Breaking My Silence

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Natalie Belew, C+S ’18

(Source: Molly Adams/flickr)

I need to be honest. I’m awful at social media.

On Facebook, I post an update maybe once or twice a year. My camera roll is filled to storage capacity with memories I never get around to sharing on Instagram. Now, I tweet more frequently, but even there, away from the prying eyes of my hometown friends, I’m still more comfortable tweeting about Blair Braverman’s sled dogs (highly recommended) rather than about climate change.

But after this whirlwind of a year at C+S, I have made a resolution to be more present online and engage with more diverse audiences. Why would I want to crawl into the trenches of a raging cyberwar?

My upbringing in Waco, the belt buckle of the Bible Belt, partially explains my past comfort on the sidelines. This quirky city is known for its history as a home to religious cults such as Branch Davidians and more recently, to HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines. But it also prides itself on being one of the most conservative cities in Texas and, by extension, the U.S.

My family has never been conservative, though, and neither have I. For this, I stuck out like a sore thumb growing up. I was ruthlessly teased and mocked by my classmates and teachers in this highly politicized environment. I grew weary of engaging in conversations with people calling me a socialist for caring about the environment and social justice, witnessing “friends” and teammates attempting to scratch off an Obama sticker from my car at a school event, and listening to science teachers explain how the climate is always changing and how creationism is an acceptable alternative to evolution. After years of fighting, I decided I would keep my thoughts on the down low for the sake of peace in my corner of the world.

But this decision didn’t mean I shied away from studying what I believed really matters. I joined a field at the forefront of attacks from climate deniers and skeptics, too many of which are currently in influential positions in the U.S. government.

This summer, I’ve learned all too much about skeptics and deniers in the local, state, and national governments of the U.S. through interning with the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (CSLDF). This firecracker team of five brilliant women is dedicated to protecting climate scientists from threats and harassment by anti-science groups, such a critical task in this day and age. As their first intern and temporary sixth member, one of my most significant projects has been assisting in researching anti-science actions across the U.S. for their Silencing Science Tracker co-developed with Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. The intent of this tracker is to record and publicize government attempts to silence science since the November 2016 election.

As I investigate stories for developing a state-level version, I rely on local journalists covering and individuals and organizations speaking out about attacks on science at the municipal and state level. Without their stories, voices and even simple letters to the editor of the local newspaper, the tracker wouldn’t be nearly as robust.

Working on this tracker and with the CSLDF, in general, has inspired me to reflect on finding my own voice in all of this and how I can contribute in better communicating climate science. And reading about people standing up for science and climate change made me come to the realization that I am missing opportunities to share my perspective.

Conversations and storytelling are absolutely critical for communicating climate change. The importance of communication is the most significant takeaway I’ve received this past year in C+S. Too often scientists produce their research that a broader audience doesn’t know exists, and a major downfall with the scientific community is uniting behind one another to better communicate the threat of climate change across disciplines. And I feel that given how strongly I feel on the subject, I ought to practice what I preach.

That being said, I know I won’t likely be a scientist or a journalist. I want to be a researcher and an environmental historian, one who understands the importance of working at the nexus of science and society and one who draws on lessons from past and present to propose solutions for the future. For me, my future will undoubtedly involve communication across academic fields, including scientific and non-scientific disciplines.

I also know I have a reasonably diverse online community compared to many of my past, present, and future classmates, and that I can help inform the people I love back in Texas, including those who have different worldviews. I’ve lived a pretty unconventional life from most of my hometown friends, and it’s likely to become even more different as I continue my studies and begin my career. But that’s not a wedge or a reason I shouldn’t talk with my Central Texas friends about an issue that’s of great importance to all of us, no matter our political beliefs. Climate change shouldn’t be a partisan topic or one just for experts to discuss in their ivory tower, and I want to help better communicate it to a broader audience, especially those in my hometown.

Although I don’t see myself physically returning to Waco or necessarily Texas for a career, I still want to show my community respect and be able to have conversations online and in person about climate change. Without the doom and gloom. Without the finger-pointing. Just what climate change and protecting the environment means to me as a young woman from the Texas countryside. It won’t be easy and certainly not always productive. But the effort is something I need to give a try. Because I know silence isn’t the answer.

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