Scientists stand behind youth climate activists in support of Green New Deal

"What I love about the Green New Deal is the emphasis on equity and equality, and representation."

Sunrise Movement activists line up outside the office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to urge support for committee to craft Green New Deal on December 10, 2018. CREDIT: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Sunrise Movement activists line up outside the office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to urge support for committee to craft Green New Deal on December 10, 2018. CREDIT: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Rachel Gold, an earth sciences student at Brown University, has been too busy with her research into signs of abrupt climate change to attend rallies in Washington, D.C. in support of aggressive climate policy action at the federal level.

“I haven’t had the time to pursue the level of activism as my peers,” said Gold, who is researching a period in the Earth’s history starting about 12,900 years ago called the Younger Dryas, when the climate around the North Atlantic returned to a glacial state after having warmed for over 6,000 years.

To Gold’s delight, the stars aligned this week when the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) fall meeting was happening in Washington at the same time the youth-led Sunrise Movement was conducting a major climate lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill. So, in addition to presenting her research at the meeting, Gold was also able to lobby members of Congress for the creation of a select committee on the Green New Deal.

Spearheaded by Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), the idea of a Green New Deal has burst into the political mainstream over the past few months, upending congressional climate politics. The proposal responds to recent climate science by calling for a rapid transition away from oil, gas, and coal, and simultaneously seeks to ease the nation’s worsening income equality.


From the seminal congressional testimony of Dr. James Hansen in 1988 confirming the global warming trend was being caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to the release of an alarming report in October by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, scientists have been at the forefront of calls for action to fight climate change over the past 30 years.

Many scientists are willing and ready to advise lawmakers on the science behind climate change. But it’s up to policymakers to pass laws that could help to avert catastrophic global climate change.

“I’m a physicist. I can tell you what happens when you put carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” Dr. Kate Marvel, an associate research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told ThinkProgress. “I can’t necessarily tell you the best way not to put it there or to take it out.”

The large gathering of earth scientists in the nation’s capital has coincided with a new surge in momentum for crafting a policy solution to the climate crisis — a political development that wasn’t lost on many attendees.


There were 28,000 earth scientists at the AGU meeting, “many of whom have devoted their lives to understanding climate change and care very much about the planet,” Gold told ThinkProgress. “And here at the Capitol, there are 1,000 youth activists who have devoted their young lives to the climate and care deeply about the planet. It feels like we should be working together. We’re fighting, in some way, the same fight.”

Scientists may not be leading the charge for a Green New Deal, but they’re not far behind Gold and her cohort of young people on the front lines of the climate action movement.

In fact, many of the 28,000 scientists who attended the AGU fall meeting and spoke with ThinkProgress share the enthusiasm of the Sunrise Movement activists who are seizing the moment to rally lawmakers and the public behind major climate and economy-transforming legislation.

Dr. Peter Gleick, an earth scientist who gave two talks at the AGU meeting, welcomes the calls for the creation of select committee for a Green New Deal. “At this point, it’s impossible to ask for ‘too much’ — especially given how the political process always waters down what can be achieved,” Gleick said in email to ThinkProgress.

Whether scientists should get involved in activism or helping to craft policy is a personal choice, according to Gleick.


“It’s not up to me to say for any particular scientist whether or not to engage on policy issues,” he said. “I do and more and more scientists are. I do believe it is critical overall for scientists to engage with policymakers and the public on all issues of public concern from health to environment to national security, and of course, climate intersects each of these issues.”

Gleick also found time to visit Capitol Hill this week, although he did not join the Sunrise Movement sit-ins in the offices of Democratic leaders.

He met with Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) and a senior staffer with another member of Congress. Huffman had reached out to Gleick to discuss opportunities and critical issues that the 116th Congress might pursue related to climate change, including water issues, an issue on which Gleick is one the leading experts.

Whether the audience is elected officials or the general public, Gleick said scientists would be well-served by paying more attention to how they are communicating the urgency of the climate crisis. “We could always be doing a better job at communicating,” he said. “Some scientists are better at this than others, and there is rarely training for them, and rarely do they get credit or kudos for doing so from their institutions.”

Multiple session’s during this week’s meeting addressed challenging questions faced by most climate scientists: Should scientists engage with public and policy communications? How can scientists communicate effectively? Each of the sessions was extremely popular — “standing room only,” Gleick said.

Marvel is one of the scientists who has perfected the art of communication. She emphasizes the importance of storytelling — developing effective ways to communicate with disparate audiences — when speaking to policymakers and the public. Marvel, a physicist who sat on several panels at the AGU meeting, emphasized that climate change gives scientists many ways to educate people.

Not every story works on everyone, Marvel said, explaining that climate data or photos of polar bears on thin ice may not change the minds of every non-believer.

“The thing about climate change is that it’s going to affect everything. It’s going to change or alter or affect something that everybody cares about,” she said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “There are stories out there for everybody.”

Marvel, who has given TED Talks and is a sought-after speaker, wrote in a recent article that what changed the mind of her skeptical father was the insurance industry’s reaction to climate change.

“My dad sees himself as a free-market conservative, and the noticeable lack of climate deniers at insurance companies made him take the issue seriously,” she wrote in a blog post for Scientific American. “A company that ignored climate projections could offer much lower rates to undercut its competitors. None of them do.”

Marvel said she admires what Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement activists are doing with appeals to support a Green New Deal.

“What I do admire about that is the fact they are using new language. It’s not just, ‘Look at the sad polar bear,'” she said. “This is not talking about climate change like it’s this isolated issue. It’s talking about it in the context of all these other things that people care about. And I think that’s absolutely the right way to look at it.”

The Green New Deal is not only designed to swiftly reduce greenhouse gas emissions; it also aims to eliminate poverty and ensure a “just transition” for all workers. The draft proposal focuses how low-income communities, communities of color, and indigenous communities are often disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change.

For so long, climate change been viewed as a niche issue that one can care about or not. “But the science doesn’t support that treatment. What the science is telling us is that if you have not already been affected by this, you will be,” Marvel emphasized.

When working on public policy, Marvel also noted scientists should stick to their expertise. Let the social scientists and engineers bring their expertise to lawmakers when they begin crafting the Green New Deal.

By no means, though, does Marvel believe scientists should stay out of the policy arena. “It would be a dereliction of duty to not try to make sure that the policy process is informed by objective facts,” she said.

Dr. Sonali McDermid, assistant professor in the department of environmental studies at New York University, contends the scientific community needs to go through its own transformation in order to provide the greatest benefit to policymakers behind the Green New Deal.

“What I love about the Green New Deal is the emphasis on equity and equality, and representation,” McDermid said in an interview with ThinkProgress.

For the Green New Deal to be successful, scientists are going to need to suspend their traditional communication “in the service of developing narratives and stories that resonate with people at a local level,” she emphasized.

Scientists also need to do a better job of collecting data about the impacts of climate change at the local level, according to McDermid, and then work their way up to calculating the effects on a global level.

“This is what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does really well. She started at the grassroots level to try to understand what communities need,” she said.

McDermid, who attended the AGU meeting, stressed that she does not have a problem with the ambitiously tight timelines in the Green New Deal, including its goal of weaning the country off fossil fuels within 10 years of its passage.

“I’m not sure if the actual timeline is the major point of the proposal,” she said. “What the Green New Deal does, in the way that is currently formulated, is provide a vision, a way forward, a what-could-be scenario. If you don’t have that ideal and if you don’t have that vision, you basically wind up keeping the same sort of policies and institutions that are another way of pushing the status quo.”

At least 35 existing or incoming members of Congress have affirmed their support for the creation of a select committee for a Green New Deal. Supporters of the effort are hoping to get incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to throw her support behind the select committee.

Experts are racing to catch up with the momentum behind the Green New Deal. A policy group called the New Consensus has been formed to provide a policy platform that will serve as a foundation for the Green New Deal.

Members of Congress are trying to figure out the role of existing House committees in the formulation of such a comprehensive piece of legislation. Some longtime representatives have expressed concern that a select committee for a Green New Deal would take power away from them, even though they have been unable to pass a comprehensive plan to address climate change and its impacts on the economy in their years in office.

“It’s a slap in the face for some of us who have been fighting on this issue for the last eight years,” Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL.), incoming chairman of the Energy subcommittee, told Politico. “Is this some kind of a way to appease certain newly elected members of Congress? I think that’s wrong-headed.”

Long-serving members of Congress who have not pushed for strong climate action, according to Gleick, are not in a position to criticize the demands of the supporters of a Green New Deal.

Gleick laments the missed opportunities in the 1990s to slow the rate of climate change. If U.S. policymakers had led the world in adopting measures to combat climate change two decades ago, there wouldn’t be a need for such extreme action today, he said.

“Yes, they are calling for a very, very rapid break from fossil fuels. That’s desperately needed and by calling attention to it, they’re moving the debate in a new and positive direction,” he said.

Gold, the student and earth science researcher at Brown University, applauds veteran scientists like Gleick and Marvel who working hard to inform policymakers and the public about the need for climate action. But she believes other scientists could be doing more.

“We’re producing science, especially earth science, to inform how we interact with earth,” Gold said. “I would like to see scientists more invested, if they’re not out here waving a banner, then be more invested in communicating, or teaching or making what they study very accessible and very engaging to people.”