Dartmouth Professor to Speak Out at Concord March For Science

Apr 21, 2017

March for Science logo

On Saturday, people will march through downtown Concord, part of a nationwide demonstration called March for Science.

Organizers say the marches are nonpartisan, but many taking part cite concerns over the Trump administration’s uncertain position toward climate science, as well as proposed budget cuts.

It’s raising questions about whether scientists should get involved in what could be perceived as a political event.

Erich Osterberg is an assistant professor in the Department of Earth Science at Dartmouth College, and he's speaking at the Concord event. He joined NHPR's Morning Edition.

This is your first time taking part in this kind of organized march. Can you talk to me about what went into your decision to get involved?

For me, this is really all about climate science because I’m a climate scientist and the issue that really resonates with me is that we need to move past this false debate about whether climate change is real so that we can have the real debate as a society about how we’re going to fix it. We know here in New Hampshire our winters are getting warmer, our lake ice is dwindling, we know our summers are hotter, the sea levels are rising, we see more intense storms. And we know from the climate science that it’s really our carbon pollution that is to blame for this. And so from my perspective, the question has to be how are we going to come together as a society to address this problem and fix it.

Were you reluctant to participate? What kind of discussion was there in the science community?

Erich Osterberg
Credit Dartmouth College

There was an op-ed in the New York Times back in late January that argued that climate scientists really shouldn’t do this, or scientists in general, that this was a bad idea. And we actually had a pretty involved discussion amongst my colleagues here at Dartmouth about whether we would participate in the marches. And ultimately I decided that I disagreed with the perspective in the op-ed. I felt like when people come together to support things in a big show like this, it does actually have a positive impact, and I think we’ve seen that through some of the other marches that have taken place.

The op-ed made one point which is that what we really need to be doing as scientists is getting out into the communities and meeting one-on-one or in small groups with people who might not be at the march on Saturday. And I agree with that, but I don’t see it as an either/or. A lot of us have been doing that sort of work in communities for a lot of years. And I fully intend to continue that kind of work, perhaps even double down on that work, but I’ll also be happy to be marching on Saturday.

The op-ed you’re talking about was written by a scientist named Robert Young and he made the argument that this could raise concerns about scientists losing credibility by injecting themselves into a political debate. Are you worried that casual observers could see this as scientists politicizing this?

I do worry about that a little bit, but ultimately I decided that certainly for climate science, this issue has been so politicized for so long, I think it’s hard for it to get more politicized. I think that as scientists, we spend our careers studying these issues and we see these things day to day, when we go into the field. I go to Greenland and Antarctica and I see these changes happening. I feel like it’s my responsibility to get out there and inform the public to the best of my ability about what I see and what I think it means for the climate system. And then what we do about it, that’s a whole separate issue. I’m not marching Saturday advocating for any particular policy decision. What I’m saying is we need to stop saying that there’s a debate about whether climate change is real. And as a scientist, that’s not a political issue, that’s not a partisan issue. That’s just based on the facts and the data that we work with every day as experts in this field.

Are there scientists you know who’ve made the decision not to get involved?

There were about five or six of us on an email chain that was going around after that New York Times op-ed and I think in the end actually all of us decided we were going to participate in one of the marches, either in D.C., Boston, or in Concord.

Has your work been impacted by any specific policy changes by the Trump administration? Or is this more about the threat of potential changes?

I'm not marching Saturday advocating for any particular policy decision. What I'm saying is we need to stop saying that there's a debate about whether climate change is real.

So far, I would say in terms of actual changes I’ve seen, we’d had a number of conference calls that have come up in the past couple months that are in response to the president’s proposed budget and proposed cuts that are coming down the line and how we might actually, as a climate science community, how we might deal with those cuts and continue to do the work as best we can. That’s the only impact that I’ve seen so far, so a lot of this is responding to the policy proposals that are out there, the priorities that have been set publicly by the new administration, and some of the rhetoric we’ve been hearing, not just from the administration in Washington, but from other parts of the political spectrum, as well.  

What's your response to critics who might say this is more about self-preservation, scientists worried about protecting their own funding?

I would say that I’m in the fortunate position that Dartmouth pays my salary, regardless of whether I get funded or not. So that sort of self- preservation in terms of whether I still get paid that’s actually not really a concern for me personally. The whole concept of climate scientists are in this for the money in one sense or another has always rung hollow to me just because there’s so much more money to be made out there doing other things. We’ve chosen this field because we’re passionate about science, we’re passionate about climate, and we’re frankly turning down much larger paychecks that we could be making doing other things.

We saw with the women’s marches in recent months that you can catch the president’s attention. Is there some intention on your part to see the president’s attention turn to what’s happening in these marches and pay attention to a subject he wouldn’t otherwise?

That would be a great outcome if the president, the rest of the administration and his advisors, if this became a little bit higher priority on their list. That they see this is something the people believe strongly enough that they’re going to spend a good part of their Saturday out together, marching in support of it. So if that’s one of the outcomes, I think that’s great, but I don’t think that’s a necessary outcome. I think a lot of this is for us to come together as a community, to organize, to show support, not necessarily for the president, but so that the rest of America can see that we strongly support science and that it’s a priority in our lives.