On Tuesday, two days after some 400,000 of us took to the streets of midtown Manhattan, calling on world leaders for serious and urgent climate action, I found myself sitting in a conference room at the UN Church Center on First Avenue, its floor-to-ceiling windows offering a beautiful view of the United Nations building across the street, flags flying crisply in the sun. I was there for the final day of the People’s Climate Justice Summit, convened by the Climate Justice Alliance, a collaborative network of more than thirty-five grassroots and supporting organizations that unites communities on the front lines of climate disaster and fossil-fuel extraction and pollution across the United States. (Nation readers may recall reading about the CJA in my cover story “From Occupy to Climate Justice” last February.)
As I admired the view across First Avenue, I was well aware that few in the city, including in the elite precincts of our national security–obsessed national media, could be bothered to notice what was happening in the room where I sat.
I listened as voice after voice representing these hard-hit communities—Indigenous, African-American, Latino, Asian Pacific Islander, poor and working-class white communities, as well as representatives from the front lines in South America, Africa and South Asia—got up and spoke, some with tears. They were talking not about some distant threat of climate catastrophe but the catastrophes that are already upon them. I listened to Damaris Reyes of the group Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), who told of the horror her family and community endured during and after Hurricane Sandy (“our community saved our community,” she said, not any government response), and to retired Harlan County coal miner Stanley Sturgill of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, who spent decades digging up the stuff that not only poisoned his body—with black lung disease—and his beloved Appalachia, but also helped supercharge the Sandy surge.
At around 3 pm on Tuesday, a delegation of the Climate Justice Alliance streamed onto the sidewalk and proceeded to make a symbolic attempt to deliver their demands to the leaders gathered at the UN (symbolic because they had no official access to the UN meeting). Not surprisingly, they were stopped by police and security officers before they could cross the street. And so they stood with their banner at the corner of 45th and First, a small crowd of supporters gathered around them, and read their statement—or tried to, as the delegation was harassed constantly by police, who forced them to move along. Their statement read in part:
We demand that world leaders support and move money to our community-led priorities and local infrastructure needs to build sustainable community economies, energy democracy, zero waste, food justice, public transit and affordable housing—pathways that can create millions of long-term jobs and put our communities back to work. We support Indigenous peoples, our brothers and sisters of the North and the Global South, in their climate justice struggles linking land and water rights, land title and the full implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.