The problem facing the implementation of any kind of sensible climate-change policy—for example—is that many powerful organizations believe they would be harmed by it. Therefore they use the levers of power available to them to oppose it. The U.S. provides $700 billion in subsidies to fossil-fuel companies every year.
These companies are entering politics to protect their material self-interests. These firms may have too much power, but they are not using the political system in a strange way: Protecting your material self-interest is a valid thing to do in politics!
It is true that the status of “science” has changed in American politics, thanks in part to 20 years of party polarization over climate change. But once a depoliticized issue becomes politicized, its supporters can’t win just by shouting that it’s actually uncontroversial. We saw this strategy fail in 2016, when the Trump campaign politicized free trade—and the Clinton campaign responded that free trade wasn’t political. It will fail again for science now, unless its supporters make new arguments for it and win the fight on the merits.
Which is why the March for Science scared me. The worst possible thing for the march is that people believed the rhetoric they were hearing on the stage. It will not help them understand why, after two decades of evidence, the United States has yet to formulate a sensible and science-informed climate policy.
After the March for Science ended, a colleague joked to me: “If they really wanted to be scientific about this, they would have the march again next week.”
The thing is: They are. On Saturday, the March for Climate, Jobs, and Justice will take over downtown Washington, D.C., and dozens of other cities around the country. Unlike the March for Science, it is forthrightly political. It understands itself as part of the broad and intersectional left. It has even divided the route of the march into sections for different aspects of the progressive coalition: one area for labor, another for racial justice groups, another for religious leaders.
This may make some scientists bristle: Should science alloy itself with other members of a political constituency? Their concerns are understandable but misguided. I suspect that in the longterm, it’s the confidently political—confidently partisan—climate marchers who will have the right approach. If you’re going to do something political, like a march, it should be fully political.
In September 2009, tens of thousands of protesters filled the National Mall as part of the the first major Tea Party rally. (Officially, it was called “the Taxpayer March on Washington.”) One year later, more than 200,000 people attended the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” the dual Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert rally. One of these marches allied itself with a party and followed up with local organization. The other rejected extremist politics—but it neither supported a party nor asked protesters to organize at home.
Seven years later, it’s the smaller Tea Party rally that still reverberates in our politics. So if scientists want to do politics, they should do it all out. They shouldn’t worry about the stain of asserting their self-interest. They should take chances—they should get messy.