When it comes to halting climate change, many of the people expected to be leaders instead bury their heads in the sand. More than 130 Republicans in the House of Representatives deny the basic science of global warming; many other elected officials acknowledge the world is changing in profound and dangerous ways, but aren’t inclined to do anything serious about it.
For now, those leading on climate are ordinary people; kids and grandparents and workers who have a greater interest in a habitable planet than in securing campaign cash. Hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of New York on Sunday for the appropriately named People’s Climate March, calling for an end to political inaction.
Still, it is possible to find commitment to climate justice in corners of the US Capitol, and there were elected officials among the other marchers in New York on Sunday, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
The march left no question about the passion and diversity of the climate movement. So what happens next? On Tuesday, I spoke with Ellison about the significance of Sunday’s action, his idea for funding the transition to a sustainable economy, and converting climate activism into political action.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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Zoë Carpenter: What was your experience like at the march?
Representative Keith Ellison: I was exhilarated. You know, I just was so elated to be around such tremendous energy. People from truly all walks of life, all united in the idea that we have to take climate action.
I met one guy who was an AIDS activist, and he was telling me how his whole life had been dedicated to helping people who were living with AIDS have greater justice, more access to healthcare and housing. But, he said, “I’m into this thing because, hey, if the climate burns up the planet, makes it uninhabitable for humans, my main issue we can’t do anything about, right?”
I was talking to some folks who were concerned about Ferguson and Trayvon Martin who had something similar to say: “This is our key issue, but if the climate is wrong, then it’s all wrong.” There were some labor folks there who said, “Look, our issue is better pay and working conditions for working people, but if there’s no habitable earth to live on, then there ain’t no jobs.” For many people, maybe the environment and the climate is their main thing, but for many people it was not their main thing. But they understand the centrality of it.
One lady pointed out something that was really interesting. She was with the nurses, and she was pushing for financial transactions tax—a bill I’m carrying in the House—and her point was, “Look, we’re nurses. We want climate action now because we know respiratory illnesses and a whole lot of other problems flow from greenhouse gas emissions and the air quality.” And she said, “If we pass a financial transactions tax, we will be able to fund the expense of converting from this status-quo fossil-fuel economy into a renewable one.”