A Berkeley STEM Graduate Students’ Guide to Climate and Environmental Activism in the “Trumpocene Era”
Disclaimer: This blog post contains information presented at “FIRED UP,” a UC Berkeley event on February 16th, 2017, aiming to connect graduate students with local climate and environmental organizations. If you catch any errors, omissions, or “alternative facts” about your organization, please let us know. The goal of this post is to collect and reflect upon the suggestions and action items from the presenting organizations at Fired Up. The views presented here are mine, but draw heavily on conversations I’ve had with other members of the scientific community.
Like many other Berkeley graduate students, I initially decided to pursue a science career not only because science is crazycoolandblowsmymindallthetimelikeKABOOM but because I wanted to tackle some of the world’s most pressing issues, in particular renewable energy implementation. Recently, and especially after the November election, the science community has felt that our values — not to mention our credibility and the strength of our voices — are being put to the test. We are deeply, deeply terrified about climate change. And we yearn to mobilize.
But as a scientist, I am perplexed about how exactly to use my voice to stand up for democracy, science, and the Earth in this changing and challenging political climate. Honestly, I am a bit timid, scared of speaking out, and aware that it is easier to stay passive and hide behind my research. I hear the call to action but don’t know how to direct my energy in a productive and effective way, while still managing to focus on the avalanche of research/teaching/coursework, and not burn out.
In The Collapse of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (a must-read! It’s only 89 pages so no excuses. I can even lend you my copy), a futuristic society reflects back on the 21st century, concluding that the climate movement failed and society was destroyed in part because:
1. Scientists were hampered by their objective, apolitical cultural practices, and failed to translate their findings into meaningful, political action. “Indeed, the most startling aspect of this story is just how much these people knew, and how unable they were to act upon what they knew.Knowledge did not translate into power.”
2. Science had become siloed into narrow areas of expertise, and scientists were unprepared to reach beyond those areas to interact with and connect deeply with a broader audience.
We know what’s happening. We know how badly it’s going to turn out. And we know it’s largely the responsibility of our scientific community to literally prevent the “collapse of Western civilization”. But how exactly do we translate knowledge into power?
On February 16, a group of UC Berkeley science graduate students led by Brandon Wood (AS&T), Sam Kohn (Physics), Jonathan Morris (AS&T) , Brendan Folie (Physics), and Ben Fildier (EPS), organized a fiery symposium event called “Fired Up” to address the question:
“What tangible actions can we take as graduate students, and which strategies are the most effective?”
At the event, climate and environmental organizations from across the Bay Area gave a series of flash-talks about their various efforts and posed ideas about how to channel our energy effectively and make the changes we want to see.
Organizations in attendance included:
The keynote speaker, Dr. Andrew Jones, is a research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) studying climate change. He is also part of the Climate Music Project, which creates and performs music guided by climate data.
Dr. Andrew Jones opening “Fired Up” with his keynote (left), where he discussed three climate mitigation scenarios (right), adaptation, and “what do we do now?”.
Dr. Jones gave a brief overview of the latest research on climate change mitigation strategies, and presented the mitigation scenarios of (1) no action, (2) current Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), and (3) the 2ºC pathway [Climate Scoreboard, 2015], pictured below. He also stressed that since we are committed to a certain level of warming and change, we are now at a point where we must to seriously think about adaptation in the next 30-50 years (read about Notre Dame’s Global Adaptation Index). Mitigation and adaptation go hand-in-hand: we simultaneously need to aggressively mitigate if we are to avoid even more serious consequences in the latter half of the 21st century.
In addition to discussing mitigation and adaption, Dr. Jones offered his perspective on how graduate students can get involved. He made it clear that he was speaking not only as a scientist, but as a “concerned citizen, artist, and father.” He then boiled down the direct steps that graduate students can take into four main categories:
1. Get involved professionally
2. Get involved in your community
3. Help shape the narrative
4. Make sure to take care of yourself !!!
Throughout the night, each organization shared ideas, stories, perspectives, and actions that elaborated upon these categories.
Before I plunge into it, though, as a world-class scatterbrain, one point hammered by many of the presenting organizations that I took to heart is that you can not work on every front at once. Feeling run down, overwhelmed, and overworked will detract from your ability to be a healthy and productive contributor to society. While reading this list, remember that one of the most important parts of activism is being in a space where you can truly give your full attention and effort to the cause you are dedicated to. Ok, here we go.
1. get involved professionally
In the words of a Union of Concerned Scientists representative:
“As a scientist or technical expert, you have vital skills and knowledge that can help your community, our nation, and the world grapple with pressing and complex challenges.”
- Think deeply about the purpose and direction of your research and your long-term academic goals.
- Are you conducting research that you feel is socially, politically, and ethically responsible?
- Who/what is funding your research? Are their intentions and potential biases transparent? What are they?
Participate in workshops and conferences that bring together science and policy leaders to connect, educate and inspire yourself.
- National Bioneers Conference, in San Rafael CA, Oct 20-22, 2017. The conference is a leading-edge forum where social and scientific innovators focus on breakthrough solutions inspired by nature and human ingenuity.
- Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative (BERC) Annual Summit, TBD 2018 (just missed this years!)
- Lead a workshop to the community on something you are an expert in and/or feel passionately about! Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative hosts “BERCshops” and other events as a means to elevate voices in the energy space. “We can be your microphone, and project your voice to the broader community.”
- American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting, an interdisciplinary and inclusive conference for the entire scientific community
“While science is without organization, it is without power.”
— Alexander Dallas Bache, AAAS’ third president (1851)
Take part in relevant internships and fellowships outside of school. A few examples, presented at Fired Up:
- Summer graduate fellowship in clean energy industries through the Environmental Defense Fund
- Internships and fellowships in 8 program areas with Center for Biological Diversity — climate law institute, population and sustainability, public lands, oceans, international, environmental health, endangered species, urban wildlands
- National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) focused internships on (1) litigation (“suing the bad guys”), (2) how cities can support solar energy, (3) forming legislative issues, (4) reducing transportation emissions
- Participate in a BERC Innovative Solutions (BIS) Consulting team, an energy and resources-focused consulting program led by students from across UC Berkeley’s top graduate departments
Act as an scientific expert at a testimony or legal investigation.
Join the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Science Network, a continuously growing professional community of more than 17,000 experts who play a critical role in advancing science-based solutions to some of our most pressing problems. “As a network member, you can influence key policy makers, attend workshops to improve your communications and advocacy skills, collaborate with UCS staff and other Science Network members, and much more!”
2. get involved in your community
National news right now is … well, terrifying. Asphyxiating, even. But nearly all of the speakers at “Fired Up” reiterated that politics are local. That change and movements start on a local scale. Furthermore, conversations in Berkeley can sometimes feel like “preaching to the choir” and, thus, feel pointless in terms of catalyzing national and global change. But it is important to use our position as a strength. In California, we have a unique opportunity to create a firestorm, take bold and radical action, then set that as a precedent for the rest of the country. Also, California is massive and incredibly diverse. As privileged Berkeleyites we have an obligation to connect with and listen to people in lower income communities of California, both rural and urban, that will be hit the hardest by climate change, and understand and elevate their stories.
“No one at Greenpeace holds the job title of ‘activist’ or ‘climber’ or ‘boat driver’ or ‘banner maker’ — these are roles and responsibilities filled by everyday folks who come back to teach at your local school or run their small restaurant a few days after they just climbed a smokestack or interrupted business as usual at a polluting facility.”
— Nathan Santry, Action Unit Head, Greenpeace
Here are some examples of specific campaigns and actions you can be a part of amongst the organizations in the East Bay community who presented at “Fired Up.” Most of these volunteer opportunities are citizen activism and not exclusive to scientists:
Join one of Berkeley Climate Action Coalition’s volunteer-driven “Working Groups,” and work very closely with city on implementing Berkeley’s bold climate action plan. (Did you know Berkeley has its own forty-year climate action plan, with specific goals and actions?! I certainly did not)
- Working Groups to focus on (1) advancing community choice aggregation, (2) water conservation and efficiency, (3) land use (transitioning vacant lots to community gardens), and (4) transportation infrastructure for cyclists, pedestrians, and public transit riders
- Volunteer to work with schools and youth
- Attend a local townhall meeting
Join the Alameda county chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby to focus specifically on the implementation of a Carbon Fee and Dividend, a revenue-neutral carbon tax with 100% of the net revenue returned directly to households.
- Lobby members of congress, in particular build a strong working relationship with with Representative Barbara Lee in congressional District CA-13 and with our Senators Boxer and Feinstein
- Send letters to members of congress
- Write letters to the editor and op-eds to local, regional, and national press
Volunteer with the Sierra Club SF Bay Chapter, where volunteers are crucial in the following categories:
- Help lobby and influence decision makers
- Sit in on confirmation committee meetings in the Oakland office, which meet monthly. All citizens are welcome. Committees: (1) Responding to immediate environmental threats, (2) Deciding local conservation policy, (3) Planning social, educational, and activist events, (4) Making political endorsements
- If you like hands-on, outdoor work → Plant and prune street trees with the Oakland Tree Team
- If you’re an outdoor adventurer → Take a hike, and become an activity leader
Participate in a Greenpeace direct action or serve as an “expert scientist.”
- Get behind one of their many campaigns: Saving the arctic, fighting global warming, living toxic free, defending democracy, protecting forests, protecting our oceans, promoting sustainable food
- Help with an investigation or litigation on an environmental issue. “We work with experts, scientists and researchers across the globe to build a deep understanding of the problem, and we push for transparency from our government and corporations.”
- Examples of current actions: sign a petition to Citibank, one of the lead funders of the Dakota Access Pipeline, demanding them to pull their funding
- Creative past actions: Seattle “Kayaktivists” blockade Shell’s Alaska-bound oil rig (classic Greenpeace)
Join The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a network of 500,000 supporters and over 17,000 expert scientists united around the concern that “we need sound scientific analysis—not political calculation or corporate hype—to create a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.”
- Campaigns and actions, organized and prioritized in the “Action Center” on their website (ex: Climate → ACT NOW: Hold ExxonMobil accountable for climate deception; Science and Democracy → ACT NOW: Tell your senators to defend our science-based safeguards)
- Quick actions: sign an online expert letter (above), call your representatives, volunteer at a phone bank
- Testify as an expert scientists at a public meeting (tips on testifying)
- Write to your local newspapers (tips on writing an effective letter). Example of an ongoing action in California: write letters to the editor to connect dots between how water issues in CA are not just covered as a water event, but as climate change event. So far, 83 letters submitted
- Help develop and draft the UCS annual report
Volunteer with 350 Bay Area, who are building a local grassroots climate movement, from all fronts. Their tactic? “Every tool in our toolbox.”
- Join an ongoing local campaigns: Bay Climate Action Plan, Beyond the Pump, 100% Clean Renewable Energy, Divestment from fossil fuel stocks (Fossil Free UC), Legislative campaign
- Read and annotate scientific policy papers
- Get legislative training and analyze/track bills for action
- Give testimony at hearings
- Join a speakers bureau
- Give presentations to public events
Join Surfrider San Francisco’s powerful activist network of 1,200 to help protect oceans and beaches.
- Participate in a campaigns and tend a public meeting to testify as an expert scientist: Rise above plastics, Plastic straws suck, Hold onto your butts, Ocean friendly gardens
- Partake in a beach clean-up (schedule)
Get involved with the Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative (BERC), a network of graduate students from all across departments working on and interested in environmental issues.
- Share research and experiences with other graduate students in science and engineering through the BERC Engineering community (Berc-E), which meets every other Monday 7-8pm at La Val’s Pizza (with free pizza!). Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to join. Or just show up.
- Attend a BERC Happy Hour, a BERC-shop, and other BERC events (see events calendar)
- Post to the BERC blog (yes, like this one! oh hey!) as a platform to discuss your research or an energy-related issue you are passionate about (caveat: you’ll have to tolerate this wonky formatting)
BERC’s co-president Anna Brockway spittin’ some knowledge about the wonders of BERC.
Participate in a volunteer project on your public lands with Volunteers for Outdoor California (V-O-Cal).
- Trail construction, rerouting and repair
- Habitat restoration
- Bonus: free food and free snazzy camping sites (that are not available to the general public) for a whole weekend!
Take hands-on action in the all-volunteer Friends of Five Creeks to protect and restore natural areas that welcome both wildlife and people.
- Work parties restoring native vegetation and wildlife habitat, lessening erosion and flooding, providing trails and green corridors.
- Free guided walks open to all.
- Tuesday morning weekday weed warriors in varied natural areas.
- Public education including free Bay Currents talks, e-newsletter, signs, publications, web sites, appearances at festivals, and more.
- Advocating, participating in political processes, and partnering with agencies and other groups.
Help plan, mobilize, and participate in upcoming MEGA SCIENCE RALLIES in Washington DC and/or local marches in Oakland and San Francisco.
- Join the organizing team for the March for Science, and on April 22, 2017 storm “OUT OF THE LAB AND INTO THE STREETS.” Participate in a teach-in on the National Mall, or organize a teach-in in the Bay Area
- Help mobilize for the People’s Climate March on April 29, 2017. 350.org, the Sierra Club, and the Union of Concerned Scientists are part of the giant powerful steering committee.
Teach and Outreach
One of our duties as scientists is to share our passion for science and the necessity of renewable energy research and equity-driven-science with the next generation. Here are some local STEM outreach organizations, where you can focus on climate change and renewable energy outreach to kids and community members:
Students for Environmental Energy Development (SEED) is a group of UC Berkeley students and community members educating local public school students about the science of energy use and conversion using activity-based lessons and student-driven projects.
- Elementary Program: mentoring program in elementary school in Oakland (Friday afternoons this semester) focusing on energy, global warming, greenhouse gases, pollution, water, and other environmental issues
- Berkeley High School program: every other week, Junior level science class for ESL students focusing on specific clean energy sources, energy science, and the impact of energy generation on the environment
The Community Resources for Science (CRS) has a simple goal: “Help teachers give students more opportunities to “do science” – to ask questions, test ideas, get their hands on real science activities. We need to inspire the next generation of thinkers, makers, problem solvers, and leaders!”
- Bay Area Scientists in Schools (BASIS): teach a one-hour, hands-on Next Generation Science Standard guided lesson on a variety of topics, including renewable energy and sustainable resources, to Berkeley and Oakland elementary school classrooms in low-income neighborhoods
- Be a Scientist: volunteer over a 6-week period as a science mentor in a 7th grade classroom in Berkeley to help students brainstorm, design, carry out, and analyze and present their own science projects. This year Be a Scientist succeeded in providing a graduate student mentor for every single 7th grader in Berkeley!
(… and now for some shameless self promotion)
Go on a STEM-ed powered adventure with Cycle for Science, an organization I co-founded with Elizabeth Case (graduate student at Cornell), which brings “real scientists” and interactive, experiential STEM lessons into classrooms across the USA via a bicycle (“bike-packing”) trip!
- Help start a local Berkeley chapter!
- Draft and brainstorm hands-on lessons plans covering energy, climate, air quality, and other topics relevant to science as sustainability and equity (an example lesson)
- Participate in a pilot “alternate spring break” trip! First one is through the Central Valley, March 24-April 2, 2017. Or you can start our own!
The Lawrence Hall of Science is always looking for enthusiastic volunteers to teach kids and families about science via fun, giant, state-of-the-art science demos !
Participate in a TEACH IN on the National Mall during the week between the March for Science and the People’s Climate March (April 22 – April 29) through Earthday Network and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
3. help shape the narrative
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve just read through a long list of actions you can take in your communities, and if you’re familiar with climate research, you have probably memorized the graphs and the data. But the value of communicating climate and environmental issues in a personal and heartfelt way cannot be overstated. Language is crucial. As one of my role models Terry Tempest Williams has emphasized, in our stories we need to “use words that bleed” to inspire and connect with people outside of our bubbles.
- What are the stories that you’ve heard that enable people to make a change? This could be a moral shift, realization, or empowerment to take action.
- What are the most moving narratives you have heard or read about climate change? What gave the stories such power?
- What types of stories or details within them elicit an emotional response?
- What are some of your strengths that you can incorporate into your climate-change narrative to communicate effectively and make an impression?
Ash Lauth from The Center for Biological Diversity teaching us first-hand how to share our stories in a memorable way by dressing in a full-body hazmat suit, full face-mask and all, and hollering on her megaphone about how to take direct action.
Become a storyteller
Deborah Moore from the Union of Concerned Scientists encouraged us to “get beyond the choir”, and learn to speak to people in all different kinds of languages. How?
- If you’re like me and mortified of public speaking, joining Berkeley’s Toastmasters club could help crack open your shell. And stay posted for a potential BERC-Toastmasters collab sesh!
- Attend webinars from the Union of Concerned Scientists about how to communicate science in the public arena. Topics include: Science Communication (ex: Rewriting the Narrative With Science), Informing Policy and Decision Makers, Talking with the media, Public Engagement and Working with Communities. Upcoming webinar: Integrating Social Justice into Science (Tuesday, March 14 2:00-3:00 p.m. EDT)
- Apply to ComSciCom, a free workshop aimed to help scientists become better communicator
- Attend a quarterly Berkeley Climate Action Plan workshop to build skills and resources to address climate change
- Participate in a storytelling workshop, such as a Narrative 4, The Moth, or StoryCenter (located in Berkeley!) to practice sharing your own narrative and deep listening to the narratives of others
- Even better, attend a science-specific storytelling event through Story Collider (they have a bunch of events in the Bay)
- If you feel like Netflix binging, or just being on the listening end, there’s even an option for you! Check out Years of Living Dangerously, a Natural Geographic documentary television series focusing on the stories from people whose lives climate change is directly impacting right now.
Data is key tool in discussing climate change, but also try to use a method of communication that can reach hearts and minds. Here are two examples from the Berkeley community that I find particularly compelling and creative:
- The ClimateMusic Project: creates and performs music as a way to interpret climate change data and disseminate it to the public. “We created The ClimateMusic Project to harness this universal language to tell the urgent story of climate change to broad and diverse audiences in a way that resonates and inspires.” In their latest piece, “Climate,” CO2 concentration is represented by tempo, temperature is represented by pitch, and earth energy balance is represented by distortion.
- Kelly Jiang’s blanket: Berkeley undergraduate superstar Kelly Jiang— BERC-U co-president, Engineers for a Sustainable World President and Energy Commissioner for the city of Berkeley— got bored one day and decided to crochet a blanket larger than her body (+ arms) with every row color-coded to correspond to the mean global surface temperature of every year from 1850-2016 (pictured right).
“Call your senators — say that you support strong environmental regulations, arm them with stories about how regulations on oil and gas have reduced illness in children, cite their voting record. MAKE IT PERSONAL.”
— Jayant Kairam from the Environmental Defense Fund
- Share your story. Engage in the media. Write an op-ed. Write a blog post!
- Speak at events like Fired Up!
- Actively engage in conversations and exchanges with people who may have different views than you do. While doing so, practice respect and empathy. Listen deeply to where they are coming from. Then share your story in a way they can relate to.
4. take care of yourself
One of the speakers passed on some advice from her 70-year-old midwife, regarding the current political frenzy (to put it lightly). “Right now is a blip in history. You need to prepare for the future— yours and the planets.” In other words, there is no time to wallow. You were just presented an explosive list of actions to take. But you cannot do everything, otherwise you will burn out be slurped down into an existential spiral. Focus is key. The general sentiment after the event was you have to keep your eyes on the prize, but also make sure to take care of yourself.
- What are the narratives that enable you to feel inspired and think about climate change in a productive way?
- It is important to stay informed and recognize the reality (for example, the bill to “terminate the EPA”, attacks on the clean air act, and signals to pull out of Paris climate accords). But it is almost more important is to remember optimistic messages and let them guide you forward.
- What lifestyle choices, mindsets, and actions keep you motivated and committed, and not overwhelmed or burn out?
- What are the specific areas you really want to make a difference in? What issues do you really care about?
Reconnect to people and place
- SUPPORT each other and THANK each other for the hard work that has been done in the past, the hard work we are doing right now, and the hard work that we are setting out to do in the future
- Remember to take breaks when you feel overwhelmed, and create an opportunity to recharge and reconnect with nature
- Spend time in the outdoors to remind yourself what is at stake and what you are fighting for. Bonus points if you do so while volunteering for outdoor trail restoration (ex: VO-C or Friends of Five Creeks), bicycling/teaching with Cycle for Science, or leading an outdoor hike or adventure (ex: through the Sierra Club)
- Yes, this is about to sound *so Berkeley* but always remember to practice self-love and self-care
Focus and go deep
- Focus focus focus. Recognize when you are overwhelmed. Be aware of the scatterbrain monster.
- You want to come out of graduate school with something specific to offer the world. Go deep and go focused, choose a few issues you can really get behind.
- Keep an open heart and mind. But you don’t need to volunteer for every single thing. And, frankly, you shouldn’t. There is no shame in picking and choosing your battles.
so, now what?
Whew. That was a lot. And this is just an incomplete list of ideas from a two-hour long event, showcasing a tiny fraction of fantastic organizations composed of motivated individuals. We have a whole lot of work to do. And luckily, there is an extensive supportive community in Berkeley to work alongside.
So let’s get to it.
For mountains of inspiration: the Teton range in Wyoming in February, and a teensy dot (me!) scooting n skittering in circles on skinny skis. We’ve got some tough terrain to cover, and we all walk our own paths, but while carving yours remember to look up, reconnect to what you are fighting for, and know you are in the presence of mountains.
The organizers of Fired Up have recently applied for funding to make it an annual event! BERC is also considering organizing activism and/or storytelling workshops for graduate students in STEM fields. If you have any questions about the event or next steps, please reach out to Brandon at email@example.com or Sam at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am considering expanding upon this blog post, in part to answer “which strategies are the most effective” (which this post didn’t touch on explicitly) and to transform it into a more extensive, interactive, and update-able format. Perhaps adaptable to other universities. And perhaps in a more creative format than a blog post. If you are interested in helping with this project, know of somebody already doing something similar, or have any other questions, contact me at email@example.com.