How Woody Guthrie can help us fight for science

Jacqueline M. Vadjunec in Nature:

WVWhen I moved from Massachusetts almost a decade ago to teach at Oklahoma State University, many colleagues were afraid for my career. I work on the human dimensions of global environmental change, and Oklahoma has a long and complex history with science, including climate change. Oklahoma was the first state to ratify ‘anti-Darwin’ legislation in 1923 and today is home to key sceptics in the war on climate change, including Republican Senator James Inhofe and Scott Pruitt, the state’s attorney-general, who earlier this month was nominated to run the US Environmental Protection Agency. These politicized debates trickle down, and both evolution and human-induced climate change remain contested topics, especially in schools. However, Oklahoma is also the home of protest singer Woody Guthrie, a visible example of resistance in the 1930s class and culture wars between rural and urban values.If Woody could use his voice to speak up, so can scientists. In truth, my career is fine, and my colleagues are supportive. I not only manage, but also thrive. And if I can, then so can other scientists who find themselves concerned about the tidal wave of climate scepticism that comes with last month’s election of Donald Trump and his associates. The election might have powerful effects on science, policy and funding. But I want to stress the power and promise of human agency.

In my case, adjustments are minor, but might seem substantial elsewhere. I realize that in my day-to-day actions in the classroom and in my research with family farmers and ranchers, I probably hold a minority viewpoint on human-induced climate change. In the classroom, I am sensitive to the fact that many of my students have family ties to the oil and gas industry. I regularly see them struggle with the local contradictions. I try to create a place of mutual respect to embrace this struggle on their own terms, while also trying to focus on our role as global citizens facing global challenges. It is not always an easy balancing act; these experiences have taught me that most students care about global environmental change, but often have little previous exposure to such issues — in part because of the decisions of local politicians and school boards. In our debriefing at the end of the semester, students often express frustration that they weren’t exposed to many of the issues surrounding climate change at a younger age.

I also learned that actively listening to (instead of talking at) farmers and ranchers who care about sustaining their land and livelihoods is a good way to open dialogue.

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