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Was the People’s Climate March An Easy Way Out?

Opinion | November 5, 2014

On September 21, 2014, 400,000 concerned environmental justice organizers, students, socialist revolutionaries, families, celebrities, and others flocked to New York City to attend The People’s Climate March, the largest demonstration for climate action in history. Along with over 100 other Tufts students, I was there in support.

The date and location of the March were specifically chosen to demand climate-based action from the world leaders who met in New York at the UN Climate Summit two days later. No immediate action, however, came out of the Summit, despite efforts of the marchers in New York City and the attendees of the 2,645 solidarity events held worldwide.

The March’s slogan was, “To change everything, we need everyone.” Indeed, the March did seem to include everyone, spanning 52 blocks going South and several other blocks going West, organized into 7 sections. Each section consisted of representatives from different communities, such as indigenous groups on the “frontlines” of climate change, climate scientists, peace and justice groups, and interfaith groups, just to name a few.

But the pleasing yet nonspecific slogan also reflected how the March didn’t address any specific measures our society must implement in order to combat climate change. Though I was inspired by the sheer number of people at the March—the streets were so packed that for a few hours we weren’t able to walk—it did not “change everything.” It only accomplished the historic, yet mostly symbolic feat of executing “the largest climate rally ever.”

When I first joined the crowd, the assortment of signs—calling for a socialist revolution, promoting veganism, or anything in between—reminded me of the disparate goals of the protestors at Occupy Wall Street. Standing on 6th Avenue, I started to feel pessimistic when I remembered how that movement had “raised awareness” about growing income inequality in America, but didn’t achieve many concrete changes. I also realized that many people at the March—including many Tufts students, and perhaps myself—seemed to be seizing the opportunity to “act” against climate change but were privileged enough to return home that same day and probably forget the horrible affects of climate change happening right now.

But just because the march was not the most effective action doesn’t mean it was without value. The people I met during the day reminded me that the People’s Climate March was an important first step for solving the climate crisis, and that we can’t stop marching, even though all of the participants reached that final barricaded block six weeks ago.

If you don’t believe climate change is happening and worth fighting, there are sobering statistics that say otherwise. At the 2009 UN Copenhagen Accords, the international community agreed that if we did not reduce emissions, global temperatures would rise by more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (or 2 degrees Celsius). But we haven’t changed our ways—according to the 2014 UN Climate Report, we will surpass that level within the next 20 to 30 years if emissions continue at their current rate. A global temperature rise of even 2 degrees will lead to irreversible changes, disrupting weather patterns, wiping out coastal areas (where most people on earth live), and speeding up the anthropogenic mass extinction that earth is currently experiencing.

While many people at the March held signs that read, “I’m marching for polar bears” or “I’m marching for forest conservation,” this issue is truly a matter of justice to me. Whereas many people living in rich countries like the US enjoy central heating, gas-guzzling cars, and factory-farmed meat, it is largely poorer countries and poorer people, who have contributed proportionally less to climate change, who will bear its most severe impacts. Furthermore, within the United States, low-income and minority neighborhoods are already receiving the least protection from climate change disasters. During Hurricane Katrina, for example, white, wealthier neighborhoods in New Orleans received the most aid, while black communities were largely left to fend for themselves. Climate change will therefore exacerbate existing injustices and inequalities between and within nations. Climate change is happening now, and we have no time to lose.

I attended the march for these reasons and more. Though I left feeling disillusioned by its vague goals and by the number of people who will most likely stop talking about climate change now that the march is over, the people I met who are devoting their lives to finding climate solutions reminded me why I was there.

Debra Sylvie, a retiree I met during the march, travelled all the way from the California Bay Area to show her support. She told me about her work with 350.org, an international organization working to fight climate change, which pressures the California employee’s retirement pension fund to divest from fossil fuels. But Sylvie also attended the march because she felt a greater human responsibility to help secure a livable world for future generations.

“There’s nothing more important at this moment,” she said. “I’m a grandmother of five and I really want my grandchildren to have a future.”

Another protester I met, Rebecca Foster, devotes her life to combatting fracking (a destructive, controversial method of natural gas extraction) and climate injustice on the East Coast. She works with a grassroots group of landowners and climate activists at Just Power, a nonprofit organization campaigning to stop the expansion of a natural gas pipeline near her hometown of Charlotte, VT.

Foster is worried about the risks of transporting fracked gas over important ecosystems in Vermont and the detrimental environmental effects of methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas released during fracking. So, she’s standing up to the fossil fuel companies who are threatening her community.

Although not a full-time activist like Foster or Sylvie, Zoe Wallace had an equally impressive story. The 17-year-old high school student took a 24-hour-long bus ride from her hometown, Houston, Texas, to attend the Climate March. Most of the 16 people in Zoe’s group spent the night before the march sleeping on a New York City church floor. Wallace’s peers were skeptical when she informed them about the march and the importance of people coming together to collectively fight climate change.

“I think a lot of it is bringing knowledge to the people, especially young people,” she said, “starting with our circle of friends, and then having them tell all their friends.”

After speaking to these and other devoted activists, I realized the real purpose of the march, regardless of its slogan: to inspire others and to be inspired into action. If I felt so inspired after speaking to only a few climate activists, hopefully this activist spirit spread to others at the March as well, because we, as a society, and especially us privileged college students, must do more than attend marches for symbolic purposes. The question is, how?

One solution is to attend protests with clear goals that entail direct action. That’s what Tufts senior Evan Bell did the day after the Climate March. On September 22, Evan and another Tufts student, senior Emily Edgerly, attended Flood Wall Street, a direct action protest that aimed to call attention to the explicit associations between capitalism, corporate greed, and climate change. Roughly 3,000 people met in New York City’s Battery Park on Monday morning and marched up Broadway to sit-in and shut down the New York Stock Exchange.

Flood Wall Street included arrestable actions, unlike the People’s Climate March, as the protestors successfully shut down the New York Stock Exchange for the day and staged a sit in on Broadway and Wall Street. This direct action explicitly pointed out one of many culprits of climate change: unregulated capitalism.

Evan described the sit-in as “fun, energetic, exciting, and very peaceful,” despite the large presence of police. The demonstrators sat, chanted, played soccer, ate pizza, and sang for almost eleven hours, until police started arresting demonstrators.

Evan was one of the first arrested, and although he spent more than five hours in the police station with the other 102 protestors who were also arrested, he remains glad he attended Flood Wall Street.

“This is part of the narrative that isn’t talked about enough,” he said. “When Tufts invests in fossil fuels, when we as a nation have all this money allocated to Wall Street, at the expense of everyone else …We need to be on Wall Street doing things.”

But attending actions such as Flood Wall Street is not the only way to get involved. Urging Tufts to divest from the fossil fuel industry is another solution; it would show that this institution refuses to profit off climate injustices caused by rich, powerful fossil fuel companies, and it would pressure other universities and institutions to do the same. We can also call our congressmen and women and tell them that climate change is a serious issue to us. We can stop eating meat and supporting factory farms. We can choose to study fields relating to the environment and devote our lives to securing a livable future for everyone on Earth and for future generations, just like Debra Sylvie and Rebecca Foster.

In this way, the Climate March succeeded. Talking to people I met there, as well as to my peers, inspired me to put all my efforts into fighting climate change. At times, it felt like everyone at the March was there to take pictures and to pat themselves on the back.

But we have a choice: we can educate ourselves about climate change, attend symbolic marches, and stop there, or we can do those things and allow them to inspire us into action. I choose the latter, and I urge everyone to do the same.

All photos by Emily Williams.