Climate scientists rubbed elbows with Quakers, food activists, and labor unions on Sunday, when more than 100,000 people (400,000, the organizers say; one group of observers calculated it was more like 125,000) thronged to the Upper West Side for the People’s Climate March, a massive demonstration designed to coincide with a United Nations meeting happening on the other side of Manhattan.
One notable feature of this march was that it was organized into themed sections: Indigenous groups and other communities on the front lines of climate change led, while labor and student groups, renewable tech, and so forth, got their own designated section. The climate science contingent, which lined up just a block or two away from the American Museum of Natural History, formed behind a line of massive yellow flags that proclaimed in black block lettering: “The Debate Is Over,” echoed among the signs in the science bloc (some sporting charts):
— Science Stands! (@sciencestands) September 21, 2014
Framing climate change as a settled consensus, not a debate, was certainly the sentiment among scientists at the march. It’s hard to argue with the fact that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that the world is getting warmer over the past century, and that human activities are the primary cause. So why does the idea of uncertainty still frame the debate?
Annie Virnig, a researcher at the New York Botanical Garden, says that the public may hear new developments in climate change research, such as the “global warming hiatus”—which actually just means that the rate of temperature increase has slowed since 2000, not that the world has stopped warming; recently some scientists proposed that the Atlantic Ocean may be acting as a sink for that extra missing heat—and assume that the entire concept of climate change has been upended, when really researchers are refining the details. The big picture is still one of a changing climate.
The effects of unmitigated climate change on the natural world are myriad. Virnig, who studies blueberries that grow in Colombia, notes that many species in South America occupy narrow ecological niches, vulnerable to the effects of warming.
Jessica Allen, another researcher at the New York Botanical Garden, studies the ecology of lichens (an intimate association of fungi and algae) in the southeastern U.S. Lichens might not seem all that impressive, but they’re like the stage managers at a theatre production, secretly holding a lot of things together in the background while the (relatively) charismatic insects and other invertebrates cavort for the audience. Some lichens help fix nitrogen, which makes nutrients available to plants; others provide food sources and even camouflage for insects and other invertebrates.
Allen says that in North Carolina, many of the lichens she studies will be drowned by rising seas by 2100—even under some of the most conservative climate models.
So what can scientists do? Offer yet another fact-filled study? Erin Cram, a Northeastern University cell biologist, says that part of the problem is that scientists aren’t exactly in an academic argument any more.
“Scientists tend to argue with facts, but that doesn’t resonate with the vast majority of people,” Cram says. “I mean, a large fraction of the American people don’t think evolution is happening, and that debate was settled in the 1800s.”
Sunday’s march proved almost too successful for its own good: the climate scientists were still stalled near the museum two and a half hours after the scheduled start. But then, slowly, the mass moved forward—a little later than expected, but moving in the right direction.