From a March to a Movement: Climate Events Stretch From Sea to Rising Sea

Activists aim to build grassroots momentum for a global climate treaty by stretching events across the country instead of one big Manhattan gathering.

Oct 14, 2015
The People's Climate March drew tens of thousands to Manhattan in 2014

Instead of a big march in New York, this year activists hope for wider participation across the country to urge climate action. Credit: South Bend Voice via Flickr.

Activists across the U.S. will push for quick and aggressive climate action Wednesday by staging protests, collecting signatures, organizing panels and even floating 30 miles down the Missouri River from Columbia to Jefferson City, Mo.

The events in nearly 200 locations will be known collectively as the People's Climate Movement, a follow-up to last year's People's Climate March, which flooded midtown Manhattan with hundreds of thousands of people. The activities aim to draw attention to the local impacts of global warming—from heavier rains and sea level rise to drought—and the hundreds of grassroots groups fighting for action.

Like the New York march, Wednesday's activities are being organized by a diverse coalition of labor, faith, environmental justice, immigrant and student organizations, as well as national green groups, including 350.org, Avaaz, Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club.

The events are timed to coincide with a Congressional recess so that grassroots groups can grab the attention of politicians at home, said John Oppermann, executive director of the Earth Day Initiative, which organizing an event in New York City.

"People really drew a lot of inspiration and hope from the march last year," Oppermann said. "While we haven't seen concrete action being taken yet, things are moving in the right direction. A similar thing happened with Earth Day in 1970. There was a big demonstration and then ripple effects over the next few years. We want to keep the momentum going."

The day of action comes at a crucial time for the climate movement. In less than two months, world leaders will gather in Paris to negotiate an international climate treaty. A failure would extend beyond the political arena and deep into the world of the activist movement, which would be stung by the idea that it has failed  to expand public support for global warming policy.

The climate movement has grown in size and scope since the last major climate talks failed in Copenhagen in 2009. Americans' acceptance of climate change has slowly grown. Rallies and demonstrations happen more frequently and draw larger crowds. But has it grown enough to make a meaningful impact on politics?

Activists will float down the Missouri River and then march to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon's office in Jefferson City to deliver a petition calling for carbon emission cuts.  In Seattle, protesters will meet at City Hall for a march, followed by a screening  of the climate documentary "This Changes Everything" with author and science historian Naomi Klein. In Nebraska, groups will gather to urge Republican Governor Pete Ricketts to submit a state energy plan to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan. Faith leaders in Florence, S.C. will host an event examining the connection between the state's recent historic flooding and climate change. There will also be climate rallies at dozens of universities across the country.

While none of this year's climate events rival the People's Climate March, activists have had a busy year, especially at the grassroots level, environmental leaders said. Protests and civil disobedience—with a big assist from plummeting oil prices—delayed or derailed further expansion of the Alberta tar sands, the Keystone XL pipeline, and coal mines around the world, including what would have been the world's largest coal mine in Australia. Portfolios and endowments with $2.6 trillion in assets had divested from fossil fuel by last month, up from $50 billion as of September 2014.

"For years, the inside-the-beltway game is where the action was, and we saw that with the cap-and-trade effort," said Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Nebraska, a grassroots environmental organization. "Keystone XL, fracking and Arctic drilling shook the climate movement up and now what you see is the outside pushing on power to get things done."

There was also a significant upturn this year in civil disobedience campaigns. In July, 13 Greenpeace volunteers dangled from the St. Johns Bridge in Portland, Ore., for nearly two days to delay Shell's Arctic drilling program. Last month, hundreds of activists stormed San Francisco's financial district to urge that companies stop funding and profiting from climate-disrupting industries such as fossil fuels. Nearly two dozen protesters chained themselves together outside an immigration detention center in Tacoma, Wash., last month to highlight the connection between climate change impacts and the growing migrant crisis.

Organizations promise more civil disobedience in Paris—two weeks' worth, which they've dubbed "The Climate Games."

A team of activists launched the Climate Disobedience Center in September to provide support for those willing to risk arrest to push climate action. The group will help provide logistical, legal, outreach and any other sort of support climate campaigners need, the group said.

"We're at a point where civil disobedience is critical," said Tim DeChristopher, a co-founder of the Civil Disobedience Center. He spent 21 months in prison for an act of civil disobedience: submitting false bids on oil and gas leases being sold by the Bureau of Land Management. "It isn't the only thing that needs to be done, but it is an essential piece to a big climate movement. It isn't coming just from radicals, but from folks that are realizing our system is broken."

Climate change, however, remains a highly partisan issue, especially in Congress, and that is the "rock that is blocking major progress," said Bob Wilson, a geographer at Syracuse University who studies the history of the environmental movement.

"If there was a Republican in the People's Climate March a year ago, they were lost in the crowd," Wilson said. "The climate movement has for the most part not found a way to reach conservatives and Republicans. It is basically a movement of liberals and the left."

The exception, Wilson said, is the anti-Keystone XL movement in Nebraska, which has garnered support from landowners of all political persuasions concerned about oil spills on their property. But Wilson said there is little evidence their bipartisan activism can be replicated elsewhere.

But Bold Nebraska's Kleeb said such coalitions are becoming increasingly common in local fights against fracking and pipelines.

"It's not happening enough on things like biofuels and the Clean Power Plan," she said. "But the red/blue divide does begin to disappear when you are talking about protecting people's homes, water and livelihoods."

Emphasis on Paris

The number of climate protests and events will steadily increase as the Paris talks approach, environmental leaders said. But Paris is "the scoreboard, not the game," said Bill McKibben, a writer-turned-activist and co-founder of 350.org.

"It shows how much pressure we've put on the system and how much we still have to do," McKibben said. "A key thing is not to let it induce complacency in us—that's why we're so careful to talk about the Road Through Paris."

On Wednesday, next to Manhattan's Madison Square Park, Oppermann and his colleagues plan to demonstrate how widespread support for climate action is. People who pass through the neighborhood can sign a petition, use a climate-themed photobooth to share the pictures on social media, and get information about the Paris climate talks.  

"There is a huge number of people that support action on climate change but may not be attuned to the movement, may not attend a march," Oppermann said. "Their voices need to be captured."

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