This upcoming Sunday, over 100,000 people are expected to converge on New York City for the People’s Climate March. My colleague Rebecca Leber has explained that the “real goal” of the march, taking place two days before a United Nations climate summit, is “to show that climate action is a populist movement.” The following diagram depicts how the participants in the march will be organized:
The march’s story, embedded here in the sequence of participants (starting at the front of the diagram’s arrow), begins with the argument that the people most vulnerable to fossil-fueled global warming—“frontline” communities and youth—can lead the way to a solution. In most stories on global warming, indigenous and frontline communities, such as migrants, farmworkers, and survivors of climate disasters, are victims who at best deserve recompense. Similarly, youth are generally portrayed as the passive victims of the decisions made by today’s powerful. (As President Obama told Georgetown University students in 2013, “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”) The People’s Climate March asserts that by being on the “frontlines of crisis,” the people most personally impacted by the cost of global warming have the greatest ability to lead us in another direction.
In my experience as a climate advocate, I’ve found this to be truer than what most might expect. For example, Bangladeshis are generally portrayed as some of the greatest victims of global warming, with an entire country under threat from rising seas. Yet they—unlike the Western world—have a society of over 100 million people that is resilient to the storms and floods that sweep over the nation every monsoon season. We talk about how wonderful it would be to get to ask a time traveler about what it’s like to live in the future—see, for example, the plot of the Back to the Future movies. But with frontline communities, we have that opportunity. They are living in everyone’s future.
The march “narrative,” as it were, has a sharp transition from the initial focus on building the future with youth, labor, and green development to accountability for the fossil-fuel industry and global warming deniers.
Moving through the diagram, it’s interesting to see “environmentalists” represented as a bloc, grouped with scientists and interfaith marchers in the “Debate Is Over” contingent. By definition, everyone participating in the People’s Climate March is an environmentalist, in the sense of being concerned about how our actions affect the health of our planet. But it is certainly the case that culturally and structurally “environmentalists” in the United States are a particular subgroup, sharing signifiers of race, wealth, and lifestyle. Although the communities who face the worst air and water pollution in the United States are mostly rural or urban, poor, black, and Hispanic, the nation’s powerful environmental organizations have a predominantly affluent, white, suburban membership. Having the frontline communities lead the march is a step toward what the “new climate movement” has professed as a goal. (The scientists, for their part, are gathering before the march at the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History, which is under criticism for having carbon financier David Koch, a global-warming denier who opposed Sandy relief, on its board.)
The march’s narrative concludes with the slogan “To change everything, it takes everyone!” This is in part a nod to Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, which posits that global warming not only represents an existential threat to humanity but also an unavoidable choice between the unregulated capitalism that is producing the threat and better pathways for global society.
Having the march’s logistical diagram portrayed as a narrative is pretty fascinating. And raises the question: Will people watching from Rockefeller Center perceive the story, such as it is? Or will only the streaming mass of humanity, mobilized to stop our headlong rush toward destruction and to build a healthier future, register it in their minds?