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Will the Climate Change March Make a Difference?

On Sunday, more than 300,000 people came out for the People's Climate March in Manhattan, a historic turnout that thrilled organizers.

by Matt Taylor
Sep 22 2014, 1:15pm

All photos by the author

On Sunday, more than 300,000 people came out for the People's Climate March in Manhattan. Easily the largest environmental rally in history, the spectacle was a diverse and frenetic show of force, and in that sense was a spectacular success. But the lingering question that was hanging over the proceedings remains: Is all of that sound and fury going to make a difference to the global elites meeting across town at the United Nations for the latest Very Important Climate Change Summit on Tuesday?

Led by a procession of indigenous peoples, activists got things started just before 11:30 AM. In addition to your typical flower-adorned hippie types, there were black and Hispanic kids from around the country. The summer of police brutality punctuated by the death of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Missouri was never far from the surface, their names intermittently chanted by the legions of protesters.

The event was essentially a giant party. Elaborate floats coasted slowly down the street surrounded by activists with signs demanding action and marching bands. Inside the crowd was a smattering of radicals convinced that the environmental movement's leaders are kidding themselves if they think carbon emissions can be reduced—and global warming's worst effects averted—without dramatically reshaping the global economy.

"We should recognize that this is an absolutely historic event," said Kshama Sawant, the Indian-American Socialist city councilwoman from Seattle whose radical brand of politics has been making waves in the Pacific Northwest and across the country. "But you cannot rely on these people running the climate summit because they're beholden to the oil corporations—to the oil lobby. All this oil wealth, coal and everything, is in the hands of a few hundred people who have no incentive to move toward renewable energy."

The occasion was lent an extra note of urgency when scientists from the Global Carbon Project reported the same day that greenhouse gas emissions worldwide jumped another 2.3 percent to a new record high in 2013. So as world leaders prepare to discuss how to (maybe) strike a climate deal at a conference in Paris next year, they were reminded just how high the stakes are, and how pressing this issue is. One would hope, anyway.

Left-wing activists, like Kshama Sawant (center) from the Socialist Alternative Party, made up a vocal minority at the march.

Purely from a numbers perspective, organizers couldn't have asked for much more.

"Completely unbelievable," Bill McKibben, the environmentalist perhaps best known for his aggressive activism against the Keystone XL pipeline, told me of the turnout. "Way, way more than we expected. Not only by far the largest climate rally ever, it's clearly the largest political gathering of any kind in this country for many years. That means climate change is at the top of the agenda."

It's true that many political leaders in the US have begun to take the threat of rising sea levels and extreme weather more seriously. The EPA finally set new rules for coal-fired power plants in June, which should make a dent in American carbon output. The office of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio—who attended the march—announced new plans to cut local emissions 80 percent by 2050 on Sunday. On the other hand, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Chinese President Xi Jinping won't be attending Tuesday's summit, signaling that some of the world's most powerful polluters don't care much about climate change, no matter how many people flood the streets of New York.

So even as environmentalist champions like McKibben insisted this was a seminal moment for the climate movement, they knew the immediate impact was likely to be negligible.

"Nothing's going to happen," at the UN summit, McKibben told me. "That's professional wrestling over there. That's not the point of this. We're injecting pressure into the system. The more pressure we inject, eventually they have to do something to let it out."

Without a doubt, the demonstration of support across racial and class lines—labor unions, which have sometimes stayed out of climate actions in the past, were well represented Sunday—will be noticed by elected officials and the broader public. But interviewing activists, who seemed to be having a great time, I kept getting stuck on the more systematic problem of global capitalism that Sawant raised. So long as energy oligarchs dominate our political system, that the masses have been activated seems almost irrelevant, if undoubtedly beautiful and inspiring. Attendees I spoke to were hopeful that younger Americans are becoming more open to the idea of socialism—lefty activists hope that what was once a goofy footnote in history is increasingly seen as the only way out of this mess. (Whether young Americans who don't attend left-wing marches in New York City consider socialism an option is a question for another time.)

After the hours-long parade began to wind down at 34th Street, a block party broke out where B-boys and rappers from as far as Arizona took turns at the mic and waxed poetic on this summer's outrages. Chants of "Fuck the Police!" broke out at one point, a sign that this march was perhaps being fuelled by an anti-authoritarianism which goes beyond climate change. From the young men of color being targeted in our streets to the carbon emitters who profit from the continued destruction of our shared environment, there are plenty of reasons to be mad as hell right now. Whether the people who run things will notice—or care much about—all this righteous indignation is a whole other story.

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