sometimes (depending on what the lobby group is, depending on where the money’s coming from) policy makers don’t get the right data or it’s skewed in a way that makes the status quo seem like it’s doable or at all desirable. We have to take it right to them. We have to take it right to them as activists and make it really clear what those mean at a grassroots level, at a community level, at a public health level. So I essentially use the data to advocate directly for my community.

Jacquelyn
I know a lot of these papers are often behind some sort of paywall, or they might be full of technical jargon, because they’re often written to be in dialog with other scientists. Are those barriers to you getting the information that you need to then put pressure on elected officials?

Megan
It is. I mean, I’m a former English academic — literature and creative writing major — so it’s not necessarily easy. That’s why I serially harass really lovely climate scientists on Twitter in order to ask them what that means. I need to be able to take these papers to people and say, “Translate this for me. Please help me with this.” I do a lot of personal collaboration with climate scientists who are happy to help. I know there’s a lot of grumpiness saying that climate scientists aren’t political enough, but I’ve got a lot of support from a good group of climate scientists who are very honest about the uncertainty behind it but they’re able to contextualize it for me, so I really appreciate it. It makes my job much easier. It helps with the anxiety of not knowing what the study means, cuz I think there’s a lot of that. In the gap where there’s no understanding of what the implications are for a study, your imagination sort of fills it in.

Jacquelyn
Yeah.

Megan
Activism is really emotionally fraught. It’s terrifying and if I don’t understand it — if I can’t go to somebody and say, “Hey, what is this exactly?” — I’m going to stress out more about it because I don’t know exactly what it means and my imagination will just take over.

Jacquelyn
I imagine a lot of people are coming to these kinds of movements because they’re motivated by strong emotions in the first place. So as a follow up, is keeping up with the literature depressing for you? As scientists, we can have a sort of professional distancing or compartmentalization that we use as a coping mechanism, but even we struggle with emotional resilience at times. I’d love to hear how you maintain your own sense of balance as you’re keeping up with all of this research?

Megan
Well, that’s a big question because it’s not easy. I do believe we have to come at this from a place of emotion. I use the data to temper myself a little bit. I have also had to really embrace uncertainty and that radical vulnerability of going into this work, not knowing how things are going to turn out; and to be able to live on a day to day basis with that uncertainty. I’ve been doing this for about five or six years now, and I’ve been doing the organizing for about three. It’s taken this long for me to be able to just engage with the science and know it the way that I know it.

Jacquelyn
How do you help others navigate that sense of uncertainty? This can be a huge challenge for science communication, because when people hear the word “uncertainty’’ and they think that means “we don’t know.” And sure, to some extent we don’t know what our climate future will be for all kinds of reasons but even though we can’t say for sure exactly which outcome will come to pass, we can still speak about which futures are most likely based on what we know now. I’m wondering if you’ve found any ways that have helped you sort of usher other people through that uncertainty?

Megan
I don’t think there’s any one way to negotiate it, but what I do is I try to bring it back to community and because I’m an ecosocialist I believe in the power of collective movements and collective action. That’s really where I find the greatest hope. It’s in the idea that no matter what happens (even in the worst case scenario), what we do still matters; how we organize around it still matters and that we still have the obligation to better our living conditions. That’s where my position as a community organizer at least lends me some authority or lends me some ability to help other people navigate it. I try to tell people that the climate change story — the climate crisis — is not a story that anyone of us can tell by ourselves. We are lacking on our own. Just like no individual action can solve everything (it all has to come down to what we do together and there’s so many moving parts), sometimes just hanging in that uncertainty that we don’t know what the future will be (that we don’t know what kind of action we can take together because, quite frankly, we haven’t even tried) that uncertainty is often not our friend. In that moment, we don’t know what we can do. How about we try to do it and see what happens? So I try to use it as leverage for change, about possibility. I’d rather live for the possibilities of what we can do than sort of linger in the dying and what we’re going to lose. If you can find a space where the uncertainty means that you can make change — you can leverage power, you can work collectively — I think that’s really important. I don’t think we talk enough about that. We talk about determined futures, not enough about how the future is a flow, how we can still influence it.

Jacquelyn
There’s a lot of binary thinking in the climate movement in general and I feel like it’s getting worse over time. You and I have talked about this a bit, but there have been some pretty apocalyptic headlines in recent years that have really shifted the nature of the climate conversation. I find these headlines really problematic because they represent climate action as an all-or-nothing issue, like, “We have seven years to turn it around or we’re doomed.” The problem with that framing is if we don’t reach these ambitious targets in time, then people feel there’s nothing left to be done. So I’m curious how you navigate the tensions of motivating folks without causing people to fall into despair?

Megan
I don’t know if a lot of us do that very well, honestly. Climate work is trauma work; we’re all feeling the weight of the world. So I understand why people are upset. I understand why people set deadlines, because we want this to be fixed. We don’t want to deal with this; it’s so much. But some of us have never had the privilege of having the world work for us to begin with. We need to be able to manage on a daily basis because this is a lifelong struggle and it’s about the scale of human suffering we’re willing to accept, and we’ve already accepted too much. Paul Gilding (who’s an ecological thinker) says there will be a future. To paraphrase, it’s about how much we suffer. It’s about whether it’s going to be good or bad, and there’s a whole range of futures in between the two. So I think sometimes when people are despairing about climate change and the climate crisis, I think they’re well in their rights to. But they also think that it’s either/or, and I don’t sit well with binaries. I just don’t. It’s just not in my nature to, I prefer liminal spaces. I come from a history of working class people. My father was a gold miner and he was part of a union and I’ve been to union meetings. His life was a struggle. Living on this planet has always been a struggle for the majority of people. So you can’t tell me that it’s either it’s all or nothing, because it’s going to be a struggle. The only thing we can expect of life is to have happiness and joy alongside the struggle, we can try to do as best as we can for other people. I don’t think about when this will be over. I think about, “Okay, so tomorrow I keep going. Tomorrow, I get up again and I try to advocate and try to make as much change as possible within the sphere of influence I have.”

Jacquelyn
It’s not like there’s a moment where we can say, “Alright, we did it, we hit 350. Everybody go home!”

Megan
“Did it, we’re done!” There’s no victory here, right? Yeah, there’s no victory. There’s no win or lose. That’s not how life works. That’s not how anything works if you’ve been paying attention. Just constant struggle (which is tiring), but it’s where I live and I can live like that. If you give me something to do — if you give me something to fight for — I will fight for it.

Jacquelyn
So then there are the people who not only have given up, but they seem to have this evangelical need to tell others to give up, too. We’ve have talked a lot about why this “doomer” perspective is so problematic. I would even go as far as to say that it’s actually unscientific.

Megan
They are people who have decided that it’s all-or-nothing. They have decided that we are living in an imperfect world and we’re all gonna die, and there’s nothing to be done. And they do take a very evangelical, proselytizing approach to the climate crisis. They will DM me. They will tell me I am a naive, all kinds of misogynist slurs. Oh, it’s always the misogyny. They will jump at me and tell me I’m naive and that I have no business telling people it’s not too late. It’s the aggressive certainty that I take issue with. I have a lot of sympathy for them in a lot of ways, but they’ve decided that they want their truth to be real and they want to be right. In protecting themselves from the possibility of failure by embracing failure, they’ve also decided that anybody else who thinks that change can happen radically or anybody who has any slim margin of hope, that they’re the enemy and they need to be disabused of the notion. It’s very individualistic. It’s not anything to do with the collective action of a collective knowledge that science is. I fight them all the time. Or they fight me, they come for me.

Jacquelyn
You’re talking about science as a collective action here (which I love), but I don’t think we as a society collectively think of it in that way. We’re still so attached to the idea of the lone hero. And I hate to say this: I think that’s true even in climate science too.

Megan
That’s why we keep going to the same white dudes who are very lovely (I’m sure in a lot of ways) but we need a diversity of voices. You know, how we talk about the consensus? I think it’s overused and I don’t think we talk enough about what that means, cuz I’m a literature nerd and I’m a word nerd. I mean it’s collective knowledge and it doesn’t come from just the past ten years. We’ve been doing this since civilizations have been formed and it’s not just one thing and it’s not just one person.

Jacquelyn
As a fellow word nerd and a science communicator, I think a lot about the tensions between finding a message that’s effective but not losing nuance that may be really important on the ground. My favorite example of this was from the 2016 election when Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were asked if we should ban fracking. Hillary had this very long answer that involved a lot of policy and qualifications and logistics about near-term impacts on emissions and the grid, and things that just aren’t very sexy to most people. And then Bernie Sanders was like, “Yes.” So many people I know pointed to that as a great example of how Bernie was better than Hillary on climate. I got super frustrated because I felt like that simple “yes” masked a much more complex reality, but it was what people needed to hear. I can understand why that was powerful, but I just wonder how we address the need for simplicity in effective messaging as activists, with a much messier reality on the ground. Because I sometimes worry that that simplicity can create problems for our understanding of both causes and solutions.

Megan
A lot of us think that if we just get the perfect message, everything will be saved. Everything will be fixed; we’ll be able to get massive action globally. That’s again not how the world works. So we’re always looking for that one thing that will save us. I think we’re also grappling with the fact that we are tragically late already, so even if we banned fracking tomorrow (and I’m not a fracking advocate; I’m very anti-fracking), even if we stopped fracking tomorrow it’s still too late. Right? So we have to live with the world that we’ve got. But it does hide a lot of complexity. I think our fear wants us to make things really simple, really straightforward. We want heroic narratives. We want immediate, uncomplicated action because we’re all dealing with the trauma of the climate crisis and we’re all tired and we want it to be over. Unfortunately that is not how it works. But again I think climate communication isn’t just one thing. You’re not going to have a flattened narrative; it’s not going to work. You’re going to want to have a different discourse or a different rhetoric for different groups of people because we’re not uniform. There will be no uniform message. It’s “yes, and”. I know Sarah Myhre says this and I think it’s great; it stuck with me the whole time. “Yes, and.” Because it’s never just going to be a yes, it’s going to be something else and then something else, and then something else that we have to do to fix this.

[music]

Justin Schell
Hey everyone, producer Justin Schell here. We’re starting something new this week on Warm Regards. For the rest of the season, we’ll be shining a light on other climate change podcasts we think you should check out. This week, we’re featuring “Material Memory,” a podcast on climate change and its effects on cultural heritages from CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources. Here’s host Nicole King Ferry-Olo to tell you more.

[music]

Nicole King Ferraiolo
I’m Nicole King Ferraiolo, the host of season two of Material Memory, a podcast by CLIR. This season explores the impact of the climate crisis on communities and their cultural heritages. I’ll speak with seven guests whose work spans four continents about climate changes and its effects on records, artifacts, and traditions in different local contexts. We’ll discuss disaster narratives, displaced communities, and the politics of preservation work. Join us as we consider what we can do and why it matters. Visit material-memory.clir.org and subscribe to Material Memory wherever you get your podcasts.

Jacquelyn
I’ve been told that I’m downplaying the risk of climate change, or even that I’m a shill for big oil when I’ve pointed out that if scientists stopped flying there wouldn’t be a measurable dent in our emissions. I mean it’s just a basic fact, but we’re just not used to kind of dealing with these complexities together as a movement. So as you’re doing this work, what do you think are the biggest sources of misunderstanding about the climate crisis within the activist community?

Megan
This is the one that irritates me the most is that scientists are downplaying the climate crisis for capitalism. I’m an ecosocialist, I don’t like capitalism! I think that there has been a huge political movement to suppress the voices of the Global South and the most vulnerable people. That’s part of white supremacy and part neoliberalism, but I don’t think scientists caused that. I think that’s a huge problem that scientists have downplayed it, because science is an evolving knowledge base. You don’t always know everything all at once but you work towards more and more knowledge, even though you can never have the entirety of the knowledge all at once. Right? There’s always gonna be something you don’t know now. So the whole vilification of climate scientists really irritates me.

Jacquelyn
What’s so frustrating is that this new vilification of climate scientists isn’t coming from deniers; it’s coming from within the climate movement. As you said, it’s this idea that scientists are serving corporations — which to me is so wild because I work at a public university. I’m technically a state employee. My salary is part of the public record; you can look it up. All of the funding that we have in our lab was either crowdsourced or it’s taxpayer based. I could easily make four times my salary working for an oil company with my skillset and I wouldn’t have any student loan debt. So it’s just . . it’s very strange to me that these are the same kinds of attacks that have come out of the climate denier movement, but now they’re suddenly popping up within the climate movement.

Megan
You don’t want to run with a denier; you really don’t. Those are two binaries; you don’t want to be in either one. I don’t know if they can hear themselves and I, again, understand that they’re coming out of a place of fear but I think it’s completely misdirected. Because some people take to fear by going at the easiest target. Right? So if you’re a person on Twitter and you’re terrified of climate change, who’s easier to get a rise out of? It’s that random climate scientists rather than the Exxon-Mobil. I fully endorse harassing ExxonMobil, just curse them (that’s what I do all the time), but I don’t curse climate scientists. It’s not their fault. They’re trapped in the same systems we are. But like me, they are only one person that’s part of this giant story. Science is what it is. You can look at the data, but the data is never going to be enough. It’s never enough on its own, and that’s what drives me absolutely bonkers when people say that science is not political because it is political. It depends what you do with it, because the data itself isn’t everything. It’s what it’s used for; it’s how you use it; it’s where it comes from.
So don’t pick on climate scientists, please.

Jacquelyn
I think it also shows us how we can improve our messaging overall, but it also speaks to the need for more collaboration between climate scientists and organizers. I’m not just talking about having better facts in climate activism, but also how we can fight these broader narratives that we’ve been talking about. How can we as scientists do better here to build these relationships?

Megan
I think we’re at the point in the climate crisis where this is a necessity. You can’t sit back and pretend that you’re in a neutral space anymore. Nothing is neutral now. In a perfect society where there’s utopia, you could publish a paper and go up there and you would just drop it off. Any written text, any document that you create, you’re always responsible for it. I really wish that climate scientists would engage more with climate activists and activism, even as I wish that climate activists were sometimes better understanding of the fact that climate scientists aren’t responsible for the climate crisis. I think there needs to be an all-around better engagement between the two.

Jacquelyn
I’d love to hear some more thoughts about how scientists and activists can engage with one another. What advice do you have for folks about how to go about building those relationships, or how scientists can empower your organizing on the ground?

Megan
At one point I was just asking them as a concerned citizen, but then it became a thing where I was like, “I’m an organizer, this is what I do. I would like to help you get this messaging out.” I would like to help people know more about what your study is or what does this study mean? But also I approach them as a citizen. I think tha, the neoliberal and capitalist dynamic has made us forget that it’s not about what we can consume; it’s not about what we can buy to make our way out of the climate crisis. It’s about how we engage with it as citizens. So I do think that scientists as citizens, activists as citizens, we can definitely come together to address this. If we think about it as we all have our own role to play and we are in a supportive community, I will always come back to community organizing because it’s how we get through this. It’s how we’re going to manage to get through to the other side. And the only way out is through; we can’t go backwards. We have to address this head on collectively.

Jacquelyn
What do you wish that scientists knew about activism or organizing?

Megan
That it’s absolutely possible to change. I understand that it’s been, you know, decades that people have been working on this and I see a lot of long term climate campaigners just be completely hopeless. I understand that because when you’ve been doing this for so long and nothing really nudges; it is demoralizing. It is hard, but I do believe politics matters. It needs to matter to scientists. I wish they would be more political and I wish they would understand that change is absolutely possible. Just because you see a trajectory, doesn’t make it real. Even now I see a lot of scientists on Twitter and they’re always white men. I’m sorry, but they are always white men and they’re always thinking that nothing can change. I think when you are at the center of the privilege of a current system, it’s very hard for you to see outside of it.

Jacquelyn
Especially when you’ve built that system. I think it would help us all to understand that we’re part of this ecosystem, and we all have a role to play (scientists, activists, journalists, elected officials, policymakers, educators) and none of those are mutually exclusive categories. I think it’s easy to feel overwhelmed; once you start talking about the problem, the question of solutions comes up pretty much right away. But even as a scientist who talks a lot about climate change, I’m ot an expert in cap-and-trade or nuclear power. But it often feels like there’s this expectation that in order to join the climate conversation you have to know or even do everything, and I think that’s a huge barrier.

Megan
[Laughing] No! None of us are. None of us, no matter how experts we are in one thing (in climate science or organizing or anything else), none of us are enough. And that’s scary because we also live in a hyper-individualist society and we all want to just fix things. We cannot address that like this. Being reliant on other people and not being able to have a knee jerk reaction that will solve this problem makes us really scared and makes us feel really vulnerable and we will react in ways that are maladaptive, expecting people to be the savior (including climate scientists). There is a trend of climate scientists now that are promoting themselves as savior and telling the public that they can give policy recommendations as though that they are the one source of knowledge, the one source of action. I think that’s really dangerous. Especially if you’re a white man, you’ve got to put your weight behind helping marginalized people speak, because that’s what’s going to save this — a diversity of voices.

Jacquelyn
We do have a lot of scientists among our listeners, so for those who feel this motivation to connect with local organizers, how should they go about doing that? Let’s say I just moved to Waterloo and I want to connect with my local climate movement. How do I go about finding out what’s needed?

Megan
Essentially what we need is we need boots on the ground. You will be part of a community. You will be part of lovely people working for change and there’s no heroes here. You can absolutely contribute to the best of your ability and contribute your expertise and your knowledge, but you’re going to be one of many. And that’s good because it’ll actually make you feel less alone. It will help ease the burden on you because part of the problem with climate scientists and part of the reason why I think that they’re getting so much crap right now is because people expect them to fix this, but really it’s up to all of us. It’s not just up to climate scientists. So this will give you the opportunity to be out among activists and find ways that you can help and realize that change is not just up to you just because you know the science.

Jacquelyn
So it basically boils down to: find the people who are already doing the work locally, and be ready to listen before you talk.

Megan
Yes. And it’s what we’re doing right now locally. Just because you’re a climate activist doesn’t mean that you can’t be showing up for other social justice issues. You have to work on issues that aren’t just what in your mind are climate related. You have to go out and help marginalized people. You have to help unsheltered people and you have to help Black Lives Matter. You have to help indigenous people and Land Back. It seems like a lot; it’s going to make you feel like you’re overwhelmed. But the good thing is that when you help solve one social issue, you help solve another one and all of those are connected to climate change. Everything is connected, and you can find a lot of peace and a lot of hope in those connections rather than be overwhelmed by them.

Jacquelyn
I think all of us could learn a little bit more to step away from this idea where the only useful role is a leadership role. We can give and contribute in other ways, too, and those are all important.

Megan
You learn so much from people who have been doing this longer and letting other people lead and supporting and being in that supporting role. It’s its own fulfillment. You don’t have to be the only person in charge. It’s really overrated.

Jacquelyn
I’ve seen that come up over and over again. I was a co-founder of the National March for Science, and I ended up leaving the organization over disagreements about whether science was political and whether we should be centering diversity or not in our efforts. It was just so frustrating and really hard to see that organization go through some of the same growing pains that I’ve seen other organizations go through, like the Women’s March (which had just happened), where you just have a bunch of people who are large new to this kind of work. They have so much passion and they have so much energy, but they’re reaching out to the people who have done this work before. So of course they just make the same mistakes and perpetuate the same problems going forward. Then at the end of the day, what we want is for our movements to be effective, so why wouldn’t you do what works? Whether we’re talking about ecosystems or human communities, we know that diversity and distributed efforts are the keys to sustainability and resilience.

Megan
Yeah, it’s not about you. There’s no room for ego. If you care about this work, if you care so deeply about the climate and people, then you don’t need to have your ego up front. It’s not magic. I used to show up at random events for the climate starting in 2015. I’d walk up to people and say, “How can I help?” It was persistent. If you feel it, do it. Just go and it’s awkward, and I’m socially awkward as all hell. I just kept showing up saying, “Hey, can I help you? Hey, I really care about the climate.” You can do it. It’s not necessarily easy, but it’s simple. Just keep showing up.

Jacquelyn
I really like that. And like you said, you know, climate change is a big, complex problem where there’s no silver bullet. There’s not going to be a climate messiah to save us. It’s a messy problem, and it’s going to take all of us, and we’re going to have to step outside our comfort zones and try new things.

Megan
How are we going to create new things, new systems going forward. We can’t just be caught in the old ways of doing things, cuz that’s why we’re here. And it’s scary, but it’s what we’ve got, right? That uncertainty of where we’re going and maybe we can make it good and human. We’re not alone. You know what, I have a six-year-old and every time I think about him, I remind myself “He’s not going to be alone.” He’s going into the future with these other young people and he is not alone.

Jacquelyn
Exactly. We’re all in this together.

[music]

Justin
This episode’s data story is a bit different. We received a recording from Sylvie, the young daughter of Jane Willenbring, who you might remember from previous episodes of the show. She shared the story of her own climate activism.

Sylvie
Hi I’m Sylvie and I’m 7 ½. I used to live in San Diego, but we just moved to the Bay Area. I have a stuffed penguin named Aurora, who grew up in Antarctica. Last year I made a protest sign with my Mom and did the School Strike for Climate with a girl named Greta. I was the only kid from my school that marched and had to skip school, but my Mom said it was OK. My penguin didn’t come to the strike, though, because it was a really hot day. Thanks, bye!

Justin
Even if you don’t have a stuffed penguin named Aurora, we’d love to hear your data story. You can leave us a voicemail by calling 586–930–5286 or record yourself and email it to us at OurWarmRegards@gmail.com.

Ramesh Laungani
In my office at Doane University, I have a windowsill where I keep mementos that students have given me over the years. There are thank you cards, and handmade crafts, and there’s even a set of mini-chimes made by a local artist. One of my favorite things is a photo of the number 350. This number, 350, was part of a climate change protest that my students organized on campus a few years back. The protest was in support of 350.org the organization dedicated to climate action. Their name comes from 350 parts per million of CO2, a target level of CO2 in the atmosphere that has been suggested by the scientific community to effectively minimize the impacts of global warming. The photo shows students holding up signs in the shape of the number 350. These signs had a variety of messages including protest slogans like “I commit to being a superhero for the planet” but also messages related to things that they could do individually to help stop climate change, from driving less to taking shorter showers. The students who organized this climate activism were from my Conservation Biology class, and were inspired to take this action after hearing a lecture by Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org. After hearing Bill speak, not only did my students want to organize a campus demonstration, they wanted to organize a “Climate Change Awareness Week” where they helped their fellow students understand the science behind climate change.

When they brought up this idea to me, I could not have been more proud as a professor. They wanted to turn the science they were learning in the classroom into action. They wanted to turn their passion for science into passion for change in the world around them. They wanted to use science-based activism to change both minds AND hearts in the community. And I was all for it! I told them that I would gladly support them in their endeavor, but I also wanted it to be a learning experience for them. I told them that I wanted them to build this entire thing from the ground up, from soup to nuts. I wanted my students to see the challenges of organizing climate action for the entire Doane community, not just the science students. I knew by taking a relatively hands-off approach that when they achieved their goals, they would be that much more proud of the work that they did.

I helped them with some of the logistics, but the vast majority of the work was done by them. They created a brochure with facts about climate change and things that students could do to be more climate friendly and they arranged for a local climatologist to come and give a talk about the basics of Climate Change to the larger Doane community. The week culminated in the 350 protest. My students had to figure out where the protest would be held on campus, when it would be held so that the most students would see it and take part in it, and had to decide on the key messages that they wanted to communicate through their action. In total, about 40 students took part in the protest, but many more took part in the events during the week. These students were from all parts of campus, from STEM to Education to Art. The events that week allowed all members of the community to share their voices for a brighter climate future.

At the end of the week, we took some time in class to reflect on the week, what worked, what didn’t, and what they think their actions achieved. Overall, the students remarked that they felt proud for putting on the events and were happy that they did this, but also said how challenging it was to organize the event, even on a small campus. My students saw first-hand that sometimes science is not enough to make change, they saw that sometimes their science needed to be channeled into action, and they saw that taking action was hard work, but very rewarding.

Our next guest, Dr. Lucky Tran, is well-versed at navigating the challenges and rewards of science-based activism that my students got a small taste of at their campus protest. His life experience as an immigrant and refugee fuels his work at the intersection of science, social justice, and activism. Through his activism Dr. Tran advocates for evidence-based change that is squarely focused on building an equitable climate future, one that includes many voices from the community, particularly those that are often marginalized. Through his journey in science, Dr. Tran, formally trained in molecular biology, was inspired by his work with policymakers to turn his attention to action on climate change. Dr. Tran is a science communicator based at Columbia University in New York and was one of the lead organizers for the March for Science in 2017. We spoke with him about what it was like to go from scientist to activist and how other scientists can follow in his footsteps to take action on climate change.

Lucky Tran
Geekily enough, one of the things that really caught my attention as a kid was the Montreal Protocol, which of course was the . . . [laughing] believe it or not. It was the world governments agreeing to take action about the ozone layer. I was a kid; I think a lot of kids are idealists, right? We care about the planet. We care about the trees. We care about environmentalism. So that really caught me and what really inspired me was that governments got together and listened to scientists and solved a problem that we all cared about. Believe it or not, that actually happens in the world. That moment actually inspired my journey in science completely, and after that I really wanted to become a scientist. I thought scientists solve problems that are important to the world, and it really began my career in science.

Jacquelyn
So how did you make the transition from molecular biologist to public science activism, and climate activism specifically?

Lucky
I did an internship at a place called the Royal Society, which is the equivalent of the AAAS here in the US, as in it’s a professional science organization that also does publications and does a lot of science policy work. But when I was there, one of the tasks that I was assigned was to study climate data, look at agriculture data, look at water security, look at all of these problems, and translate that data into ways that world diplomats could understand. I would always get these diplomats from everywhere around the world, including a lot of oil-producing nations. They were all interested in it. There wasn’t a country that wasn’t interested in it. They all were interested in the science of climate change and all of the problems that the scientists were telling us about and that we needed to take action on. So I had a number of great interactions in the office, but then I would give those reports and talk to these ministers and representatives and realize that later that these countries would say the complete opposite when they were giving policy talks at world meetings, or they would never do anything about it. I think that was the moment that sort of radicalized me or made me more of an activist within science, because I realized that no matter how good we are representing the data and talking about the data and talking about the implications of that, sometimes the power landscape or the landscape of politics is such that you have to take more action to shift it. That was one big pillar of why I do what I do. I think the other reason why I got more into climate activism is because I was here in New York during Hurricane Sandy, which happened in 2014. Just seeing the imbalance of the communities that are affected (you know, it’s poor and working class and communities of color), you saw that image from the skyline of seeing the powers of these buildings in Manhattan litten up and in certain parts of the city had their power turned off. I think that’s such a powerful image of how climate change is affecting the world and how there’s an imbalance there. That moment was the moment where I saw how it really affected people on the ground and it really pushed me into focusing all of my activism on climate from that point forward.

Jacquelyn
I was sort of expecting you to have this moment of being disillusioned with science and that’s what led you to activism, like, “I went into science to change the world, and then I realized I had to write grants all the time and do lots of paperwork and it wasn’t as much time on the bench in the end, and so I left for policy,” but, it almost sounds like it was this frustration with policy that kind of sent you down this path of activism.

Lucky
Yeah, I think that’s an interesting way of looking at it, although I have to say I have my complaints with the way science is run, as well. I joined all the crowds in talking about that. So solidarity to everyone who thinks that way. I think for me, honestly, the other backstory that I should talk about is that I’m a refugee. My parents were from Vietnam; they escaped the war there. My name is actually “Lucky” because I was born in a refugee camp in Malaysia because my mother was pregnant with myself when they were escaping the country. I think for a lot of us through lived experiences and the circumstances of our upbringing instantaneously makes us activists, right? My dad’s first job was as a refugee worker in Australia. We went around to sort of help new families get into the country after experiencing the help that we got, so I’ve always been doing immigration justice. I think for me I’ve been involved in many different movements for social justice, economic justice, racial justice, immigration justice, but I’ve always been living this parallel life — going to the lab, doing my science, being part of this very sort of walled-off ivory tower of academia. I think those very important life events and events, experiences that I experienced throughout my career really shifted me into thinking, “Hold on,” these two things are connected and I need to be my whole self all of the time and integrate all of these different parts of my personality and my life because it’s important in making change in the world.

Ramesh
So how do you see your own activism being informed by your science background specifically?

Lucky
Again, like many people I went into science because I believe there was a social good to come out of science. I believe we can create a science and scientific community that really addresses injustice and helps the world. I think that was always my motivation growing up and I saw both through policy and how scientists affected policy — how that happens — are good examples on how that happens. With my upbringing both in science and as an immigrant (a refugee, someone who’s experienced oppression growing up and seeing how my parents sort of worked around that and were activists as well), I think all of that came together to me. I think it’s important to see that science activism means that we need to address imbalances of power (who has access to science, who does science serve and how injustice is manifested in the world and what science has to say about it) and how we can use science in a positive light to solve those problems rather than in a negative way — which it has throughout history to contribute more to those problems. It’s not just that the data is a big part and my science background is a big part of how I look at activism, and how I integrate different parts of activism. I think that’s important, but it’s not the only part. It’s just a part of a whole complex universe. It’s sort of funny for me to say this, actually, talking about organizing the People’s Climate March. We created a twenty foot chalkboard which had a graph of the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide over the last tens of thousands of years with a big sign saying “THE DEBATE IS OVER”, right? So it’s sort of that idea of, “Presenting facts might be part of our activism,” but I’m sort of of the opinion that facts are not enough in terms of activism; there’s so much more than just presenting facts. You really need to have a holistic approach to activism. It’s about stories. It’s about identities. It’s about understanding power imbalances. I think it’s important that science is part of my background, but it’s nowhere near the whole story.

Jacquelyn
I really like that. So what does publicly engaged science look like in practice? What kinds of activities can people engage in?

Lucky
Activism — like science, like identities — is not a monolith, right? There are so many different ways you can do it. And to be honest, to create change I think sometimes we project things through the media because the media likes to have a very narrow coherent narrative. Or sometimes we see those giant marches on TV, or we see actions which are centered on arrests (these dramatic images) and we think there’s only one way to create change through activism. A lot of activism we see is like an iceberg; most of it is underground. We don’t see it. We don’t see the hard work that goes into it. It’s important before we say any of that, that there are a lot of ways to do activism that aren’t recognized generally, and we should talk about them. Like a lot of the energy barrier to getting involved in activism as a scientist is high because we feel that we don’t have that experience to understand how to do things to make change. But really activism is about learning as you go along. It’s about building a community. It’s about getting involved in many different disparate areas.First of all, I think the easiest point of entry (and I think this goes for climate change as well), I think one of the easiest things you can do in terms of getting people to care about climate is to talk about it. You know, like we’re doing today — doing more science communication, building it into your teaching, thinking about community programs; that’s really important. What communities are you part of? Can you bring your experience as a scientist to that community? I think that’s the start of all things that are good. And from then you can go up the ladder. I think the key to activism really is how do you organize people into a group that can build power and shift the political landscape? I think that’s something always to keep in the frame.

Ramesh
Outside of these sorts of grassroots actions, is there a different role that scientists can play to be agents for change?

Lucky
In the scientific realm, we always talk about science advice and that remains important too — making sure that the people who are the decision-makers do hear from scientists. I actually do think that’s a place where we create our own barriers with that. I think we have understandably, given the polarized landscape and how science is talked about in the media and what we see from science denial or what we think it is — that we think that politicians never want to hear from scientists, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. They can’t get enough science advice, particularly at a moment like this. Politicians want to hear from scientists and making sure you do visit your local members of Congress, you talk about the issues that are important for society with them. A good way to access that is through professional societies or your universities. They’ll often do lobby days; but there are many other groups that do that. And you can do it independently as well, as a self-organized group. That’s really important. I think those are some of the ways that people can get on that ladder, but I think the universe is really wide. I think when we’ve been looking both through the March for Science and Union of Concerned Scientists, we’ve run multiple surveys on this. A lot of people attended their first science advocacy event. 90% of people who who were surveyed attended their first science advocacy event in 2017, most likely at the March for Science. And since then, 90% of those people have gone on to take further advocacy actions. That includes talking to family and friends, contacting reps, donating money, and going to more protests. A lot of people have started up other protests. A lot of people had started nonprofits. A lot of people have said, “I’m going to change career, and I’m going to go into science communication.” A lot of people have taken fellowships to get started in science policy careers. And you know what? In 2018 in the midterms, more scientists ran for office than ever in the midterm elections in 2018. I think there were ten or more scientists who were elected to Congress, which was amazing. And so I think there are so many ways that scientists can get involved. The barrier is really ourselves in figuring out how to do that. Actually, I preface this by saying that we need to do a lot more within academia in terms of making that easier for scientists, because I think there’s a lot of support and privilege that goes into being an activist and that you need to do effective activism, because we’re under so much pressure in our day jobs. Right? I think in academia, you’re not rewarded for doing science communication. You’re not rewarded for doing science advocacy. We need ways to reward people who are doing this really important work for both science and society within those realms. We need to reward them through professional career advancement, through support, and through financial means as well. I think the first thing is also making sure that the environment in our everyday lives as scientists is supportive of all this great work that we can do as well.

Ramesh
So Lucky, you highlighted a lot of different ways for scientists to get involved. I know for me, my science communication really kicked up a notch four years ago after the election. What would you say to a scientist who wants to get involved, but might be afraid to do so?

Lucky
I think that’s a very valid view and that’s something that a lot of scientists think about. I think I had that same fear as well; everyone does — particularly for me (mixing science and politics), cuz I had those dual backgrounds. But there was a point where I really mixed them and I did get that sort of apprehension of, “Is this going to make it difficult in my day job? Or are people going to think that I’m a bit strange on both sides of the ball?” That hasn’t really played out for me in the way that I was apprehensive of. One of the biggest myths with science scientists and activism is that by being an activist, it’ll affect how the public views their trustability, right? That’s a legitimate thing because at this time more than ever as we’re enduring a pandemic and a public health crisis, we need the public to trust scientists in the work that they do. But numerous surveys from places like the Pew Research Center have surveyed society on what jobs they trust the most and what professions do they trust the most. You know what comes out on top? It’s scientists, believe it or not, and science and scientists have been more politically active than ever in the last four years as a general group. Having said that we should acknowledge that issues like climate change and COVID when it comes to personal beliefs and how people act, that does become polarized. But the reason for that polarization is often actually politicians and how they use it for personal gain. I think that should be called out, but it’s not necessarily because scientists are getting political. I think that’s a big myth that we have to expel as the first thing that I tell scientists. Personally on a more anecdotal level, I think we have to be our full selves within whatever profession that we do, and that includes science as well. I don’t understand if we care about the work that we do and who the work affects and we care about using it for public good, we can’t come towards any career holding ourselves back, right. And if we care about social issues, that should be integrated in how we do things every day. What happens when we stand aside and we don’t do enough, then we get people in power, who literally censor scientists, don’t listen to scientists, and this leads to hundreds of thousands of deaths. I don’t see how we can in this time period just stand aside and leave politics and activism out of our everyday work. It doesn’t make sense to me. So I think we do our best science when we bring our whole selves as people to the job as scientists and researchers.

Jacquelyn
I’ve never really quite thought of it in those terms, but there are problems in science and in society, and those are not independent from one another. So, keeping on with the business as usual approach of scientists pretending we’re not whole people doing work within political systems has not served society, and it hasn’t served science, either. So maybe we shouldn’t continue to point at that framework as our model of professionalism.

Lucky
So funny to me actually because scientists, we’re great at changing our assumptions in response to data. When something isn’t working, we change the way we approach the problem. But when it comes to how science runs and the infrastructure of science, we’re so dogged about keeping these old ways that don’t really work on evidence. It’s so strange to me.

Ramesh
Like our job is just, “I filled out a spreadsheet and I’ve given you the spreadsheet and that’s my job. Thank you. I’m now going to step away because I handed you a spreadsheet.”

Lucky
Right.

[music]

Jacquelyn
I’d like to talk a little bit about the messaging that you’ve used, because I actually met you in person for the first time at the Stand Up for Science rally in Boston. And I remember that we were in lab coats with signs, and various scientists were giving personal testimonies to the crowd, and the imagery was really striking. And you and I even had a back and forth about whether or not it was a good idea to use lab coats. And so I’d love to talk about some of the messaging that you’ve used in some of these efforts, often involving some of these conventional signifiers of science and scientific authority, which we sometimes try to get away from in science communication. But I know you’re really thoughtful in your approach, so I’d love to hear about why you choose some of these specific kinds of imagery?

Lucky
That rally was amazing, and thank you for your incredible speech, Jacquelyn. You were fantastic there. It was a really important point, I think, for science activism. It was the point where we were responding to a lot of the threats on science as Trump was just getting into office, and that was a really important rally. We did have this conversation. I remember one of the important, visual symbols that we used was everyone was wearing a lab coat. I think it is a complex space navigating this, cuz I wear different hats. As an activist, I’d say that’s the perfect messaging. As a science communicator, I would tend to avoid traditional scientific symbols like that, and I think that’s okay. I think it’s okay to understand that there’s no perfect messaging for every space, right? The world is not that simple. I think we had this very good conversation that, of course, what I’m saying is in terms of science communication. I think there are stereotypes towards who can be a scientist that is detrimental toward science — that white male with a bow tie and a lab coat. I think that image isn’t great for science in terms of inspiring more people from diverse backgrounds to be part of science. I think that’s an important thing to recognize. Unfortunately, I guess the way political activism works and political symbols work is that you get two seconds of news coverage where they’re going to flash an image on TV. Sometimes the rally will be several hours; we’ll have tons of speeches and the speeches will be great, but you’ll get two seconds of news coverage. And in that moment, it’s really important to think about what sort of visuals come off well. Sometimes it’s the lowest barrier, easiest entry visuals. That can be okay for that purpose. You just got to recognize how media works and what context it’s being framed in, and that’s okay.

But I think more important than that specific circumstance (which I think is interesting) is that even if you have limited visual around that, there are sort of motivated visuals, right? More than just being an individual person in a lab coat, it’s a group of scientists and the group of scientists was diverse, and there were people who were non-scientists who were there as well. What that’s motivating is that it’s collective work that is needed to overcome these injustices or these threats that really threaten a lot of different communities. Of course, all of the speeches were motivated around that framing as well, talking about not just science, but the issues that we are seeing in marginalized communities — in communities on the front line. And that was all part of the messaging and all part of the signs. We use messaging like common good, speaking truth to power messages like that. That you wouldn’t normally use in science communication, but it’s really to build collective identity and really understand that what we’re trying to do when we change things is understand the balance of power — how we shift power and how power is creating injustice. So that’s what we tend to do with a lot of our visuals. It’s okay if we use basic scientific visuals that pair along with that, but there is always a deeper narrative in anything that we do with marches and visual activism that really has to feed it into the theory of change. Sometimes it’s hard to understand if you just look at it quickly, but the key is that these visuals come up over and over again. It’s important that you think about all of these elements because they really do motivate and change the narrative.

Ramesh
You highlighted this idea of this flash of the media, that you get two seconds and so there needs to be a powerful visual in that flash. So is there a particular piece or pieces of climate data that you’ve found to be really impactful in your activism?

Lucky
Really in terms of scientific data, I think it motivates policy more than approaches to activism, if you know what I mean. If you build a policy, it should be based on evidence and data. In terms of activism, I think the more important drivers are community and power imbalances and understanding how to shift power. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a central pillar. Having said that, I do think for me I think the most important report or piece of data or group of data that was analyzed was the IPCC 1.5 Special Report. The special report was looking specifically at the difference between what limiting warming to 1.5° after industrialization means on the impact of communities around the world, versus 2°. I think that was one of the most important things that motivates the science because not necessarily because of all of the graphs and the data, and sort of like the little line-by-line bullets on the science that were in the report, but the way the report was written. There was a piece of the report in the introduction that says the line goes, it shows that “limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics, but — BUT — would require unprecedented transitions in all aspects of society.” Emphasis on that last part, right?

Ramesh
Right, right.

Lucky
Usually with science policy reports, you usually say, “Here’s the data.” You decide what to do with it around the politics and how you can restructure society or what decisions you need to make in society. But that report said, “We need unprecedented transitions. We need to change society completely to meet what the science is telling us we need to do.” I think that was the most important report probably in science ever and it’s motivated me. Since then, guess what’s happened. We’ve had giant youth movements that have taken the world by storm. We had tens of millions of peoples in the streets last year as part of the youth climate strikes. The Sunrise Movement has changed US politics completely. They’re all led by youth leaders, and I think they read that report. I’ve talked to a lot of these youth leaders and Greta all the time cites the phrase “unite behind the science”, and her biggest accomplices in the work that she does are climate scientists. She has a whole cadre of climate scientists she asks before putting out statements to the press and the media. That report motivated all of this work by youth leaders over the last couple of years. I think it shows that scientific reports do matter in activism and that they can change the landscape of activism, which I personally was a little bit doubtful of. But the key to that, it wasn’t the data in that report that changed it. It was framing it in a way that showed what we needed to do and the people who were affected by this data, right? You can’t isolate the two. If you isolate the two, it doesn’t motivate action. But because the scientists were very particular in how they framed that report and what it meant in terms of policy making and how we should act as a society and as a world, it changed the landscape of activism.

Ramesh
So Lucky, here’s an odd follow-up. Should we even have graphs and data explicitly at protests? Or should graphs and data be more for the realm of policy reports that motivate the Gretas of the world?

Lucky
I know. It’s funny cause again I’m the biggest hypocrite on this cause the biggest sign I ever created was that giant chalkboard. And I hauled that down forty blocks of Broadway; it was a heavy thing. It took weeks to construct and it had a giant graph on it, and I’m probably the person who says that graphs and data probably in protest signs aren’t that important. It’s more about calling out the powers that are inflicting oppression upon the people and showing how people are uniting to combat the oppression. Those are the two most important things in terms of protest imagery, signs, and symbols; I think that’s very important. I think one of the main ways that changes is two things. It changes the narrative of the conversation in the media and in our communities; it gets people more aware about an issue, and also not just more aware about an issue but what we need to do to solve it. It normalizes the steps we need to take to solve it — I think that’s important. And the second thing is that it creates a new generation of activists — people who not just are aware of an issue, but will do work to change the issue. And so that’s why signs need to have this community around them, this show of force, working together, the diversity of the movement; all of those things are more important in signs than data.

Jacquelyn
So as we’ve been talking about language and messaging, I’m just wondering how you think about the different kinds of messaging that’s effective in science and activism. I’m thinking about how a message like “ban fracking now” is really powerful, and we do need to get off of natural gas, no question. But at the same time, if we were to stop all fracking tomorrow, most of my neighbors won’t be able to heat their homes — there’s a broader infrastructure problem that takes more than just an executive order to solve. Do you ever feel like there’s this disconnect between the messaging and everything that needs to take place behind that messaging to actually move the needle?

Lucky
Things are always more complex than they seem from a sign or from a message at a rally. I think it’s important to understand that and that there’s a lot more that goes behind the scenes in making policy change happen than it is when you see these graphics or visuals or imagery on the news. The number one thing I would say to that is that in terms of effective activism, we have to respect a diversity of tactics. What that means is that yeah, sure, some people will need to say, “Ban fracking, it’s horrible.” And other people will need to have more nuanced conversations and how to get that to happen. I think sometimes activists explode a bit when they assume that people aren’t on their side, you know what I mean? That unless you take the exact same stance or making public stances about it, then you’re not on the same side. That goes for both ways as well. I think sometimes people who maybe might be more sort of “practical” minded might attack people who have a more idealistic messaging, and I think that’s very problematic too. It’s important not to crush that and I really get frustrated when people who are more practical-minded crush that. At the same time I think you’ve got to understand that sometimes if you’re shouting really big bold change, that’s fantastic, but we shouldn’t face them off against each other. Do you know what I mean? I will be part of a direct action, which is maybe part of a blockade where some people might get arrested. I’m completely okay with being involved in that sort of thing, and then on the other hand I’ll be involved in these negotiations with politicians and trying to really corral the scientific community or within academia towards action. I think all of these spaces contribute towards social change. But it is a complex space. I think it’s important to understand that we all have a role to play somewhere in that complex space, and it doesn’t mean we’re facing off against each other. We got to figure out ways to work together towards this common change that we want to bring into the world.

Ramesh
So, Lucky, you highlighted this a little bit with the trust and science. But I want to dig in a little deeper about what we know about the efficacy and effectiveness of scientists engaging in this sort of activism space. How effective are these efforts by scientists to get more involved in activism? I’m asking because as a scientist my first thought was, “How do we measure this?”

Lucky
I think that’s the most difficult part for, generally, new activists but particularly activists with a scientific background who base a lot of their decisions on data and peer review and sort of very verifiable evidence. I guess the hardest bit to say is that mapping how change happens is extremely difficult. It’s extremely difficult within a short time period,which we as humans experience. It’s already difficult to map it a century later on how changes happen and the things that help contribute towards change. So that’s the first thing that anyone who gets involved with this face needs to understand. They shouldn’t be disheartened by it, but it is a real psychological thing as humans that we need to understand. You know, we did A, B, C, and D and then we saved the world. It doesn’t really go along that neat narrative. The last four years have been really hard for the scientific community because in the US and around the world, actually, there’s been many governments who have explicitly made attacking science a part of their platform, and when they attack science it’s really harmed people. It’s hard for marginalized communities in particular. That’s been a real feature of politics around the world, which has made things hard. Having said that, when we’ve organized in the US we have gotten some wins. We’ve had wins like there was the graduate student tax bill that was defeated because graduate students everywhere said that that was going to be harmful and that’s going to be harmful to society and access to science in general. That was something that was really grassroots-organized by students on campuses. It didn’t require a central body and they really got the victory out on there. There’s been wins in environmental protections (for national parks in some areas even while there’s been a lot of attacks on environmental protections) and in the area of science funding, actually; science funding has increased or stayed the same over the last few years despite all the attacks on science. So I think we’ve got real wins in those areas, and it’s important to see that. There are a lot of ways that you can measure successes in activism, according to victories that you win. But again, I come back to how are we seeing the narrative change in the media? How are we seeing everyday people (including scientists) become more engaged in movement work? Are we seeing that? As I said before, I think some of the surveys that we have shown that more scientists than ever have contacted their Congress people, are making donations to nonprofits, are organizing protests, are starting their own nonprofits, are winning office. These are the metrics that we see — both that we can measure but that we can even see the throughout the people we know through our communities as academics. And the conversations that we have in the tea room and all of these things, I think we can see the change quite clearly over the last four years. You know, these are the prerequisites to making larger social changes. You need the conversation to change, and you need more people engaged in seeing a change happen. And once you get those things in place, then social change will happen.

Jacquelyn
Thinking about these last four years, as you mentioned, a lot of scientists were really galvanized this really hostile, anti-science administration — Trump has appointed a lot of anti-science folks to positions of power, and that’s caused a lot of scientists to embrace activism, or even to take on the mantle of the public intellectual. Now that Trump lost his bid for re-election, I’m already starting to see people say things like, great, we’ve got a new president, so I can hang up my activist hat and go back to science. What do you think science advocacy will look like under Biden? Presumably, we’ll be working with a much less hostile administration, but that doesn’t just mean that we give up this work, right?

Lucky
I think that’s an important point. Actually, I’ve heard from like a lot of the professional sciences societies saying, “Now scientists can return to the normal role, which is doing work in the lab and then presenting their data and then going back to the lab,” and I’m tearing my hair out and saying, “No, did we learn nothing from the last four years?” First of all, yay, we elected someone who listens to scientists, hurrah! That’s the floor of what we should be trying to achieve. I think that was great and making that happen was actually a lot of work. I think scientists do deserve a pat on the back on the organizing that they’ve been doing the last four years to make that work. Having said that, Biden said he’ll rejoin the Paris Agreement. Is that enough? I don’t think so. I think we need a Green New Deal. I think we need climate justice and real policies which uphold climate justice. I think there’s so much more that we can do and the thing that I hold onto is that I do think that the fundamental dynamics within the scientific community and its relationship to what activism means and how scientists interface with advocacy and activism has changed, and once that’s out of the bottle you can’t really bottle it back up. I think led by the leadership of early career scientists and young scientists and PhD students, I think you have a generation of people with the tools and knowledge and lived experiences, who understand that activism is an important part of their job as scientists, and that it’s an important part of making change happen, and they will integrate it into their lives. And so I do think it’s important that we keep having these conversations and saying, “Just because we elected a president who believes in science, that’s not enough.” I think the policies that they enact, are they enough to be able to help the working class, help marginalized communities, help communities of color who are feeling the brunt of the oppression from the climate crisis or the COVID crisis, or any of these injustices we see in society that has a connection to science? Which is a lot. Are these policies that we’re enacting enough? It’s not just about the data and saying, “The data says that this is a problem.” It’s about the impact on people. How can we make sure that there’s a positive impact on people from a negative place that we’re coming from? How can we as scientists play a role in making sure that this change happens. Clearly from our past experiences, it’s not enough just to present the data and assume that governments and politicians will do the right thing. We need to bring with it the moral conviction (the understanding that our data means that we can help millions of people around the world) or we can see lots of communities suffer disproportionately. We’re not okay with that as a community. I think we need to continue that conviction going forward through our actions, through our organizing, through our voices, to make sure that we are as a scientific community pushing for the right things in terms of social change and social justice.

[music]

Ramesh
Warm Regards is produced by Justin Schell. Jo Stormer creates our transcripts, and Katherine Peinhardt is our social media maven. Music for this episode comes from Blue Dot Sessions.

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A podcast about life on the warming planet. Hosted by @JacquelynGill and @DrRamBio. Produced by @612to651

A podcast about life on the warming planet. Hosted by @JacquelynGill and @DrRamBio. Produced by @612to651