Activism

​The Climate March: Will It Be a Call to Arms For the Earth, Or Are More Radical Actions Needed?

Two opposing viewpoints from the event's organizer and an activist journalist.

Photo Credit: Sierra Club poster

On September 21, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to march in New York and other cities across the globe to pressure world leaders to take more aggressive action on global warming. The organizers of the People's Climate March believe it will be one of the biggest social-change marches in history. 

The march precedes a United Nations Climate Summit — a meeting of world leaders in New York — by two days. Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. Secretary General has said he hopes the summit will inject momentum in reaching a global deal on greatly reducing greenhousegas emissions by the end of 2015, when leaders will convene again in Paris.

Organizers think the demonstration will send a message to the assembled world powers that swift and dynamic action must be taken (China and India will not be represented).

But not everyone in the enviornmental and progressive movement thinks the organized march is the best way to create the needed social change. Chris Hedges, the activist journalist who writes for the news website Truthdig, likens the rally, which will be nowhere near the United Nations building, to a big “climate-change street fair” and laments that anyone can join. This means organizations such as the Climate Group and the Environmental Defense Fund, which include chemical, banking and oil interests among their members and supporters, will be represented at the march.

“These faux environmental organizations are designed to neutralize resistance,” says Hedges. “And their presence exposes the march’s failure to adopt a meaningful agenda or pose a genuine threat to power.”

Hedges hopes the real march comes later, after the organized march is disbanded, and it won’t be limited to a designated demonstration area far from the U.N. Hedges anticipates that more radical social-change organizations will descend on New York to take more significant direct action.

Bill McKibben, the environmental writer and founder of 350.org, an environmental organization that raises awareness about the risks of climate change, says the Climate March is "the only way we’ll change any of these equations, here or elsewhere.”

McKibben argues that an organized and diverse populist movement is the best way to demonstrate that there’s a growing consensus against man-made climate change.

McKibben joined Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now! late last month to talk about climate change and to promote the Climate March, of which 350.org is a core sponsor. Below are ​​excerpts from the interview. Following th​e ​transcript is Chris Hedges​'​ retort, a column he wrote on August 31, in which he argues that climate activists need to take more aggressive actions. 

Democracy Now!August 28, 2014 transcript

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the latest U.N. report and then what President Obama, at least according to The New York Times in this major front-page piece, is planning to do?

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. The new U.N. report is more of the same. In a sense, it’s the scientific community, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, telling us what they’ve been telling us now for two decades, that global warming is out of control and the biggest threat that human beings have ever faced. They’re using what was described as blunter, more forceful language.

At this point, you know, short of self-immolation in Times Square, there’s really not much more that the scientific community could be doing to warn us. Our early warning systems have functioned, you know? The alarm has gone off. All our satellites and sensors and supercomputers have produced the information that we need to know. The question is: Will we act on it?

And the answer so far is no. It’s been no in Congress, that’s for sure. Nothing is going to move through Congress, and there’s no hope of a treaty that would get ratified by two-thirds of the Senate. That’s the complication at the moment in international negotiations. We can’t reach any kind of binding treaty. Everyone’s known this. The Times story about the new Obama approach is pretty much old news. Everybody’s known for years that there’s not going to be a treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate. And everyone’s been looking for some kind of workaround.

The workaround would involve some kind of different, voluntary commitments by different countries, but done publicly so one could keep track of them. If this all sounds a little dubious to you, it will sound even more dubious to all the countries that are, you know, watching themselves disappear beneath the waves, so on and so forth, as global warming accelerates. The real question, though, is less the form of the agreement than the content. And here’s where we’ll find out, in the next few months, whether the Obama administration is actually serious or not.

If we’re going to do anything about the problem on the scale that the scientists describe it, then we’re going to need far, far more ambitious attempts than the Obama administration has put forward so far. Yes, they’ve put a cap on coal-fired power plants. That’s good. At the same time, they’ve helped expedite the rise of the United States to become the biggest coal and gas producer in the world, passing the Saudis and the Russians, and they’ve watched coal exports steadily grow. That’s not compatible with what the scientists tell us, that we need to keep 75 or 80 percent of the fossil fuel that we know about underground. So the Obama administration, which likes to poke fun at recalcitrant congressmen, hasn’t been willing to really endure much in the way of political pain itself in order to slow things down. The rest of the world can see that.

The only way we’ll change any of these equations, here or elsewhere, is by building a big movement. That’s why September 21st in New York, which all these groups are coordinating, is such an important day.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ:[G]iven the stark nature of this latest report, talking about a 3.6-degree Fahrenheit increase in temperatures by 2050, as much as 6.7 degrees by the end of the century, do you see any—and that’s given the continued greenhouse gas emissions rates now—do you see any hope anywhere in the world for, in one particular nation or other, where the people have managed to get their governments to tackle this problem?

BILL McKIBBEN: Absolutely. Look, the thing that’s changed in the 25 years since I wrote the first book about all this was that we now know that the answers are technologically available. As I said, the Germans have done a fantastic job of deploying renewable energy. But it’s not because Germany has so much wind and so much sun. I mean, in fact, it’s at a far northern latitude. Munich is north of Montreal. It’s because, instead, they have the more important natural resource of political will.

The good news is, political will is something we can create. And that’s why we’ll all be in the streets of New York on September 21st. That’s going to be an amazing day. That march is going to be led by environmental justice advocates, especially from New York City, but from around the country and around the world, the people who are on the front lines of this fight and have borne the brunt of it. It will be joined by the entire progressive spectrum, including, really for the first time, the labor movement in a big way. It’s an attempt to show that there’s powerful demand for change around climate.

If people out there have long thought to themselves, "I wish I could do something about global warming, but it seems so overwhelming. What can one individual do?" in one sense, that’s true. Changing your light bulb isn’t going to do it at this point. But changing the system still could. And that means that your body is badly needed in the streets of New York on September 21st for a peaceful, festive, but ultimately very powerful demonstration of political will.

AMY GOODMAN: And the student movement around the country to have their universities and colleges divest from oil companies, Yale just became the latest, joining with Harvard and Brown, to say no to divestment; of course, others have said yes. What is your assessment of that movement?

BILL McKIBBEN: So, Oxford University, in a study last year, said that it’s the fastest-growing such movement in history. We’re way ahead of where we thought we would be. Yeah, the Ivy Leagues are so far not divesting, but they will. It took them eight or nine years when the subject was apartheid in South Africa. Others are going at a blistering pace. The World Council of Churches, representing 580 million Christians, this summer, there’s now a drive underway—you can find out about it at 350.org—to persuade Pope Francis to have the Vatican divest. A big Roman Catholic research university, University of Dayton in Ohio, divested this summer. Yesterday, Sydney University in Australia, center of the Australian establishment in the biggest coal nation on Earth, announced that it was divesting from coal.

This is an exciting fight. And the point is the point we’ve been making in it, that there’s—that the fossil fuel industry has four times as much carbon as we could possibly burn. It’s no longer just a point that I’m making in Rolling Stone or that university students are making. Now the World Bank is making it, now the International Energy Agency and, on Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Everybody’s doing that math. It’s only a matter of time before people at universities and other institutions begin to do it, too. I think we’ll see some powerful announcements about divestment out of the United Nations summit right after the big march on the 21st.

The Last Gasp of Climate Change Liberals

by Chris Hedges, Truthdig

The climate change march in New York on Sept. 21, expected to draw as many as 200,000 people, is one of the last gasps of conventional liberalism’s response to the climate crisis. It will take place two days before the actual gathering of world leaders in New York called by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to discuss the November 2015 U.N. Climate Conference in Paris. The marchers will dutifully follow the route laid down by the New York City police. They will leave Columbus Circle, on West 59th Street and Eighth Avenue, at 11:30am on a Sunday and conclude on 11th Avenue between West 34th and 38th streets. No one will reach the United Nations, which is located on the other side of Manhattan, on the East River beyond First Avenue—at least legally. There will be no speeches. There is no list of demands. It will be a climate-themed street fair.

The march, because its demands are amorphous, can be joined by anyone. This is intentional. But as activist Anne Petermann has pointed out, this also means some of the groups backing the march are little more than corporate fronts. The Climate Group, for example, which endorses the march, includes among its members and sponsors BP, China Mobile, Dow Chemical Co., Duke Energy, HSBC, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Greenstone. The Environmental Defense Fund, which says it “work[s] with companies rather than against them” and which is calling on its members to join the march, has funding from the oil and gas industry and supports fracking as a form of alternative energy. These faux environmental organizations are designed to neutralize resistance. And their presence exposes the march’s failure to adopt a meaningful agenda or pose a genuine threat to power.

Our only hope comes from radical groups descending on New York to carry out direct action, including Global Climate Convergence and Popular Resistance. March if you want. But it should be the warmup. The real fight will come once people disperse on 11th Avenue.

“The march is symbolic,” said Kevin Zeese of Popular Resistance when I reached him by phone, “but we are past the time of symbolism. What we need is direct action against the United Nations during the meeting. This should include blockades and disruption of the meeting itself. We need to highlight the fact that the United Nations has sold out to corporate interests. At U.N. meetings on climate change you see corporate logos on display. During the last meeting on climate change in Poland, the U.N. held a simultaneous conference to promote coal as a clean energy source. These U.N. meetings have become corporate trade shows where discussions on climate are hijacked to promote corporate interests. Barack Obama has announced he will continue the U.S. stance of only calling for voluntary climate goals in advance of the upcoming climate summit in Paris next year.”

The fossil fuel industry and corporations, from ExxonMobil to Koch Industries, underwrite political campaigns and author our legislation. They have stacked the courts with their judges and the airwaves with their apologists. They fund our scientific research and have effectively silenced dissidents. This corporate reach extends to the United Nations. Companies set up exhibition halls at U.N. climate summits promoting various corporate schemes to profit from the climate crisis, from “clean” coal and biofuel to nuclear power and carbon trading. Those who attempt to offer a counter narrative, especially after the disruptions at the climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, are swiftly silenced by U.N. security. Fences and security barriers now ring heavily guarded U.N. climate conferences. Protesters are herded into police-controlled “free speech” zones outside—like the march in New York—and ruthlessly dealt with if they deviate from the approved routes or make their voices heard among the delegates. The U.N. security at climate summits, which includes physically removing journalists so they cannot photograph or document protests that are shut down by force, is so absolute that the U.N. demands preapproved wording for T-shirts worn at its gatherings. The elites, whether in Congress or attending U.N. summits, have no intention of cutting off their access to wealth, power and privilege. They know where the money is. They know what they have to do to get it. And we are not part of the equation.

Our democracy is an elaborate public relations charade. And the longer we accept this charade the longer we will be irrelevant. Only when we understand power can we fight it. This fight must be waged on two fronts. We must disrupt the machinery of corporate capitalism and at the same time build parallel, autonomous structures for self-governance that address basic needs such as food and green energy. Capitalism, as Karl Marx pointed out, is not merely a system of economic exploitation. It justifies itself by hijacking the ruling political and economic ideologies—ideologies that buttress capitalism’s ceaseless expansion and commodification of the natural world and human beings. “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships,” Marx wrote, “the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.” And this makes our struggle a battle for ideas as well as a battle for power.

This is not a battle I would have picked. I prefer incremental and piecemeal reform. I prefer a system in which we can elect politicians to represent the governed and thwart corporate abuse. I prefer a United Nations that serves the interests of people around the globe rather than corporate profit. I prefer a vigorous and free debate in the public arena. I prefer a judiciary that is not a wholly owned subsidiary of the corporate state. I prefer the freedom to express dissent without government monitoring of my communications and control of my movements. I prefer to have my basic civil liberties protected. But we do not live in such a system.

The corporate state’s response to climate change has been to pass a series of Draconian laws and set up a vast security and surveillance apparatus that obliterates our privacy, allows us to be snatched off the streets by the military and held without due process in indefinite detention, and criminalizes dissent. The corporate state holds in its hands the legal and physical tools to shut us down. Its response to climate change is not to alter course, but to silence any who resist.

Joe Sacco and I spent two years writing Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. We wrote the book out of the nation’s most impoverished sacrifice zones, places such as Indian reservations, abandoned manufacturing centers, the coalfields of southern West Virginia and the nation’s produce fields. Corporate capitalism holds total, unchallenged power in these sacrifice zones. The politicians, the judges, the press, even the boards of education bow before the dictates of corporate power. And in these sacrifice zones activists have learned something many Americans have yet to understand—corporations are willing to poison Earth and all of its inhabitants for profit. There are no limits.

The collapse of the ecosystem in sacrifice zones brings with it despair, joblessness, high cancer rates, the loss of hope and increased state repression. Those trapped in these sacrifice zones often retreat into drugs and alcohol, the only way for many to blunt the pain. They believe they have no agency. And this misery and despair serve the ends of corporate power. As the environment devolves, the planet becomes one vast sacrifice zone. Joe and I wrote the book as a warning.

The New York Times published a story based on a draft of a new report from the U.N. ’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that speaks of climate change with uncharacteristic bluntness and alarm. The article reads in part:

Runaway growth on the emission of greenhouse gases is swamping all political efforts to deal with the problem, raising the risk of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” over the coming decades, according to a draft of a major new United Nations report.

Global warming is already cutting grain production by several percentage points, the report found, and that could grow much worse if emissions continue unchecked. Higher seas, devastating heat waves, torrential rain and other climate extremes are also being felt around the world as a result of human emissions, the draft report said, and those problems are likely to intensify unless the gases are brought under control.

The world may already be nearing a temperature at which the loss of the vast ice sheet covering Greenland would become inevitable, the report said. The actual melting would then take centuries, but it would be unstoppable and could result in a sea level rise of 23 feet, with additional increases from other sources like melting Antarctic ice, potentially flooding the world’s major cities.

We have known about the deleterious effects of carbon emissions for decades. The first IPCC report was published in 1990. Yet since the beginning of the Kyoto Protocol Era in the late 1980s, we have emitted as much carbon dioxide as was emitted in the prior 236 years. The rising carbon emissions and the extraction of tar sands—and since the industry has figured out how to transport tar sands without building the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, this delivery seems assured—will continue no matter how many police-approved marches are held. Play by the rules and we lose.

Resistance will come from those willing to breach police barricades. Resistance will mean jail time and direct confrontation. Resistance will mean physically disrupting the corporate machinery. Resistance will mean severing ourselves from the dominant culture to build small, self-sustaining communities. This resistance will be effective only when we refuse to do what we are told, when we turn from a liberal agenda of reform to embrace a radical agenda of revolt.  

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