Dressed in prop lab coats and carrying signs reading “Science Is Real,” dozens of Earth and space scientists attending the American Geophysical Union conference pressed into San Francisco’s Jessie Square on Tuesday afternoon to join activists and community members in a rally protesting the elevation of climate-change deniers to major government positions. Protest organizers also called for continued funding for scientific research and asked officials to enact more policies that address climate-change concerns. “Science and evidence is at risk,” Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists, told the crowd. “It’s up to us to hold this new administration accountable.”
That statement encapsulates the difficult and contradictory position the AGU now finds itself in.
The organization — which hosts a massive annual meeting of Earth and space scientists — unequivocally asserts that the evidence of human-caused climate change is irrefutable and that the issue should be addressed, but it simultaneously strives to remain officially apolitical and nonpartisan. As the organization’s members — including many of the scientists whose work produced the theory of climate change as we know it — grapple with the new political reality of President-elect Donald Trump, under whom research-funding agencies could be led by climate-change deniers, the AGU may be unable to keep walking the thin green line.
“We need to realize that we’re bound to politics whether we like it or not,” said Alex Webster, a graduate student in ecology at the University of California, Davis. The AGU’s stance on keeping science and politics separate isn’t tenable, she said.
Not all researchers thought climate science needed to be politicized, however. After all, President Richard Nixon, a Republican, established the Environmental Protection Agency, noted Aradhna Tripati, a professor of geology at UCLA — environmental issues do not inherently belong to the left or the right. But she also bristled at politicians who, from her perspective, were turning observational data into a political football, which was forcing scientists to stand up. “We aren’t attacking anyone; we’re simply asking them to acknowledge facts,” she said.
The protest was not an official part of the AGU meeting and attracted only a small portion of the more than 20,000 people in attendance. ClimateTruth.org, one of the advocacy groups that organized the rally, said there hadn’t been any similar events at previous meetings, at least not in the last five years. “Scientists are usually reluctant to rally. They just want to do their research, but [they] are seeing that it’s not enough,” said Amanda Mourant, campaign manager at ClimateTruth.org. In February, however, more than 100 AGU members and other scientists sent a letter to the organization’s leadership protesting its acceptance of funding from Exxon Mobil. In a vote in April, the organization decided to continue to accept that money.
AGU’s leadership doesn’t see a conflict between being a voice for climate science and remaining an apolitical entity. “AGU will always be an advocate for science, and we will always protect the rights of scientists,” Christine McEntee, AGU’s executive director and CEO, said in an email. “We are committed to our position as an apolitical and nonpartisan voice for science, and while the current political rhetoric may be concerning, we will not be intimidated.”
But it’s likely that this position could become more difficult to maintain. Of the scientists I spoke to, Tripati was the most adamant about the apolitical nature of data. Even so, she said she was perfectly comfortable with the protest, smiling as she gestured to the crowd chanting, “Stand up, fight back!”
“I demonstrate,” she said. “I sign petitions. I think most younger scientists are used to doing those things.”