Hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of New York City on Sunday calling for “climate justice” in the largest mass protest to date against government and corporate inaction to limit the overheating of the planet. Organizers of the People’s Climate March claimed that in addition to the New York march some 2,676 other demonstrations were held in 146 countries, including a march of 30,000 people in London that was televised to the New York crowd on a giant screen set up on Sixth Avenue at 52nd Street. “We said it would take everyone to change everything, and everyone showed up,” said Eddie Bautista, the executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, one of the central groups that organized the march.
The march featured an unprecedented diversity of participants, including many thousands of union members as well as representatives from indigenous people’s organizations, students and faith groups, and even a contingent of business types marching behind an “Investors for Climate Solutions” banner. Proceeding without any violence under a muggy, cloudy sky, the demonstration kicked off Climate Week in New York City. World leaders, including President Obama, will gather at the United Nations on Tuesday for a one-day climate summit intended to build momentum toward signing an ambitious global agreement at the UN climate conference in Paris in 2015. On Monday, protesters plan to “Flood Wall Street” to demand that investors shift assets from climate-destructive fossil fuels to solar, wind and other forms of clean energy.
Some big investors will beat “Flood Wall Street” to the punch: on Monday, a collection of institutional investors that manage $50 billion among themselves will announce that they will divest entirely from fossil fuels. Prominent among the group is the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, whose assets were accumulated by the Rockefeller family’s many decades of producing petroleum, first under the Standard Oil brand and later under Exxon. “John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, moved America out of whale oil and into petroleum,” explained Stephen Heintz, President of the Fund. “We are quite convinced that if he were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy.”
“One announcement alone isn’t going to tip the balance, but when one announcement is followed by another and then another, that gets CEOs to pay attention,” Tom Steyer, the billionaire climate activist who has funded numerous electoral campaigns on behalf of climate action, told The Nation. “CEOs pay a lot of attention to their shareholders, just like everyone pays attention to what their boss thinks. So actions like this send a powerful message.”
Visually, the most striking aspect of the People’s Climate March was its racial diversity and preponderance of young people. The first line of marchers to head south from Columbus Circle were fifteen high school and college age youths, nearly all of them African-American or Latino, wearing orange T-shirts that announced they represented the Rockaway Youth Task Force. Rockaway, a peninsula in Queens that borders the Atlantic Ocean, was brutalized by Hurricane Sandy in November 2012; some residents at the march carried signs asserting that they had been left without electricity for fifteen days after the storm, even as Wall Street was back up and running in seventy-two hours. The highlighting of so-called “front-line communities” was international: later in the march, protesters carried blue umbrellas, two storeys high, with the names of other people and places that have been displaced by climate violence: “Island Nations,” “Public Housing,” “People of Color,” “Renters.”
Labor union members were also an unmistakable presence, perhaps the largest single contingent in the march. “Today we make history. This is your Woodstock. This is the day our children will remember us for,” Chris Erikson, the business manager of Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, told a labor rally at 58th and Broadway, standing beneath a banner proclaiming, “Healthy Planet and Good Jobs.” Separately, Erikson told The Nation, “The free market can work but it needs to be regulated. We want our politicians to figure out how to transition to a clean energy economy. You can’t just shut down coal mines and power plants without knowing where the green jobs to replace them will come from. And we’re going to hold them accountable on that.”
Mike Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, reminded the union rally that labor and environmentalists weren’t always on opposite sides. “I’m proud to be here today because we know it was the labor movement that put up the bail money to get Martin Luther King Jr. out of the Birmingham jail,” said Brune, whose organization was the first to attempt to revive, in the 1990s, ties between environmental and labor activism. “And it was the labor movement that provided money to organize the first Earth Day in 1970 and to build the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s. And we know that the same companies that are poisoning our air and water are also poisoning our democracy. So we at the Sierra Club stand with you for a clean energy economy that puts millions of people to work.”
Many veteran activists of the climate movement expressed the same overjoyed reaction to this march as did Annie Leonard, the new executive director of Greenpeace USA, who recently returned to the organization after eighteen years away: finally, the climate movement is getting serious about building political power. “The organizing for this march looks very different than most environmental organizing twenty years ago did,” she told The Nation. “This march is led by environmental justice groups and includes nurses, farmers, labor organizers, young people and activists working on immigrant rights, economic equality and indigenous rights. The movement is more broad and inclusive than ever. If we environmentalists had done real power-building work like this twenty years ago, we wouldn’t be in this climate mess we’re in now. The window for action is closing, but a day like this gives me hope that we’ll make it.”
“Today is enormously exciting, not just the size of the march but how many young people are here,” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said. “It shows that young people are not turned off to politics. And given the power of corporations in our country, the only way we’ll get the change we need on climate change or any other issue is if millions of people take to the streets and demand change.”
You can find video and photos of the People’s Climate March, and its sister demonstrations around the world, at the march website: peoplesclimate.org. But for additional flavor of what it was like on the street, here is a baker’s dozen of some of the signs and banners on display:
“If the climate were a bank, it would have been saved.”
“If it’s melted, it’s ruined,” displayed next to a huge Mother Earth float, courtesy of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.
“Climate Change Affects Us Most” and “We Didn’t Cause This Mess,” carried by children marching with the Kids and Families contingent.
“Our Demands Are Not Radical”
“Act Like You Live Here”
“Dumbledore Wouldn’t Let This Happen”
“Rising Tides, Rising Rents, Rising People”
“Another Teamster for Green Jobs”
“Teach Our Youth Science, They Will Need It”
“It’s Sunday, I’m Missing Football, This Shit Is Important”
“Tax Carbon, Pay People”