That moment in New York City when the game of the climate movement changed

Thousands of participants in the People's Climate March make their way through the streets of New York City. 09/21/2014 © Michael Nagle / Greenpeace

Who anticipated a turn-out like this? The largest political march in the US for over decade and it all took place in New York, home of the world’s largest stock exchange, headquarters of international financial institutions and both dominated by coal and oil-fueled interests for over 20 years. And here we were, people of all kinds, standing up and marching for the climate on a Sunday afternoon. We kept in our hearts the struggles of past, present and future climate victims. Our hopes and feet carried us to a better world, one without fossil fuels and nuclear energy but powered by 100% clean and green energy for all by mid-century.

It was a powerful event that bared the determination of the people to influence political process. The people’s climate march, solemn yet colorful, extended for several kilometers and tested our patience and endurance. I had to wait three hours before I could start marching. People from across the country walked and shared with me their concerns about the imminent catastrophic impacts of global warming. Workers, teachers, accountants, firemen, and students spread the message: to change everything we need everyone. Among them marched global citizen Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations. His courage was followed by a few ministers and celebrities; namely, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sting, and also Naomi Klein showed her vested interest. The march took us through the temple of consumption, New York’s mid-town neighborhood. All traffic stood still. What an exceptional moment when a whole society’s spirit soared. Goose-bumps included.

The next day I attended the opening of Climate Week NYC where company leaders, like Apple’s Tim Cook, were taking part. The excitement from the Sunday was still lingering. The bosses of all kinds of companies detailed their march experience. Ban Ki-moon in particular still seemed taken by the positive contact with ordinary people the day before. He was talking at length about the march until he finally concluded that the heads of states need to listen to the people.

We cannot disagree with Ban, can we? That is why a handful of Greenpeace activists sidled to a remote location and produced a projection onto the side of the UN headquarters building reading ‘listen to the people not the polluters’. Just like the people at the climate march, we demanded clear political actions: we want a future built on solutions; that is, clean and green energy. But if politicians continue supporting the old economic model that favors the polluters, our future will be dark and dirty. That future locks us into coal and oil and only gratifies businesses like Vattenfall, RWE and Shell. In team with nuclear energy leaders, they are trying to jam ambitious and binding targets for renewable energy whenever they can. The coming EU energy package for October is just one of the many occasions.

Last week, I felt alarmed when I had to witness the leaders of polluting companies lying about actively averting the process global warming. They supported a price on global carbon – the smokescreen of climate (in)action.

The Ban Ki-moon Summit has sent some important signals in support of the long-term goal of 100% renewable energy for all in a just transition period. A few political leaders pledged to achieve the 100% goal and a consolidation of companies voiced their commitment to get 100 companies to commit to 100% renewable energy in 2020! Were their actions inspired by the marching people? Many of the protesters wore shirts with that exact demand!

The last couple of days made one thing clear: people are standing up to express what future they want. They overcome frustration with action. In the UK and on the day of the Summit, a group of courageous people stopped a coal train from Russia and returned the dirty load to the sender. Even if the path is long and rocky at times, we will not be silent until the world we want to live in, one that makes life worthy and safe, has become a reality for all.

The speeches of US President Barack Obama and China’s Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli featured the much anticipated words of admission that there is in fact a global responsibility and that they are prepared to take it forward. China added they intend to peak as soon as possible. I followed the speeches closely, reacting to fragments with joy and pain. Fine examples of leadership alternated with boneless pledges of commitment. So many promises were offered and no paths that will fulfill them. The time is now!

The movement needs to spread and grow. With the people’s climate march on the back I am convinced our voices will be louder than those of the polluters.
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Martin Kaiser is the International Climate Politics Coordinator at Greenpeace Germany.

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