This Sunday more than 100,000 people will gather in New York City for what promises to be the largest mass demonstration on global warming in history.
Elementary schools, union workers, parents, churches, and the secretary-general of the United Nations will all participate. In all, more than 1,400 groups comprise a massive coalition helping to organize the rally. The gathering is timed to precede a one-day high-level meeting on climate change that will be attended by dozens of world leaders, including President Obama.
The rally signals a decided shift in public dialogue on the issue. With recent disasters in the United States and elsewhere making headlines for their connection to climate change—most notably Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and the ongoing California drought—juxtaposed with continued lack of attention by most world governments, the same scientists who laid the groundwork for climate change science are among those now taking to the streets.
In a recent post on his Columbia University blog, ex-NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who first brought the issue of global warming to Congress in 1988, continued his push for climate activism: “Why march? You will have to answer to your children. You understood the situation at a time when it was not too late. Instead of standing up for them, did you choose to sit at home?”
It seems his colleagues are listening.
This week I reached out to some of the world’s top climate scientists to ask their views on the fine line between research and activism. Here are a few select responses:
Peter deMenocal, Columbia University
Expertise: Deep-sea sediments as evidence of past climate change.
Attending the march?: “Yeah, I live here, so it’s easy.”
I don’t think the march in and of itself is really going to change much, but I do think it sends a very powerful message. In the 1970s, I remember participating in a march on the ozone hole and the effort to save the whales. There was a vibrant environmental effort back then. Remember too, that was a time when a Republican government was leading the charge to ban CFCs globally.
I’m a strong believer that if people speak out and say enough is enough, it gets government’s attention. In fact, without that, I believe that nothing’s going to happen.
Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton University
Expertise: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report lead author.
Attending the march?: Yes.
Scientists are people—they’re entitled to have views on the issues of the day. Climate scientists in particular have an incentive to see the work they do implemented. Almost every scientist would probably agree that this is a problem that needs to be dealt with and dealt with soon.
What [scientists] are doing at a march is expressing their opinion as citizens. Mass movements in the past have made it clear to political leaders that they have to buckle down and get something done. The clock’s been ticking for a long time, the more time we waste, the harder it is to avoid dangerous impacts.
Katharine Hayhoe, Texas Tech University
Expertise: Bridging the dialogue between science and religion.
Attending the march?: No, but helped advise a satellite march in Flagstaff, Arizona
As individuals I think there are two main things we can do: first, use a carbon calculator to measure our carbon footprint. The first step to reducing our individual impact on climate is to know what it is! Then set a goal and pick solutions that work for us. Second, we need to let our leaders, elected officials, and decision-makers know that we care about this issue and we want them to do something about it. That’s what the People's Climate March is all about.
Kerry Emanuel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Expertise: Tropical cyclones and climate change.
Attending the march?: No, “but I am delighted it is happening.”
The more ways that people—particularly young people—can make their concerns known to our government, the better. I hope that this is the start of an effective and sustained movement toward the day that the U.S. leads the world away from the dangerous risks we are taking with our environment.
Heidi Cullen, Climate Central
Expertise: Communication on climate change.
Attending the march?: Yes.
The Climate March is a day to personally do something about climate change. This issue often feels overwhelming and unstoppable. The march is a chance to build community, to join with others who care about the climate and do one simple thing—march. And while marching won’t fix the problem, it is a chance to say we all need to do more.
Michael Mann, Pennsylvania State University
Expertise: Paleoclimate reconstructions, including the famous “hockey stick” graph.
Attending the march?: No, will be at a conference in the United Kingdom.
If we do not reach an international agreement to lower carbon emissions substantially in the years ahead, we will soon commit to dangerous and potentially irreversible climate changes. The People’s March and the U.N. Summit, together, could provide just the momentum that is needed to reach such an agreement at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris next year. I have no problem with scientists participating in the march.
Peter Gleick, Pacific Institute
Expertise: Water policy and climate change.
Attending the march?: No, but “I would go if I was in town. I made an explicit decision not to fly to New York because of the carbon cost.”
The people are peaceably assembling and petitioning the government for a redress of grievances. I support that 100 percent. Scientists are people, too! (At least, most of us.) Of course scientists should go, as individuals, if they believe that climate change is a serious issue and if they are comfortable with taking public actions like this. Some will be; some won't.
The whole point, in my mind, of these kinds of public events is to call attention to issues, to provide a means of expressing frustration with the attention given a problem by our elected officials and existing institutions, and to try to stimulate faster and more effective response.
Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium), IPCC vice chairman
Expertise: International climate policy.
Attending the march?: Yes, but will not participate due to conflict with official IPCC roles and responsibilities.
[H]umanity holds the future of the habitability of the planet in its hands. As the IPCC reports have shown, the elements of solution are known, and could at the same time protect the climate and help fight poverty. Delaying action to deal with climate change will only make things more difficult and costly. The Climate March shows that many citizens are aware of the urgency to act. As a citizen myself, and not speaking here for IPCC, I can only hope they will be heard.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.