My biggest problem with marches and protests is the chanting. I struggle with chanting; it probably comes from growing up in the American south where chanting usually meant mandatory football and church events that I wasn’t quite sold on, but I won’t get into that here.
Anyways, flash back five years to Fall 2011, when tiny college freshman Claire finds herself on the Dartmouth green, standing behind a metal fence and waving a sign that reads “Climate Change, It’s Personal” at the republican presidential candidates who were in town for a debate (perks of going to school in New Hampshire). A student near me started a chant, “Clean coal, hell no, That’s a myth that’s got to go!” The chant caught on quickly, but when a reporter asked several of the protesters to talk about their views on clean coal, it became obvious that the chanters (myself included) had very little knowledge of the issue of “clean coal”, myth or reality.
It’s stuck with me: how rare the intersection of “meaningful message” and “short, catchy phrase that many people are willing to repeat in unison” are in this world, environmental or otherwise. Climate change, (like healthcare), is complicated. There is nuance and uncertainty in every aspect, from the accuracy of climate models to the cost-effectiveness of renewables, to the authority of the federal government to regulate carbon dioxide. But how do you communicate the complexity of those questions without coming across as uncertain, unprepared, or unfocused? Whether the message is chanted or written on a sign, language is powerful.
So how did I choose to navigate this? First, by being rushed and failing to make my own sign; I accepted one from a League of Conservation Voters volunteer that read “Resist, Build, Rise, Vote”, messaged that I can get on board with. Other signs I enjoyed enough to snap pictures of: “It’s so damn hot… coal was a bad choice” (Anchorman reference), “In the military, if you wait until you’re absolutely certain you’re in grave danger, you’re already dead” (moral of the story: militarize anything you want to get done in Trump’s America), and “climate chaos is a healthcare crisis” (I have too much to say about that one to put in parentheses).
I didn’t hear any chants I felt uncomfortable joining into, although I didn’t find much meaning or inspiration in them either. Most were taunts to the Trump administration. “Hey hey, ho ho, Scott Pruitt has got to go.” “Resistance is here to stay, welcome to your hundred days”. And as we marched in front of the old Post Office, a Pennsylvania Avenue building that Trump has developed into a luxury hotel, the chant switched to “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
Now firstly, Donald Trump feeling shame? I’m not sure the entire nation chanting in unison could make that happen. Secondly, there are many things to direct shame at in D.C. these days. Are we shaming the Trump family’s potential lease violation since the hotel is government property? Are we shaming a president for his corporate priorities overriding environmental and social concerns? Or are we just shaming a building because everyone around us is? Andrew was marching next to me and giggled at the chant, saying “shame that building, shame it!” (This from a carpenter who finds more humanity and meaning in buildings than anyone I’ve ever met). But did I have any better chants to offer up? Nope. And I’ll be honest, chanting “shame” feels great, and with so many things to feel shitty about around climate issues, what’s so wrong about a little self-indulgent venting at a building (which can’t get its feelings hurt, unlike a lot of things I could vent at)?
Once the chanting quiets and the crowds disperse, what difference does a lap around the mall chanting about climate change at empty government buildings make? Back in New Hampshire, I write fact sheets about heat waves and go to town meetings to talk about Lyme disease–health risks that may get worse as the northeast gets warmer and wetter. I talk with my coworkers about activism and go for trail runs and marvel at new spring leaves and goldfinches and avoid researching whether this is a normal time for spring to start in New Hampshire. Yesterday I got an email from NRDC telling me to call Ivanka Trump to advocate to her father for the U.S. to stay in the Paris climate agreement; I guess I shouldn’t tell her “shame” about the Trump post office hotel thing if she’s the most effective advocate for climate policy in the White House. But at least I got as close to the White House as I’m legally permitted and told it in no uncertain terms what I think it should do on climate change. But I’ll call the White House comment line (202-456-1111) and leave a message for Ivanka too, just in case she didn’t hear me last week.
A note on the weather
This spring has been cool in New Hampshire. The mountains still have snow for spring skiiers and snowboarders, and I only stopped scraping frost off my windshield a couple of weeks ago. Writing this made me pause: has it really been “cool”? Or just cooler than what I’ve labeled as “normal” from the six years I’ve spent in New England? Hmmmm. Let’s ask NOAA.
Yes, it was a cool March. But that’s the first cooler than average month since early 2016. This is important. In climate debate, weather is often weaponized. Quite literally, as in Senator James Inhofe’s snowball in the Senate in 2015 (remember that?). So with a high of 91 in D.C. on Saturday, April 29, the day of the People’s Climate March in D.C. I wanted to proactively check my facts before immediately brandishing the weather report as evidence of global warming. I feel confident calling Saturday’s heat pretty remarkable: the high was 20 degrees above normal, tying the record high set in 1974. Weather and climate are two different things, and the blurred line between the two is a powerful political tool. There is no shortage of science-based explanation for the difference between weather and climate, but research has shown that short-term weather trends play a major role in determining independent voter‘s climate beliefs (while democrats and republicans are pretty unwavering in their beliefs already.)
Where am I going with this? 90 degree April days will happen more often than they used to. The Jim Inhofe’s of the world will also continue to brandish snowballs as exhibits of the absurdity of global warming. And weather is not climate, and people should not base their political decisions or scientific beliefs off of individual data points. But science-splaining the definition of weather, or dramatically hyping up unseasonable warmth as indisputable evidence that climate change is happening, are going to change people’s perspectives in any meaningful way. But still, it was nice validation.