Hundreds of thousands demonstrate against climate change in New York

More than 300,000 people took to the streets of New York to protest political inaction in the face of climate change. As Sebastian Moll reports, the peaceful march was timed to coincide with the U.N. Climate Summit, which begins Tuesday in New York.

Photo credit: Annette Bernhardt, flickr

Photo credit: Annette Bernhardt, flickr

It was a rumble that you could feel in your bones. A cacophony of whistles and bells and a roar from 300,000 throats, which rang out on Sunday at the precise hour of 1:00 p.m. and reverberated through the streets of Manhattan. On command, more than a quarter of a million people raised their voices at the exact same time, keen to make sure that they would finally be heard.

The joint cry marked the start of the “People’s March Against Climate Change”, which organisers said was the largest climate protest in history. People from across the United States and the entire world came to New York two days before the U.N. Climate Summit to force politicians to act.

Environmental justice movement, not hippies

It was a colourful coalition of groups and individuals that made their way along the Hudson: Youth groups from Florida and church groups from Massachusetts, trade unions from New York and environmental groups from Europe and South America. More than half the demonstrators were families and concerned individuals, marching together the entire afternoon along Sixth Avenue to 34th Street.

Precisely the type of heterogeneity that the organisers had hoped for. And with good reason: Organised by, which was founded by a group of university friends in the United States along with journalist and environmentalist Bill McKibben, the demonstration was called a “People’s March”. In an interview published in the New Yorker on Sunday, McKibben explains: “The people who are arranging this march are straight out of the environmental-justice movement. These are not John Denver environmentalists. This is a very different kind of thing.”

From Ban Ki Moon to Di Caprio

That the environmental movement, long marginalised in the United States, has now become mainstream was obvious by the visible presence on Sunday of politicians and celebrities alike. At the head of the rally were U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki Moon and Leonardo Di Caprio. New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio, who just days earlier hastily unveiled his latest environmental programme for the city, was there as was former Vice President Al Gore.

The march had its desired effect: Bill McKibben had promised demonstrators that they would be sounding the alarm bells in the streets of New York to make urgently clear to U.N. delegates that large parts of the population demand immediate action to protect the climate. with global ambitions

But for McKibben and his fellow campaigners, such as journalist and author Naomi Klein, Sunday’s march was only the beginning. The organisation – named 350 after the level of parts per million of carbon dioxide which the planet can sustain in the atmosphere – seeks to build a global climate movement.

Their immediate goal is to pressure the climate summit in Paris in 2015 to adopt truly effective resolutions. The initial impetus behind the new movement was, as Naomi Klein describes it, the immense frustration on the part of environmental groups at NGOs with the Copenhagen climate summit- “We suddenly understood that our leaders are not leading us and that we are own our own if we want to see change,” says Klein. And McKibben: “The pressure on politics from the energy multinationals is immense. We want to generate just as much pressure from the street”.

Structural change needed

And so a new global environmental movement arose from the ashes of the Copenhagen debacle, revealing itself for the first time in New York – and in a strong show of force. What is new this time around is that, contrary to the environmental movement of the 1970s, climate change is no longer seen as an isolated subject but rather a symptom of a structural problem. “You need to do more than change your light bulbs,” he says. “You need to try to change the system.”


Photo credit: Annette Bernhardt, flickr/Creative Commons

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