Decrying 'post-truth' climate politics, scientists test activist waters

Typically, scientists are reluctant to engage in what could be perceived as political activism. But many researchers are now pushing back against what they call unprecedented attacks on climate change research by the Trump administration.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
Scientists hold signs during a rally in conjunction with the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting on Dec. 13, 2016, in San Francisco. The rally was to call attention to what scientist believe is unwarranted attacks by the incoming Trump administration against scientists advocating for the issue of climate change and its impact.

The first tweets appeared quietly, mid-Tuesday afternoon, with a 21st-century declaration of defiance.

"Mr Trump, you may have taken us down officially," one read. "But with scientific evidence & the Internet our message will get out." 

Get out it did. One day later, the post had been retweeted by 22,000 people and liked by nearly 42,000. The brand new Twitter account from which it came, @AltNatParkSer, had published 170 tweets, many of them scientific facts related to climate change. And the anonymous "several active NPS rangers and friends" allegedly behind it all had attracted more than half a million followers.  

The emergence of the Twitter account billing itself as "The Unofficial 'Resistance' team of U.S. National Park Service" marked the latest act of protest among members of the scientific community who have begun to push back against what they say are unprecedented attacks on climate change advocacy by the Trump administration.

Since his inauguration on Friday, President Trump has further ignited the ire of environmental scientists and supporters by ordering a media blackout for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and others, instructing the EPA to take down its webpage dedicated to climate change, removing tweets about climate change by Badlands National Park employees, and temporarily freezing all Twitter accounts under the Interior Department after the National Park Service shared two tweets portraying him in a negative light. 

Typically, say observers, scientists are reluctant to engage in what could be perceived as political activism, for fear that their research will be labeled as agenda-driven. But the election of Trump, who has repeatedly described climate change as a "hoax" invented by the Chinese, is drawing thousands of scientists out of their research labs and – quite literally, in some cases – into the streets to fight the reversal of environmental progress. For some scientists, resistance takes the form of tweeting, protesting, or participating in the upcoming Scientists' March on Washington. Others have signed petitions or written opinion pieces. And others still are frantically working to copy and protect the climate data that will soon be erased from federal websites.

"Since the election, there's been a kind of boom of efforts by scientists to look for ways to constructively engage in anticipation of...what the [president] and others on his team have said about climate change and other issues," says Peter Frumhoff, the director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "Many thousands of scientists are engaged and a desire to do something constructive and fear that the worst may be yet to come." 

Republican opposition to climate change evidence and advocacy is not a new phenomenon, notes Sarah Pralle, an associate professor of political science in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, in a Monitor interview. What's different now, she says, is that "they have a bigger platform and megaphone in the voice of Donald Trump" and the executive power to disrupt federal scientists' work. 

In explaining the disparity between conservative and liberal stances on climate change in 2017, Professor Pralle points to an increase in partisanship.  

"It's not as though scientists have not been forward and open about sharing their concerns about climate change, their data, and their evidence," she says. "I think they've worked very hard to make it as understandable and clear to both policymakers and the lay public as possible. It’s just that the issue has become so incredibly politicized that one of our two parties refuses to believe the overwhelming evidence." 

Opponents of Trump argue that his polarizing ascension to the White House, one that has been accompanied by false assertions and accusations of "fake news," has created a "post-truth" political climate where facts – scientific or otherwise – have taken a backseat to ideology. The internet, Pralle notes, has also made it easier for climate change deniers to find content that confirms their beliefs. 

"I think we may have reached a tipping point of sorts in the last year or so, as the very idea of 'facts' has come into dispute, providing an impetus for people who had once been reluctant to jump in," Robert Duffy, a professor of political science at Colorado State University, tells the Monitor in an email. As a result, he continues, "we are seeing that many scientists...have decided that it no longer pays to be silent – they will be attacked whether they speak out or not, so why not speak out for what you know is true?" 

The election of Donald Trump may have represented "a U-turn for a top carbon-emitting nation that in the past few years has been a leader in nudging the world toward collective action," as Mark Trumbull reported for The Christian Science Monitor in November. But those positions aren't necessarily set in stone: 

[W]hile 47.3 percent of Americans voted for Trump​, about two-thirds of Americans say they're concerned about climate change. A number of those people, even if they're not in the streets protesting, may think harder about what they can do to address the risks of climate change. Individual actions can drive social norms and ultimately influence local and federal policy.

So, yes, Trump may try to follow through on pledges of major support for the fossil fuels, pulling America out of the Paris agreement to reduce carbon emissions, and trying to stop spending federal money on climate change​. But it's possible his positions will evolve or be constrained because of public opinion, a divided Senate, diplomatic pressure, or market conditions such as falling costs of renewable power and visible costs of climate change.

"We're at the front end of this administration, and none of us know what’s going to happen next," says Dr. Frumhoff from the Union of Concerned Scientists. "But the scientific community and people who care about facts and evidence are watching closely."

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