What Can I Do? Being a Climate Scientist Post-2016 Election

I felt gobsmacked on Tuesday night. I spent the day cooking for friends, excited to celebrate our first female president. As the results started to roll in, we ate carnitas and drank beer and mostly ignored the TV, confident in America's choice. Then North Carolina and Florida started to look more red than blue. We got quieter, and checked results on our phones, until one friend looked up and said “All the swing states are going for Trump.” Those swing states included Wisconsin and Michigan, states that I never thought of being up for grabs.

I moved to Minnesota this summer, and spent four months driving around the rural Upper Midwest, sampling lakes. There were a lot of Trump/Pence signs, and a lot of people that we talked to who probably voted for them. We chatted about water quality and the weird weather as we launched boats and explained our research. People care deeply about their lakes, in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Especially in rural Minnesota, everyone wanted to know about their lake health and talked about zebra mussels and marveled that we could measure algae blooms from space. I often brought up climate change, and not a single person tried to contradict me or pick a fight. I don’t know if they accepted the science of climate change, or if this was a symptom of the “Minnesota Nice” I’ve heard so much about. If they did accept climate change as real, I don’t think it swayed any votes in the rural Midwest.  I don’t think love for their lakes and forests was on anyone’s mind as they cast a ballot.  In retrospect, I wish I had tried to make that connection.

There are a lot of proximate reasons that liberals and progressives and marginalized groups are up in arms about a Trump presidency, paired with a Republican Senate and House.  There are immediate threats, easily linked to specific policies. But climate change – and many environmental issues – are background issues. Rolling back regulations on carbon emissions affects quality of life indirectly, but that effect is unequivocal. The disconnect, though, remains a key part of why communicating the threat of climate change has been so difficult. Each extra ton of carbon dioxide emitted means more sea level rise, more permafrost thaw, a greater threat to biodiversity and the services ecosystems provide. So, what can I, as a scientist studying these issues, do? What can you do?

I don’t know all the answers to that. It will be different for each person. But here are some things I will be doing and thinking about over the coming months and years.

As an educator, I will talk about climate change in every class I teach. I will talk about why climate effects how we live and the places we value.  Because, as others have said, providing students the tools to speak and act with authority will be even more important under an anti-science administration.  We will all have to be more resolute to protect our oceans and lakes, rivers and forests.  I will do my best to do this myself, and help students prepare for this struggle.

As a researcher, I will continue to explore the ways human action has influenced our aquatic systems, through climate and land use change. I will work to understand how rivers in the Arctic, lakes in the Midwest, estuaries in Texas are changed by our way of life and how those changes will feedback into the climate system and downstream ecosystems.

As an academic, I will work to make my institutions safe and welcoming for women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQgroups, and disabled people. I will contact our Diversity and Inclusion office, and advocate to create opportunities for students from marginalized communities.  I will continue to be involved in the Earth Science Women’s Network, and Association of Polar Early Career Scientists, to make all of STEM more accessible, and to work in partnership with indigenous communities who are threatened by climate change.

As a citizen, I will write letters to my legislative representatives and city council and governor’s office, and yes, even the Trump transition team. I will do my best to articulate why climate change is not a partisan issue, why it will affect everyone who wants to vacation in Florida, or escape to a quiet lake, or just spend less money pumping water out of New York’s subway system.

As a new Minnesotan, I will seek out opportunities to educate the public and K-12 students about climate change and watershed management. Admittedly, this is the most nebulous of my plans. I do not have a network, yet, of local organizations and educators who could help enable connections with non-university students. I did in Texas, though, and this is something I will try to work on in the coming months. Ultimately, this might be one of the most important things that I, or any scientist, can do. There are a lot of people who love their environment – from fishermen in Texas to hunters in New England to everyone in Minnesota with a family cabin on a lake. I hope I can help them see that their voice and votes are important. That climate change will affect them and the places they hold dear, and no matter their political persuasion, they can help enact smart climate policy.

As an individual, I will find climate action organizations that I believe in and contribute either time or money to them. Again, this is something I need to research more. But there are a lot of people out there trying to advocate for climate change prevention and better energy policy. One of them (at least) will be a good fit for me.

Finally, I will do what I always do – I will read, and try to educate myself about climate change and diversity and improving STEM. I will say yes more often. I will try to be a better person and a fiercer advocate for what I believe in.  This year has left me feeling raw and drained, but I will try to work hard and be empathetic.

I’ll be honest. This will be a difficult, uphill battle. Optimism feels out of reach. Science, specifically climate change initiatives, has been on the chopping block for a long time. The House Science Committee has been on a vendetta for years now, and some scientists and environmental groups have been targeted by state government with Freedom of Information Act requests or frivolous investigations.  I think that will get worse. A friend, from Colombia, started asking me in a panic what we could do to stop the EPA from being gutted. She was galvanized because this matters not just to the US, but on a global scale. When scientists are ignored or intimidated into silence, it is difficult to know how we can accomplish anything. I don’t know that we can. But I think it will feel worse to not try.

So, that’s what I’m doing. Some of it is a continuation of what I have already done, some of it is new, some of it is stepping up my previous efforts. I hope you’ll consider what you can do.

Take a deep breath. Remind yourself of the places and people you're fighting for. And do what you can.

Take a deep breath. Remind yourself of the places and people you're fighting for. And do what you can.