Thursday, September 25, 2014

Boots-on-the-ground at the People's Climate March in NYC

by BlueberryT

Climate change is a global crisis that is also emerging as the unifying issue of our time. Slow to become visible and the subject of a deliberate disinformation/denial campaign, nevertheless most people now recognize that all life on the planet is affected in some way – and "there is no Planet B.” This is obviously a huge challenge and threat, but also offers a remarkable opportunity to unite causes that have not worked together before, but are now recognizing that this is a common cause.

Climate change and its impacts are very complex. The earth's oceans are acidifying and warming, adversely affecting shellfish and ocean ecology and affecting climate patterns in complex ways that we don't yet fully grasp. Deforestation and melting permafrost release even more heat-trapping gases, creating adverse “feedback loops.” Glaciers that keep rivers flowing are disappearing, threatening ecosystems and the water supplies of many millions of people. Those living on islands and along coastlines are in danger of massive “superstorms,” storm surges, rising sea levels and saline encroachment into drinking water. Tornadoes and microbursts are frequent, severe and widespread. Indigenous people see their ways of life destroyed by intensive resource extraction and pollution. Farmers are experiencing severe droughts that may last decades. Wildfires threaten public lands and private property. Excessive groundwater pumping is depleting critical aquifers and causing shifts in the land. Native plant and wildlife communities are disrupted. Invasive plants and animals are spreading. So is disease. (More here on disease.) No area on earth is immune from adverse impacts.

No one is immune from impacts, either. People like our dear friend nycgirl, who lives in the Rockaways in New York, have already felt the brunt of this slow-moving global disaster. Superstorm Sandy was a wake-up call – horrors, even Wall Street was underwater! Our friends in California are in the midst of an extreme drought, affecting crops and water supply and worsening wildfires, with the increasing probability that this may evolve into a very long-term "megadrought."  In my own region, the five most extreme floods ever recorded on our rivers have occurred since 1987; one was ~30% higher than any prior flood, causing several deaths and extensive damage. We also have experienced numerous severe microbursts and even tornadoes, which are a new phenomenon in this area. Extreme weather is not unusual any more; it is becoming the norm. Many communities in the midwest “tornado belt” have been flattened. And that's just in the U.S. - the damage in countries around the world is just as extreme, if not more so.

There were early warnings of the crisis; most were ignored. In the 1970s and 1980s, scientists reported on climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed in 1988, but in 1989 the fossil fuel industry formed the deceptively named “Global Climate Coalition” to undermine confidence in scientific findings about global warming. IPCC's first report in 1990 stated that the globe was warming and future warming appeared likely. In 1992, the UN developed a Framework on Climate Change, but the U.S. Blocked meaningful action. In 1995, the IPCC issued their second report, expressing with more certainty that global warming was occurring and would accelerate in the coming century; this coincided with reports of the Antarctic ice sheet beginning to break up, attracting more public attention to the issue. The Kyoto Protocol in 1997 set emissions reduction targets, but the U.S. did not join the protocol. In 2000 the Global Climate Coalition dissolved as corporate interests began to split on the issue; for example, insurance companies recognized that increased storm damage represented a threat to their interests. The next year, the third IPCC report was even more conclusive, putting an end to the “debate” about climate change except among those who have a vested interest in denial.

Over the past decade, scientific findings have expressed increasing confidence and consensus not only that climate change is real, but that human activity is a significant contributing factor and that the need to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases is urgent. Many reports, books, videos and films as well as organizations and websites have brought the issue into the mainstream; Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth played a key role in educating the public. Public awareness was also galvanized by huge, impossible-to-gloss-over events like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. The most recent IPCC report used the most urgent language yet, indicating that anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) is fully upon us and will dramatically worsen without immediate, effective action.

At the same time, the issue has become increasingly politicized as right-wing media and fossil-fuel interests implemented a strategic disinformation campaign to undermine the science and thwart global action. Due largely to our political dysfunction, the U.S. has until recently been the biggest impediment to meaningful action at a global scale. President Obama is trying to change that. It is my hopeful speculation that the politicization will bite the GOP where it hurts (in the voting booth), as it becomes increasingly apparent that they are promoting a fringe, extremist position.

Thankfully, there is a growing convergence of world leaders, businesses, environmentalists, peace and economic justice activists and others working together on this issue. Bill McKibben, Al Gore and other climate change activists are now joined by an increasing number of local, state, national and international leaders, including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose call-to-action was a key driver of the People's Climate March. Equally important are those whose names we don't know – the millions of indigenous people, farmers, fishermen, students and teachers, cab-drivers, waitresses, medical professionals, linesmen, emergency responders, parents and grandparents, and grassroots activists – all those who care about the future enough to take to the streets of New York or other cities, towns and villages around the world to bring the “debate” about climate change to a close and move forward with truly bold action to reduce and address its consequences.

Of course, as the movement to address climate change broadens and enlists more of the power elite, it runs the risk of being co-opted, papering over core issues such as resource exploitation and pollution, and mixing positives and negatives in what might be presented as a “balanced approach.” 

I credit the President Obama for addressing several plenary sessions on climate change, promising bold action, presenting a plan to address climate change and implementing far-reaching executive actions to move forward without Congressional action, which is blocked by GOP obstruction. His message at the United Nations this week was powerful and provocative.  (Here is the video.) He touted significant progress in the United States to reduce emissions while also taking responsibility for our role in creating these problems and committing to lead efforts to address these problems. He called for a strong international effort and pushed China to take more responsibility to reduce emissions. I am very gratified that he explicitly acknowledged the marchers and said that "we cannot pretend that we don't hear them." Yes! It was a strong speech, stating definitively that the U.S. is committed to combating climate change. 

However, we cannot ignore the fact that his administration has also facilitated fracking, expanded drilling, including in sensitive off-shore environments, and re-subsidized nuclear energy. Let's be frank: these policies inherently conflict and attempt to offer palliatives to all interests, which serves none of us well. The President and his administration need to stop supporting these dirty energy sources, to bring their actions in line with their rhetoric.

Despite these conflicts and the risks of co-opting climate change, there is real progress. This is a truly international issue and effort, and the shift to renewable energy (RE) is accelerating; some countries are achieving remarkable results. Germany, for example, now produces 28.5% of its energy from renewables with short-term RE production at new record highs.  In the U.S., the percentage of new power generation from renewables is growing fast; this is also true internationally. Energy efficiency standards are helping to bring down emissions in the electricity, water, transportation and building sectors. Because money interests are behind the exploitation of fossil fuels, divestment is key. Thus the news this week that the Rockefeller Foundation is divesting of its fossil fuel industry holdings sends a really important message. As with other divestment campaigns, this is gaining steam and goes to the heart of the underlying financial interests that have so much power. Here is more on how college students have propelled the divestment campaign. 

Climate change is also now an issue with some seriously wealthy backers who have the resources to challenge the Koch Brothers. Former NYC Mayor Bloomberg has been an outspoken advocate and financial supporter, and helped build a coalition of mayors to fight climate change. Tom Steyer has also put his money where his mouth is, and worked to bring others into the fray, directly fighting back against Koch Brothers dollars. 

The People's Climate March was a huge event and will hopefully represent a “political tipping point,” which was the intent of people from Bill McKibben to Ban Ki-moon.  I'll recap my experience below, but first I want to mention that there were so many climate change actions in New York last week and this week that it was amazing! There were several “plenary sessions” with grassroots leaders from around the world. There were programs focusing on indigenous people, women as leaders of climate change action, corporatism's role in climate change, the nexus of climate change with social and economic justice, the role of faith-based organizations, and many more. This was an amazing organizing feat; kudos to and others who handled the logistics. Not only is the United Nations convening its summit on climate change, but the Clinton Foundation's Global Initiative is holding a series of programs on this issue as well. There are also protests, including civil disobedience, at Wall Street and at the U.N. to challenge corporate interests that underpin fossil fuel/big energy and that exploit the environment and the world's most vulnerable people. More here  on all the actions during “Climate Week.” Not to mention all the events in other places around the world!

Now to the march itself. It was epic, with estimates of 400,000 in NYC and hundreds of thousands more in marches around the world. Thousands of organizations took part, uniting in a call-to-action regardless of whether their core interests were religious, environmental, economic justice, peace, public health, water supply, farming, fishing – it was a display of unity that I thought I would never live to see.  There are some great photos here.  

In NYC, the “official” starting point was Columbus Circle (Central Park West and 59th Street). Our group gathered farther uptown, at CPW and 77th Street, as the march was generally arranged according to the core interests of all the groups involved, spreading a very broad umbrella:
  • "Frontline" groups, including those people who are first and most impacted by climate change, including indigenous peoples, environmental justice organizations and other communities (59th-65th St)
  • Generational groups including labor organizations, families, students, elders, etc. (65-72nd St);
  • Environmental groups, including renewable energy, food and water justice and environmental organizations (72nd-77th St);
  • Protest groups including anti-corporate and peace and justice groups (77th-81st St);
  • Scientists, interfaith groups and related organizations (81st- 82nd St) [I found it interesting that science organizations were coupled with interfaith groups]
  • Miscellaneous groups ("To Change Everything, We Need Everyone"), located between 82nd and 86th Street a includes LGBTQ groups and various geographic entities, including NY boroughs and communities, other U.S. city and state groups and groups from other countries.
There was an amazing level of organization, staying within the boundaries and barriers set up by the NYPD. In the end, the assembly area was longer – I was told it extended all the way along Central Park West, up to Frederick Douglass Circle at 110th Street - more than 50 blocks! There were also some feeder groups coming in from downtown locations. The prediction a few days before the march was for 100,000 people, but at least four times that many people actually marched.

As a result, it was a very long wait from the time we assembled (at around 10:30) to the time we got moving, about 3 hours later. At this point, there was a great cheer, but we only moved about 20 feet - this was because so many people were joining the march! We didn't get to see Ban Ki-moon, Bill de Blasio, Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer, Jane Goodall, Al Gore, Leonardo di Caprio, Sting or other well-known people who marched, but unbeknownst to us, we had a wonderful treat in store. Some musicians began setting up right behind us, and it turned out to be Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary – along with his daughter, son-in-law and grand-daughter. They led us in singing some great old march songs, including “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “This Land is Your Land.” Peter added some “verses” by singing out the words on the posters and banners, including my sign! He also kissed one of my friends on the cheek when she told him how much the music meant to us.

Amidst such a huge crowd, it was hard to imagine that the organizers could pull off a moment of silence at 12:58 p.m., in observance of all the people who are already victims of climate change. I thought it might not work, but it did. This was a crowd that was very energetic, at times boisterous, but also very disciplined and intent on sending a serious message to the “powers that be.”

Once we finally got moving, progress was slow at first, but we began making steadier progress toward Columbus Circle – the official starting point (!), which we reached about 2:45. Then, we headed east to 6th Ave, then south to 42nd Street, then back west to 11th Ave and south to 34th Street. All together, the march route is about 3.5 miles, but we didn't get to the end until 5 o'clock – almost 7 hours after we had gathered! All along the way, people lining the route or passing by gave us thumbs up and were very supportive.

The atmosphere, at least where we were, was as much street theater and block party as it was protest march. We were accompanied all the way by a marching band, made up mostly of young musicians and dancers dressed in red and black and full of energy and enthusiasm. Even toward the end of the march, they were dancing, jumping, spinning, and keeping the rest of us from obsessing too much about how much our feet hurt!

There were some great signs and costumes; here are just a few:

The biggest impression I had is that climate change is emerging as an issue and cause that transcends the divisions that affect many political causes; instead we now see that it unites people across the globe. The march was the most diverse political event that I have been part of since the Vietnam War - actually even more so than Vietnam. Most impressive: there were so many young people!! Many, many in their teens and twenties. Lots of college students. Many grey and white hairs too, and all ages in between. People of color – all colors. Gay and straight. Families with kids in strollers. People in wheelchairs. Artists, musicians, dancers. Organizations that ran the gamut from very old conservation organizations like the Appalachian Mountain Club, Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund (just to name a few that were in my area of the march) to the New York Society of Architects, American Friends Service Committee, Workmen's Circle, Californians, Floridians, Peruvians, Brazilians, many faith-based groups, vegans, organic farmers, groups that fought nuclear power in the 1970s and 1980s and reconvened for this event – and many, many more.

After the march, I spoke to a number of New Yorkers – cab drivers, a cleaning person, several waiters and shopkeepers – and they all were so supportive of us marchers. Some had taken part themselves; others said they wanted to take part but had to work. All were full of smiles when they saw my friends and me with our signs.

To paraphrase Rosa Parks, my feet are tired, but my soul is rested. We feel proud of what we did. We think it made a difference in the political calculus. Now we need to get back to work - there's so much more to do!

Update: More good news on financial divestment from dirty energy/investment in clean energy.

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