Standing up for Science and the Planet: Setting the Stage for the People’s Climate March

I spent Earth Day in the shadow of Washington Monument. It was miserable – cold, damp, and at times rainy, but the bad weather could not tamp down the energy, enthusiasm and creativity of scientists and citizens there to rally before the March for Science. By the end of the rally, there was a sense that this Earth Day would give momentum and inspiration for the People’s Climate March this coming Saturday.

On Earth Day, the crowd began to gather before 8am in front of the stage on the monument grounds.  They watched and applauded two hours of videos, including clips from other marches already happening in cities in Europe and Asia.

At 9:30am, I went onto the stage and motioned to the crowd to hold up their signs. One that caught my eye was a not-very-happy-looking young woman’s sign in the very first row that read: “The good Earth, We Could Have Saved it but We were too damn CHEAP and LAZY” with a cite to Vonnegut no less. Another handmade missive carried what was one of the tag lines for the event” “SCIENCE, NOT SILENCE.”

At 10am, Jean Batiste opened up the Earth Day March for Science rally with a rousing version of the Star-Spangled Banner. Over the next 4 hours, there was a stream of speakers with brief remarks from a wide variety of perspectives – all in response to the threat from those who seek to deny, degrade, and defund science.

Many of the speakers were reluctant warriors in this war on science.

They were people who shared Thomas Jefferson’s view when he said: “Science is my passion, politics is my duty.” Climate change super-blogger Joe Romm did a pithy 2-minuter on Jefferson and the other science nerd politicians – Washington and Lincoln – with monuments in DC. Joe called for “Nerd Power” – scientists and citizens working together – to take on the challenge of climate change.

Penn State professor Michael Mann went to Berkeley not to protest or demonstrate, but to dive into science. He became one of the leading climate researchers in the world. He did not volunteer to fight the fossil fuel industry and its political minions. It was a role he was not eager to embrace, but he had no choice but to defend his own integrity and science.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician in Flint, Michigan, uses science every day to treat her patients – her “kids.” She took off her white coat, left her clinic, and went in the political arena to expose the threat from Flint’s contaminated water supply and demand that the government take action. Dr. Mona was accompanied by one of her Flint kids – Mari Copeny – who thrilled the crowd with her words on the importance of science in protecting children in her city.

Two former astronauts – Leland Melvin and Anousheh Ansari – whose stories are a tribute to diversity of opportunity to do science – shared their unique perspective on the Earth as seen from outer space. They urged that we use science to protect our planetary home.

There were also environmental artists who spoke out. Maya Lin said her works of art have made people see the natural word in new, deeper ways. Maya is the celebrated creator of the Vietnam and other memorials. She is now working on what she says is her last memorial – What is Missing? Maya is calling attention to the loss of biodiversity and ways to preserve our biological riches.

Photographer James Balog has documented the retreat of glaciers worldwide over the last decade and is now examining two other dimensions of climate change – intense fires and rising waters.  Jim spoke about being very concerned after seeing the impacts of a warming planet firsthand, but then added: “But, there’s good news too. Each one of can use our voices… and our choices…to take us down the road to a better future.”

Rachel Kyte and Christiana Figueres were among the speakers pointing to a more hopeful future. Rachel, who leads the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative said “This Earth Day, science shows us it is possible to build an economy that provides for all while combating the threats of climate change.” She pointed to a number of the new technologies that science has already given us to constrain and cope with a changing climate.

Christiana Figueres, one of the chief architects of the Paris Agreement, remarked that we are already on our way in a transformation to “new path of growth”. She emphasized the urgency of our situation: “So swallow the alarm clock because we cannot be late. 2020 has to be the turning point on climate. Science has established the challenge.  We must meet it, because we have no other option.”

Denis Hayes reminded us of the first Earth Day he led in organizing almost 50 years ago. It was scientists – like Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, Carl Sagan, Paul Ehrlich, George Woodwell, and many others – who sounded the alarm about the pressure we humans are putting on the planet and began to educate and engage the public. I was pleased that the Earth Day March for Science rally featured many articulate young scientists and science communicators. Until two weeks ago, I had never heard of two of the 30 -something MCs at the rally – Derek Muller and Cara Santa Maria.

Jean Batiste, Quest Love, and all the rest of musical performers were great, but the crowd clearly came for the speakers. The audience was attentive and responsive. Having worked in advance with more 20 of the speakers, I could see how that the energy and enthusiasm of the audience was inspiring them in return.  There were also Teach-Ins at the rally that attracted many participants.

At 2:00pm, the rally concluded in the pouring rain and within minutes the crowd started marching down Constitution Avenue towards the Capitol. There were more than 600 marches and many other events celebrating Earth Day worldwide, involving hundreds of thousands of people, if not more. The media coverage was extensive with more than 250 outlets accredited at the DC event. The livestream of the rally was viewed by more than a million people.

The March for Science has primed the pump for hopefully an even bigger manifestation of global public engagement just a week later with the People’s Climate March on April 29th.

After this Earth Day, I will never look at the Washington Monument in quite the same way. To me, it has become a symbol of a renewed, reenergized movement of scientists and citizens standing up for science and our planet.

By Jacob Scherr, Director of the Speakers Program
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From Jacob Scherr: I served as the Director of the Speakers Program for the Earth Day Network which presented the final hour of speakers on environment and climate change. We worked closely with all of the speakers on their remarks and logistics. All of them rose to the occasion. Worth spending some time watching the video from the Rally.