As People March, A Moment of Truth in the Climate Fight

The People's Climate March is more than just a call to action. It represents the biggest expansion of the climate movement so far.

Until now, climate demonstrations have been small, attracting only a few thousand people at a time. The People's Climate March on Sept. 21 through Manhattan is expected to change that. "I know this is going to be big demonstration," said Leslie Cagan, a well-known New York events organizer that was hired to manage the logistics for the march. "The question is: Will it be a very big demonstration?" Image: A climate march in March 2014/Jonathan H. Lee

Activists are trying to seize an opportunity to put the climate movement alongside the Civil Rights and the Vietnam-era anti-war movements. Tens of thousands of people are expected to participate in what organizers are calling the People's Climate March later this month in New York City.

Demonstrators from more than 1,000 organizations representing millions of people plan to demand that world leaders take action against human-driven climate change. The Sept. 21 march through midtown Manhattan will take place two days before a United Nations summit in the city that will lay the groundwork for climate-change treaty talks next year in Paris. It will also kick off the sixth annual Climate Week NYC, with almost 80 events focused on climate change such as conferences, lectures, debates and concerts.

MORE: Climate Week NYC: 10 Top Places to Be

The march will be the first major demonstration of how dramatically the climate movement has changed and expanded in the past five years. Once considered an issue only for environmentalists, global warming has become part of the agenda for labor unions, faith-based organizations, schools, small businesses, international nongovernmental organizations, and student, social justice, parenting, public health and political groups, among others.

"Climate change is no longer a privileged, environmental issue anymore," said Becki Clayborn, one of the Sierra Club's organizers for the event. "It is affecting all of us, immediately. Because of that, people who haven't gotten involved in the past are joining the fight."

Organizers are calling it the "largest climate march in history," with estimates ranging from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. The march will travel two miles through midtown Manhattan, passing Central Park, Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center, Bryant Park and Times Square.

The coalition doesn't have a list of demands. Organizers say it will be enough of an accomplishment to show world leaders how many disparate interests and how many people want action—any action—on global warming. Getting agreement on an agenda from hundreds of organizations was beyond the scope of the project, they say.

"What we all agree on is that this is a crisis that threatens everything and that world leaders need to do more," said Iain Keith, a campaign organizer for Avaaz, one of the groups behind the march. "If we can come together under one big banner during this key moment, we actually have a chance to influence leaders and show them that the climate movement isn't just a bunch of fringe greenies. It is actually a people-powered movement."

Some environmentalists, however, blasted the idea of staging a mass demonstration without a list of demands. Anne Petermann, executive director of the Global Justice Ecology Project, argued in an online posting that it "will leave a vacuum" to be filled by business-sponsored campaigns taking a softer stance on climate action.

Large-scale demonstrations have helped sway domestic and foreign policy throughout modern American history. The 1963 March on Washington, in which more than 250,000 people listened to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, generated widespread support for passage of the Civil Rights Act a year later. The 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, with two million people across the country and 600,000 people in Washington, forced President Nixon to acknowledge the unpopularity of the war. The first Earth Day in 1970, during which 20 million people across the U.S. rallied to clean up and protect the environment, led to the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts and the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Until now, though, climate change demonstrations have been small, attracting only a few thousand people at a time. The last time activists gathered in any great numbers to demand action on climate change was 2009 in Copenhagen. International delegates were in town negotiating a new treaty to slash global carbon emissions.

Thousands of protesters walked the city's streets in the Reclaim Power march. Hundreds of others held sit-ins and engaged in civil disobedience. But the climate talks and protests were largely overshadowed by allegations from climate-skeptic groups that global warming was a scientific conspiracy and that researchers manipulated data. Although those claims were later disproved, the damage was done. International leaders couldn't agree on emission targets and the UN negotiations ended without a new treaty. Months later, cap-and-trade legislation aimed at cutting U.S. carbon emissions flopped in Congress.

Today's climate movement is nothing like the one in 2009. It has undergone a massive transformation, with new groups, new strategies and a diverse array of groups calling for action, said Bob Wilson, an environmental historian at Syracuse University.

"The environmental movement, like during Earth Day in 1970, was white and middle class," Wilson said. "But that is really changing. It is no longer homogenous by any means."   

The New York march reflects those changes. The idea was developed by two relatively young activist organizations. One is Avaaz, a seven-year-old network that claims millions of members and helps organize "people-powered politics" on dozens of issues worldwide. The other is 350.org, an environmental advocacy organization founded seven years ago by writer and activist Bill McKibben. His group's name reflects its goal of reducing carbon in the atmosphere from today's dangerous 400 parts per million to less than 350, the threshold for climate safety.

Avaaz and 350.org began planning in January after the UN briefed them and several other environmental and New York City groups on the September climate meeting. The two organizations saw it as an opportunity to show world leaders the strength of the climate movement in advance of climate talks next year in Paris.  

"We knew we weren't going to beat climate change by sending a lot of tweets to each other," McKibben said. The climate movement needed a big physical demonstration.

"World leaders still don't feel like the public really cares about the climate change issue," said Keith of Avaaz. "We realized that a march could send a powerful signal. Marches don't always change the world, but sometimes they are the only things that shake the system into widespread change."

New York provided the perfect stage, Keith said. The city had recently experienced Superstorm Sandy, record-breaking snowfall and a climate change-fueled polar vortex that put the eastern half of the U.S. in a record-setting deep freeze. It is the most diverse U.S. city, has a strong labor movement and is mostly Democratic. Outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg had set out an aggressive climate action plan, and incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio was a progressive elected to address inequality.

The planners say they had no idea how quickly or broadly the idea would catch on.

Avaaz and 350.org started by setting up meetings with dozens of New York-based organizations, including labor unions—such as Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, representing 200,000 health care workers—and environmental justice groups.

"Each UN report has been scarier than the last," said Bruce Hamilton, international vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents more than 200,000 people in the U.S. and Canada. "We realized we needed to be in the midst of this fight."

The ATU and other labor unions were among the first to join in backing the march, along with social justice groups in New York. Then came national environmental organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, followed by grassroots groups such as the anti-Keystone XL organization Bold Nebraska. Student groups signed on, as did faith-based organizations and dozens of other special interest collectives.

"We're seeing this old-school environmentalism and new-school activism fit together in a really beautiful way," McKibben said.

The Evolution of a Movement

Five years ago, well-known mainstream national environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Environmental Defense Fund were driving the climate fight. They largely relied on inside-the-beltway techniques, trying to spur action through backdoor meetings on Capitol Hill. But even with a Democratic House and Senate, that strategy failed.

The movement then switched gears to grassroots activism, focusing specifically on the Keystone XL pipeline. The project, proposed by Canadian oil giant TransCanada, would carry 800,000 barrels a day of carbon-intensive tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. It would bisect America's heartland and cross several key agricultural zones and aquifers providing drinking water for millions of people.

Grassroots groups sprang up along the proposed route. They included environmentalists concerned about tar sands' climate consequences—the oil releases more greenhouse gases than other types of fuel. And for the first time in the climate fight, non-environmental groups got involved, such as farmers, ranchers and Native American communities. They were worried that spills could contaminate water sources and land. The movement put on rallies and protests and engaged in civil disobedience to stop the pipeline.

"It is hard to mobilize against an abstraction," the historian Wilson said. "The Keystone XL gave activists a tangible thing to fight, and it allowed them to form a network of powerful coalitions."

Students became involved through 350.org's anti-apartheid-style divestment campaign, which asks colleges to sell their investments in fossil fuel companies on grounds that owning coal, oil and gas stocks is unethical and immoral.

The movement expanded and diversified even further as climate change hammered the U.S. in recent years. Floods devastated Colorado. Deadly wildfires swept across the West. A multi-year drought has gripped much of the country, threatening food and water supplies for millions. Hurricanes and superstorms including Sandy slammed into the Northeast and caused billions of dollars in damage. Rising sea levels have worsened the effects of ordinary coastal storms.

"Mother Nature is a great educator," McKibben said. "She's been our strongest ally in this fight."

In New York, there has been a sharp learning curve for organizers to ensure that all the groups that signed up had their opinions and ideas heard.

"These groups didn't just sign up by name only," said Jamie Henn, co-founder and communications director of 350.org. "They wanted to be involved every step of the way."

By February, about 150 organizations based in and around New York City were meeting biweekly to plan the event. They named it the People's Climate March and built a website. They also decided that any group interested in participating would be welcome.

As national organizations became involved, a committee formed to handle transportation and other issues. The "national table," as Keith calls it, includes 200 groups that hold conference calls weekly. A collection of faith leaders meets regularly for breakfast. There are groups of student organizers, social justice and dozens labor unions representing hundreds of thousands of people, among others.

The organizers hired Leslie Cagan, a well-known New York events organizer to help with logistics, such as getting permits from the New York Police Department. Keith describes her as "the Wikipedia of organizing in New York." Cagan, 67, helped plan the 1982 anti-nuclear rally in Central Park that attracted 1 million people and the 2004 anti-Republican National Convention protest.

Leslie Cagan

"The UN gave us an opportunity to get our collective act together," Cagan said. "Everything feels right. This the right issue at the right time in the right place. I know this is going to be big demonstration. The question is: Will it be a very big demonstration?"

'We Are a Cohesive Movement Now'

Organizers rented a space in Bushwick in Brooklyn for artists to make posters, videos, and installations for the march. They set up an organizing hub near Grand Central Station where volunteers and staffers from participating groups are making phone calls, printing posters and brainstorming recruitment tactics. They are hosting rallies in cities across the nation to drum up support and gather boots on the ground. Solidarity events are popping up around the globe, from England to Kenya to India to the Philippines.

During the early stages of planning, the labor movement made clear that it wouldn't participate in any event that wasn't legally permitted. So in the spring, Avaaz and 350.org decided to create a joint nonprofit venture called Republica to raise money for logistics, permits, security, printing flyers and banners, and paying for the burgeoning groups to rent meeting space, hold conference calls, and manage listservs.

Now participating organizations are pouring hundreds of man-hours into the event. The groups, led by Avaaz and 350.org, have spent $1 million so far. The money is from the groups' core operating expenses, foundations and thousands of individual donors.

In May, McKibben published a piece in Rolling Stone magazine asking activists from a wide spectrum to join the march. Interest "exploded—in a really good way," Keith said. Hundreds of additional organizations across the country signed on. Organizers struggled to keep up with all the ideas from new participants.

Cagan, 350.org and Avaaz spent two months trying to meet with the New York Police Department. They called City Hall for help. Eventually the police agreed to sit down. Central Park wasn't an option because a concert was already scheduled there the weekend after, and the city doesn't allow back-to-back events. The NYPD had security concerns about thousands of protesters clogging midtown Manhattan just 48 hours before dozens of world leaders were to arrive.

By mid-August, after months of negotiations, organizers and the police settled on a route starting in Columbus Circle, on the southwest corner of Central Park, going east along 59th Street, turning south down 6th Avenue, passing Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall, and eventually turning west along 42nd Street, passing through Times Square and ending on 11th Avenue.

The number of participating groups jumped from 750 to 1,000 at the end of August. McKibben and others organized pre-march rallies in cities across the country to generate buzz and recruit even more marchers and organizations.

One benefit of planning the march is that the infrastructure is now in place to push the climate movement even farther, and it has connected groups that never worked together, 350.org's Henn said. "We are a cohesive movement now," he said.

Henn acknowledges that there is still the possibility that the march could fail to live up to its slogan as "the largest climate march in history."

"There isn't an exact science to this type of organizing," he said. "No matter what kind of recruiting you do, it could rain and no one could show up. That's always a risk."

But for Cagan and others, it doesn't matter.

"The march is not an end in itself. It is a moment in a much broader, bigger, movement," Cagan said. "We've set something in motion."

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