David Michael Miller
Earth Day is always special for Tia Nelson. Her father, the renowned environmentalist and former Gov. Gaylord Nelson, founded the holiday almost 50 years ago and helped launch a new wave of environmental activism. But this year, amid the rollbacks of environmental protections, the wave of industrial deregulation and ongoing climate change denial from President Donald Trump’s administration, Earth Day feels much more urgent.
“This is a threat to our democracy, this is a threat to our public health, a threat to our rights as citizens,” Nelson says. “I think what we’re seeing on this Earth Day is significant concern and responses to those threats, and I think it’s imperative that we all speak up and involve ourselves in pushing back.”
Nelson, a managing director of the Madison-based Outrider Foundation, will speak April 22 at the Madison March for Science — one of more than 500 nonpartisan, pro-science demonstrations taking place across the world on Earth Day in conjunction with a flagship event happening in Washington, D.C. The local march begins at 1 p.m. at James Madison Park and will move toward Library Mall, with speakers beginning around 2:30 p.m.
Happening that same day is the Madison People’s Climate March, an entirely separate but concurrent event aimed at raising awareness about climate change and social justice. The climate march kicks off at 2 p.m. at the State Capitol and ends at the Madison Gas and Electric headquarters on East Main Street, where the group will call upon the utility to combat climate change by reducing its use of coal. The national climate march as well as most “sister marches” are slated for April 29, but that date didn’t work for Madison because of the Crazylegs Classic.
Organizers of the Madison marches discussed merging the two, but decided to keep them separate, says David Lovelace, a science march volunteer. “There is a lot of cross-pollination and collaboration [between the two groups],” Lovelace says, “but because we’re threading a needle of maintaining a nonpartisan, non-protest stance, we can’t be seen as attacking any one individual or any one organization.”
Devin Martin, a climate march volunteer and organizer of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, says the science march has a “similar purpose” and considers those involved to be allies. “The science march is for the role of science to be listened to and heard by policymakers, which is a really important thing, but on the other side of the coin we also need activism,” he says. “We also need to listen to the voices of people who don’t work in science, people in frontline communities who have the most to lose from anti-science policies.”
Martin moved to Madison from Louisiana, where people used to joke that “the flag of Texaco flies over the state capitol.” His grandfather was a coal miner, so growing up he saw the impact of the fossil fuel industry on the environment, communities and public health. “Louisiana loses a football field of wetlands every hour,” he says. “That’s what drove me to be more and more of an activist.”
MGE has touted its Energy 2030 initiative, which involves transitioning to renewable energy sources and reducing dependence on coal. The utility’s goal is to supply 30 percent of retail energy sales with renewable resources by 2030, but that still leaves 70 percent coming from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.
“MGE relies on 68 percent coal generation. The national average is 30 percent, so we feel like they’re lagging behind,” Martin says. “They’re making progress, but we’d like them to do more.”
(An MGE spokesperson told Isthmus in January the company’s mix of coal ranges “from about the mid-50 percent range to mid-60 percent range” annually.)
Martin is troubled by President Trump’s recent executive order, which nullified former President Barack Obama’s climate change initiatives in an effort to revive the coal industry. “It really shows the administration’s intention to accelerate the use of fossil fuels regardless of their cost to human health,” he says. “It’s important for us to step up at a local level and confront this crisis where we can. Because we can’t expect leadership at the state or federal level.”
While Martin and his Sierra Club compatriots are seasoned political activists, the folks behind the science march are, well, scientists. “We aren’t organizers, we aren’t typically activists in this sense,” says Lovelace, a vertebrate paleontologist who works at the UW-Madison Geology Museum. He says a demonstration like the science march is “for sure a first” for Madison’s academic community. But when the Trump administration started culling data sources from government websites that had been generated by publicly funded research, he and his colleagues couldn’t sit idly by. “This research is fundamental to everything in our democracy,” he says. “So many major innovations and medical advances are funded by publicly sourced data.”
The science march is all about outreach — organizers seek to humanize scientists and highlight their work while affirming the legitimacy of peer-reviewed research and its role in evidence-based public policy.
“It’s a political issue, but we’re treating it like it’s nonpartisan,” Lovelace says. “No matter who you vote for, people benefit from advances in science.”