Why I March for the Climate

Frontline

Excerpted from a post by Sieren Ernst, Principal at Ethics & Environment. Read the full blog at Sieren’s website here.

We left for the People’s Climate March at six in the morning from Washington, D.C., bleary-eyed and unresponsive to the bus leader who gave us the run down on how the day would go. But by ten o’clock, when the bus rolled into New York City, people were introducing themselves, chatting about their points of origin, reasons for coming.

I started demonstrating three years ago when, more than a year after I had turned thirty, I found myself getting arrested outside the White House to protest the approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline. In college, studying for my economics degree, I remember watching fellow students from the window of the library as they protested World Bank lending policies. I thought they were silly. I thought that anyone who really knew what she was talking about could make a chart and find a reasonable person to listen without needing to make so much of a fuss out in the street. It took me almost a decade of chart making before reality sank in.

Joining a movement takes you outside of yourself in ways big and small. When the bus leader stood up and said that we were going to introduce ourselves, I curled up in my seat, looked at one of my companions and grumbled, “Noooooo.” I don’t do well on little sleep or long, lurching, over air-conditioned bus journeys, but that morning I’d done both of these things and didn’t want to be bothered to do much else. But after everyone on the bus had introduced themselves and I heard how much farther other people had come, I was forced to remember that I had come out to be something more than my every-day self.

I introduced myself to the man behind me, who had just come back from seven years of democracy-building work in Afghanistan, was traveling by himself and had said that he, “wasn’t affiliated but was looking to be.” I was affiliated, a part of a nationwide grassroots lobbying effort on a carbon tax, and traveling with a group of people from my local chapter in D.C. I told him about our work and he ended up marching with us.

At about 11 am we stepped into the staging area that stretched along Central Park West. We were shoulder-to-shoulder inside the police lines, but there were almost as many people in the wings, lining up along the sidewalks, kids climbing the scaffolding of buildings to get a better view, people sitting on the rock embankments of Central Park taking photos, assembling signs, and floats. Behind us, a group of people launched a ten-by-fifteen foot inflatable Holstein cow and started moving it into the center of the column.

The vanguard started walking at 11:30. Less than halfway up the staging area, we were still stock-still by 12:30, and a little restless. It was a cloudy, swampy day for late September and uncomfortably warm. Some of us sat down on the pavement to give our legs a break before we started walking. Beneath the street, the subway rumbled by at regular intervals, and overhead the police helicopters made routine sweeps. But no one complained about the long wait because we all knew that it meant that the crowd was huge. Each one of us had come with the burning ambition to be only the tiniest possible fraction of the whole. So as we sat and waited amidst the masses, we had the sense that we had succeeded.

The significance of this march is not just that it happened and was huge, but also that it is almost ten times larger than the last largest American climate change march that happened in Washington, D.C. just a year and a half ago.

A majority of Americans now believe that climate change is real, human-caused, and want governments to do something about it. The New York climate march is a reflection of what most of the public feels. But of course the public can be ignored. In the coming days and months global leaders will likely continue to put forward actions that are not strong enough. The public will have to stay on top of this every step of the way. The march is not the culmination of the movement; it is the beginning. It is a way of showing how many of us care enough that we are willing to get up early, to pay for planes and trains, sit on uncomfortable bus rides, stand in line in swampy weather and to march in huge crowds for hours in order to be heard. 

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