Conservation news

Call for scientists to engage in environmental movements strikes chord

  • Scientists have a “moral duty” to partake in environmental movements such as the Extinction Rebellion and the Global Climate Strike, a pair of ecologists argues.
  • The engagement of scientists could spark a deeper interest in — and action to address — these issues, they write.
  • The participation of scientists will also lend credibility to the urgency of such movements, the scientists say.

Cataloging the growing number of declining species or tracking the relentless rise of temperatures around the world today can make for some dark days for scientists in these areas of study — scientists like ecologist Claire Wordley.

“I was feeling very despairing about the situation, particularly climate change and what we were doing to the world,” Wordley, who has studied the influence of agriculture on bats in India and worked to promote evidence-based conservation policy at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., told Mongabay.

One ray of hope, which sparked her own involvement in movements such as the Extinction Rebellion and the Global Climate Strike, has been the rising tide of activism taking aim at the set of ecological crises facing the world today.

“To me, seeing that people were really willing to rise up against that was very uplifting,” Wordley said.

Claire Wordley at a protest on Blackfriar’s Bridge in London. Image by Jane Carpenter.

In fact, she said she thinks more scientists should get involved — and not just because it will make them feel better. Wordley and fellow conservation scientist Charlie Gardner, in a commentary published Sept. 2 in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, argue that scientists have a “moral duty” to join the movements focused on environmental issues like climate change and species extinction.

The collaboration began on the heels of an opinion piece that Wordley wrote for Mongabay in December 2018 encouraging environmentalists to engage in the then-nascent Extinction Rebellion. Reading it prompted Gardner to get in touch, and the two researchers began working on the current commentary to get scientists more involved.

Wordley and Gardner said they found the lack of representation from the scientific community surprising.

“It just struck me as both a bit odd that the people who know most about the crises we face were not getting involved,” Gardner said in an interview. “I think we have a moral responsibility, given the urgency of the situations we face, to act on our knowledge.”

A pink boat, named after murdered Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, in Oxford Circus, London, April 2019. Image by Louise Gardner.

Scientists might worry that participating in protests or civil disobedience could cloud their objectivity. But as Wordley points out, the science in these fields isn’t “neutral.”

“If you’re working as a conservation scientist, you’re already advocating. You’re already taking a position that we should be conserving these species,” she said. “I don’t think it’s going that much further to then go and support the people who agree with the positions that you’ve drawn out from your science.”

“The science has been done,” Gardner added. “Now it’s about acting on that.”

Similarly, researchers might worry about the erosion of the public’s trust when they’re seen carrying banners or blocking a road as a way of drawing attention to these problems. But the pair cites a study after the 2017 March for Science in Washington, D.C., demonstrating that scientists’ participation didn’t change public perceptions of their credibility.

On the contrary, Gardner said he thinks that engagement by scientists could ignite deeper interest in — and action to address — these issues.

“That makes people sit up and take notice and think, ‘Wow, this must really be serious,’” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, science is one tool that we have in our toolbox for addressing the environmental crisis, and I’m prepared to use whatever tools that we have.”

Claire Wordley, right, joins Extinction Rebellion protesters blocking Blackfriar’s Bridge, London. Image by Jane Carpenter.

By participating, the researchers write, they can help ensure that the people involved in the movements are armed with the most accurate information. Gardner said that a group of scientists are planning to attend the next round of Extinction Rebellion protests beginning Oct. 7 in the U.K., where they’ll wear white lab coats and carry signs inviting participants to ask them questions.

Wordley said she’s sympathetic to concerns about what an arrest record might mean, especially for researchers working in foreign countries who might worry about losing their visas. But they can find other ways to support the movements, she said.

“We can give talks, act as media spokespeople, write or speak publicly about why we have embraced civil disobedience, or support organisational tasks,” Wordley and Gardner write.

There are signs that the scientific community is taking notice. On Sept. 19, more than 200 researchers in Australia signed a letter supporting the Extinction Rebellion. And a recent study in the journal Frontiers in Communication found that these events are triggering action on the part of the public.

Wordley and Gardner said they’ve received emails and tweets expressing support for the ideas they laid out in the commentary. It’s also caught the eyes of readers online: Out of more than 180,000 papers published in the past three months, the commentary ranks 31st, according to Altmetric, which tracks the online activity of scientific publications.

“What that says to me is that scientists were waiting for someone to say this,” Gardner said, adding that, given the stakes, just producing the science is not enough. “All of us as individuals have a choice, and if we choose inaction, we’re choosing climate breakdown.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 outlets worldwide to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 outlets worldwide to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Banner image of protesters on Blackfriar’s Bridge in London by Jane Carpenter.

John Cannon is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Clarification: Claire Wordley’s publication written for Mongabay in December 2019 was an opinion piece. The article has been updated to reflect this fact.


Gardner, C. J., & Wordley, C. F. R. (2019). Scientists must act on our own warnings to humanity. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 3(9), 1271–1272. doi:10.1038/s41559-019-0979-y

Swim, J. K., Geiger, N., & Lengieza, M. L. (2019). Climate Change Marches as Motivators for Bystander Collective Action . Frontiers in Communication. doi:10.3389/fcomm.2019.00004

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.