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Environmental organizers busy laying plans for the People’s Climate March

If everything goes according to plan, the People’s Climate March could be the largest climate demonstration in the United States to date. On September 20 and 21, waves of citizens will descend on New York City to show public support for the UN "Solutions Summit" and to demand immediate action to staunch greenhouse gas emissions. I'll be joining them — traveling with a group of protesters on a train from Washington, DC to New York as I cover the march for Earth Island Journal — and last week I attended an organizing meeting in DC to see what I should expect.

Santa Rita MountainsPhoto by Bjorn Philip BeerThe diverse and large turnout at a march organizers' meeting in Washington, DC, indicates that the September demonstration in New York has a broad, populist appeal.

As I arrived in the capital, a few big questions occupied my mind. How will this march be different from past climate-related mobilizations? Can this effort succeed in moving the needle of elite and public opinion? Will it lead to drastic emissions reductions?  

What is different about the People’s Climate March became apparent the moment the crowded meeting began. The gathering took place in the basement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, just one stop on an “Organizers Tour” that is traveling up the East Coast spreading the word about the march Paul Revere-style. The assembled group was as varied as it was large. I expected a young crowd, yet there were dozens of silver-haired retirees. Some attendees were policy wonks at major environmental organizations who wanted to participate in a more hands-on way. Others were activist types who had recently been arrested in non-violent direct actions in the DC area. For every seasoned activist I spoke with, there was someone who was taking to the streets for the first time in their lives.

The diversity of this organizers' meeting is mirrored at the national level. Paul Getsos spoke on behalf of the organizing committee for the national People’s Climate March and described a broad coalition of groups that has already emerged. As of this writing, 150 leaders in the faith community in New York have committed to turning out their congregations. Although labor and enviros have their occasional differences, 20 labor unions have already pledged to put boots on the ground. I expected a lot of discussion about environmental policy, things like the imperative of reducing atmospheric CO2 levels, but I instead observed a broad agenda that should resonate with the American middle class. “This is about climate justice, jobs, and a new economy,” Getsos said.    

Certainly, there will be some more assertive direct action beyond the march on Sunday, September 21. The actual UN meeting is going to be two days later on Tuesday and many committed activists are pledging action on that day. Dozens of activists at the meeting discussed strategies for turning up the pressure not only in New York during the meeting, but also in other places where there is an intersection of bad climate policy and corporate cash — like, for example, our nation’s capital. One of the activists— a retired school teacher who came to his climate consciousness through his study of physics and astronomy — explained the necessity for bold actions that would be separate from the march: “Unless you hit ‘em where it hurts, you’re not going to change anything.”

The depth and breadth of the coalition represents a reason for optimism. As of this writing, there are more than 550 international, national, and local organizations that have pledged support. Many groups participating in the mobilization are not approaching this from a pure green perspective (like Greenpeace or 350.org) but instead from religious and other perspectives. It is worth noting that successful social reforms and people’s movements in US history — be it civil rights, the women’s suffrage movement, or peace efforts — have counted religious and other civil society institutions among their ranks.

One of the goals of the mass mobilization in New York (and in across the globe) is to influence a new UN agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. If, or when, global negotiators agree on a binding agreement, then the real work in the US begins. Any climate treaty will have to be ratified by the US Senate — which would require two-thirds of the Senate to become, not just climate-literate, but genuine climate hawks. To hit that high threshold will require a broad coalition with populist appeal to turn up the political pressure. The enormity of this task cannot be overstated.

Any meaningful emissions reduction agreement would most certainly be due to the strategic inclusion of organizations that are outside of the traditional environmental realm. Rae Breaux with 350.org described this broad coalition quite aptly as a “cross pollination.” Let’s hope this current mobilization of diverse groups results in a viable, long-lasting hybrid.

I left the meeting with a sense of optimism. There are a number of similar meetings happening in subsequent days across the East Coast, which will add to the momentum. (So get involved!) Although there is so much troubling ecological news these days, this march may very well be a seminal moment in climate history.

On my way home, something Chinese thinker Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching came to mind: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The same thing could be said of the upcoming People’s Climate March.

Björn Philip Beer
Björn Philip Beer is writer, in Charlottesville, VA, who used to live in Germany and worked on transatlantic relations while at Center for the Study of the Presidency, a non-partisan foreign policy think tank in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter at @BjornPhilipBeer

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