At 12:38 p.m. on September 21, the streets of Manhattan were dead silent. And a minute later they were filled with the cheers of the activists participating in the People’s Climate March, 400,000 voices strong. A moment of silence for those communities directly effected by climate change was followed by the sounding of the “climate alarm” that has been ignored for too long.
In support of drastic change to environmental policy at the upcoming U.N. Emergency Climate Summit, protesters all over the world mobilized to show their support for the cause. Across political lines, cultural boundaries, geographical differences, language barriers and disparate opinions, the citizens of the world spoke up about their passionate desire to put an end to climate change, a crisis that affects absolutely everyone. The movement sent a clear message to those leaders participating in the summit: the people are demanding action. Swift, meaningful, dramatic action.
In the days following the largest climate march in history, many critics began to find flaws in the movement. Some complained about the trash left behind by participants in the movement. There were also attacks on the campaign because it was not technically a “grass roots” movement. Those critics of the climate march fail to see what a historically significant, apathy-battling, democracy inspiring occasion Sept. 21 was. Despite the proportionally negligible amount of litter and the fact that a company provided the means to make the day happen, this was the largest mobilization of people against climate change in history. Real, average, regular people made the pilgrimage to NYC on buses and trains and planes to be a part of the march. It had nothing to do with The Climate Group, they just paid for the laminated signs. People came to the march because they wanted to, because they wanted their voices heard, and because they want to put an end to climate change. Critics can think otherwise and argue over semantic classifications, but it will still remain the People’s Climate March.
The People’s Climate March was the largest of its kind in history, hoping to effect the results of the summit held in NYC on Sept. 23. At the UN, world leaders, corporations, and civil society groups met to discuss the global effects of climate change and propose ways to stop further damage to the climate under the leadership of UN Secretary-General Ben Ki-moon. The summit proved very productive as leaders began by agreeing that climate change was a pressing issue that demands immediate and thoughtful response. They went on to propose cuts in emissions and implementation of sustainable practices, keeping in mind goals of eliminating extreme poverty and promoting environmentally friendly practices in developing countries. Specifically, a goal was set to limit climate increase to no higher than two degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels.
Countries in Europe, Africa, and elsewhere had representatives that promised very tangible change and began to take steps to end the climate crisis. But what about America? What did the leader of the country that staged the largest climate march in history commit to at the UN Summit? The president offered up a fiery speech full of passionate rhetoric and not much else. Not a quantifiable emissions goal, not a promise to send funds to developing countries to support sustainability, but an executive order for an oil and gas methane partnership: a corporate alliance that has no binding environmental commitments. While many campaign promises were made by the Obama administration to work toward development of sustainable energy sources and to focus on answering the climate alarm, the administration remains in support of the fossil fuel industry. As long as this relationship exists, between the most powerful political body in the country and one of the most environmentally irresponsible structures in the world, there can be no real hope for any genuine activism on the part of America’s government. For now, all the US can offer up are thinly veiled attempts at appeasing the mass movement of citizens fighting for climate justice. The crowds at the climate march chanted all day “Show me what democracy looks like…this is what democracy looks like.” And while the citizens are doing their democratic duties—to educate themselves on the climate crisis, to mobilize and take decisive and thoughtful political action, to put in the effort to speak up in the debate over climate change and to make clear to leadership the interests of the people—nothing can be accomplished if there is not a response by those in power to the actions of its constituents. Many political scientists complain of the American public’s tendency to be lazy and apathetic. Here is a case where an enormous number of American citizens have been the opposite (active, well-versed on the issues, and passionate) and yet the government can only promise an alliance between gas methane and oil corporations.
That is not to say that the efforts of those involved in the march in September and the ongoing movement to end climate change are invalid or ineffectual. By helping to spread the word, to educate others, and to make lifestyle changes that will benefit the environment, the masses can effect real change independent of their governments. The People’s Climate march is about just that: the people. A movement of 400,000 people and growing has the power to make changes in their own lives and the lives of those people in their communities that will advance the values of the climate justice movement without policy changes and without official emissions caps. Much change happens from the bottom up, and in this case it all starts with the people. A truism captured in another chant from the march: “The people, united, will never be defeated.”
—Ashley Hoyle ’18 is a member of the Vassar Greens.