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Climate Change Activists Set to Flood NYC, but Some Doubt the UN's Approach to the Problem

While the People's Climate March will highlight a UN summit on climate change, elements of the movement are calling for more direct action.

by Robert S. Eshelman
Sep 18 2014, 12:02pm

Photo by Patrick McFall

When United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on world leaders to attend a one-day climate change summit in New York City on September 23, climate change campaigners seized on the opportunity to kick-start momentum toward an international climate treaty in Paris in the fall of 2015, the deadline world leaders have agreed upon to adopt a framework for an agreement.

On September 21, tens of thousands of people, perhaps as many as a hundred thousand, are expected to descend on Manhattan for the People's Climate March, which promises to be the largest climate change demonstration in history.

Among the groups organizing the march is the activist network Avaaz, which has had a large presence at past international climate talks.

"This particular moment being prioritized was really driven by the UN," Avaaz Executive Director Ricken Patel told VICE News. "The secretary-general's office said, 'Look, we really don't have the political momentum that we need to achieve an agreement.' Then we as activists responded by saying we need to be out in the streets to help build that momentum."

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But some in the climate change movement regard the focus on securing an international climate treaty under the auspices of the UN as a strategic error. They view the march as a perverse replay of the mobilizations at annual UN climate summits that haven't produced a legally binding agreement on curbing global greenhouse gas emissions, which the World Meteorological Organization recently warned are at a record high.

Activists are targeting the fossil fuel industry directly and highlighting the grave consequences of unchecked climate change. (Photo by Mikael Miettinen)

Since the last big push for a treaty in Copenhagen in 2009, little has changed to suggest that a treaty is achievable in 2015, aside from increasingly dire warnings from climate scientists and economists about the risk of inaction. NASA reported earlier this week that the past August was globally the hottest ever recorded.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have said they will skip the summit, and the US Congress remains unlikely to ratify any treaty that is crafted in Paris. China, the United States, and India are the three largest polluters in the world.

'People are angry and extremely worried about the lack of serious effort to address the climate crisis.'

So why, some climate change activists ask, is the movement focusing on a failed UN process when it has otherwise achieved significant victories against the fossil fuel industry that have hampered its ability to extract its product and ship it overseas?

"I'm very much into the idea of mobilizing tens of thousands, a hundred thousand, or a million people into the street," Scott Parkin, an organizer with the environmental activist network Rising Tide North America, told VICE News. "But what I feel is lacking is that there's no pointy end to the spear. They've got the same demands that they had five years ago in Copenhagen."

Parkin wonders how a comprehensive international agreement on greenhouse gas emissions, or even just a domestic American law, can be achieved when the fossil fuel sector, which includes some of the world's most profitable companies, controls so much of the political system at home and abroad. The uncooperative fossil fuel industry is the primary impediment to addressing the climate crisis, he said, so the climate movement should be targeting it directly rather than emphasizing the seemingly interminable UN negotiation process.

Civil disobedience in Appalachian coal fields in recent years has prompted greater federal regulatory scrutiny of mountain-top removal mining — which involves blasting the tops off of mountains and mining the exposed coal — and forced major banks to stop financing the practice.

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In the Pacific Northwest, campaigns have involved not just committed climate change activists but also citizens who are otherwise politically disengaged. Oregon's Department of State Lands recently denied a permit to Ambre Energy for a coal export terminal on the Columbia River, and another proposal in Bellingham, Washington, is unlikely to move forward after a slate of candidates skeptical of the project won a majority on the county council. Activists in the region have also helped bring greater attention to shipments of coal and oil by rail, highlighting accidents and raising public safety concerns.

"I think we're at this crisis moment where we have suburban moms climbing on top of train tracks to block these shipments in a way that we're used to seeing only crusty environmental activists do," Parkin remarked.

He thinks activists should continue to target the fossil fuel industry directly and highlight the grave consequences of unchecked climate change, rather than concentrate on appealing to an ineffectual political process.

"I don't feel like the bigger environmental groups understand how to push our movement toward greater risk and sacrifice on the scale we need to address the climate crisis," he said. "What the big organizations believe is that they can work within the existing political system — that they can get global politicians, they can get Obama to do the right thing and then it will be okay. But that political system is rigged against us in all possible ways."

A strategy emphasizing civil disobedience and direct action will be on display on September 22, the day after the march, in an operation called Flood Wall Street.

New York City activist Michael Premo plans on participating in the deluge of people.

"The UN process has been going on for decades without addressing the root cause of the problem," he said, echoing Parkin. "We're targeting Wall Street because the climate crisis is a direct result of an economy built on the infinite extraction of natural resources and exploitation of people. But that's not sustainable."

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While Premo is critical of the UN focus, he's supportive of the march.

"We all understand this is a dynamic and multifaceted problem, and we understand it will take a dynamic and multifaceted response," he said. "We can't have just one tactic. The People's Climate March is important, but there's also a need for coordinated direct action against those that profit from climate change."

Others in the climate change movement share Parkin and Premo's dim view of the persistent focus on the passage of an international treaty. But the high-profile UN summit could nevertheless provide a catalyst for pressuring world leaders to drive investment away from dirty energy and toward renewable sources.

'The march isn't just a signal to politicians but a signal to people that this movement has strength, that it has momentum.'

The idea is that by concentrating attention on how heads of state manage the issue of climate change, world leaders will feel increased pressure to adopt carbon-cutting measures in their own countries over the next year, preparing the way for an international agreement in 2015.

"Because the issue of climate change is so undeniably real and pressing, the political class in this country and elsewhere has to pretend that the struggle for an international climate agreement isn't dead," Christian Parenti, a professor of political economy at New York University and author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, told VICE News. "To simply walk away from the UN process would be too much."

Parenti believes the People's Climate March will help elevate climate change as an issue in a nation where belief in the problem among much of the general public and the legislative branch of the federal government is woefully out of line with what qualified scientists say is happening to the planet.

"This climate march is about showing the political class — particularly here in the US, where our energy policy is totally retrograde — that people are angry and extremely worried about the lack of serious effort to address the climate crisis," he said. "The real struggle to transition off of fossils fuels is happening at the level of national economies. Some economies — Spain, Portugal, Germany, and to some extent China — are creating the policies and making the investments that build out solar and wind at a mass scale. Other economies, like ours, are essentially doubling down on fossil fuels by allowing widespread fracking and expanding offshore oil drilling."

Explaining why Avaaz and other groups continue to push for an international treaty in the face of persistent global inaction, Patel said that they are eager to capitalize on the increasing urgency to address climate change due to the greater frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in recent years. He also thinks that the movement is gaining leverage.

"We understand, unlike in Copenhagen, that this is a long game," he said. "No one summit is going to solve it. We need to build momentum in stages."

After the demonstration in New York, the momentum will have to be built in much less spectacular venues. Patel points to the upcoming UN climate summit in Lima, Peru, in December, where fewer (if any) heads of state are expected to attend, and the 2015 G7 summit in the Bavarian Alps as notable stops along the way to Paris in 2015.

Each of those meetings offers the climate change movement occasions to advance its agenda and make the issue a political priority, but less so than in New York City, where a mass mobilization is easier to mount and public attention will likely be greater than at less media-saturated events in the Andes or Alps. That said, melting ice-capped mountains could provide alarming optics.

Patel also recognizes the importance of national energy and climate policy, echoing Parenti, and sees the march as something that can give a boost to the efforts emphasized by Parkin and Premo.

"I think focusing on an international treaty and more grassroots efforts are absolutely mutually reinforcing," he said. "The march isn't just a signal to politicians but a signal to people that this movement has strength, that it has momentum. And I think that adds to any action that people are taking on how to address climate change."

Follow Robert S. Eshelman on Twitter: @RobertSEshelman

Photo via Flickr