This past Sunday was a pretty intense day for me and the other about 310,000 people who attended the People’s Climate March (PCM) in New York. The march was the largest on climate change in the history of the world, and there were thousands of supporting events around the world held at the same time.
While the energy and enthusiasm at the march was inspiring and empowering, the reason for why so many people marched was that we want to see more ambitious policies. The march itself does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it may draw more attention to climate change and send a signal to decision-makers that action is required. However, the march itself did not present a concrete political or policy demand. The event was inclusive and featured everyone, ranging from the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to anti-fracking activists, families, and religious organizations.
If there was no political demand, what may we expect? The march certainly drew more media attention than just about any other climate event — perhaps notwithstanding the unfortunate 2009 Copenhagen climate conference — in recent history. This kind of media attention creates a space for increased discussion of the dangers of climate change for people around the world and, in doing so, may put pressure on decision-makers to act.
There is also the direct effect on the participants. 310,000 is a huge number. If even a small proportion of these people go back to their communities and become more active, we may see a lot more local leadership on climate policy in the United States. New York City and State certainly seem to be ready for more aggressive policies than every before. Here in the City, the local 350 group is strong and has made great progress in raising the profile of climate change.
For me, the most inspiring lesson from the march was the opening of the NYC Climate Week on the day after. Usually protests on the street and debates among the elite — in this case, business and government elite — are far removed from each other. In the opening ceremony of the Climate Week, however, key business and government leaders emphasized how important the march was and how it is inspiring them to be more vocal on climate change. Many large corporations announced new commitments to 100% renewable power and, led by the Rockefellers, commitments to divesting from fossil fuels were also made. I believe this is the kind of convergence that can truly force change by showing that climate change is everyone’s concern. It is hard to say climate change is an extremist agenda if 4-star generals, business leaders, and ordinary families are all demanding action.
Many challenges remain. The PCM has inspired and empowered millions around the world, but activists must now follow up and turn this energy into concrete actions. I am working on this myself in a project that combines research and positive, solutions-oriented activism. The PCM probably also did not reach those members of the public, such as many conservatives in the United States, who are hostile to climate policy because they do not trust scientists and consider global warming an element of the liberal political agenda. Still, the PCM is a unique achievement in the history of environmental activism and creates an opening for real change.