The Broader Picture Behind the “People’s Climate March” and “Flood Wall Street” Protests

Giant balloons, costumed women on stilts, giant cardboard butterflies, and marching bands galore – the People’s Climate March on September 21st was startlingly similar to a circus in many respects. There certainly were various spectacles to be seen in New York City among the estimated 400,000 participants of diverse backgrounds, united in their desire for action on climate change. Natives of Kansas walked alongside natives of Papua New Guinea, and all types of grievances could be heard, ranging from poor wine harvests to endangered bee populations to global water scarcity. Accompanied by the sound of trumpets and drums, these marchers made up center stage of the 2,646 events held in more than 150 countries on Sunday. Among the labor unions and environmental non-profits marched a few celebrities as well: actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Edward Norton, NYC Major Bill de Blasio, and former Vice President Al Gore.

Beyond the festival atmosphere, of course, there was a palpable solemnity grounded in both frustration and urgency. Some leaders were singled out by name, popular targets including US President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Organized by 1,500 groups and spearheaded by 350.org, this march was aimed at placing political pressure on world leaders, despite the more localized focus that inevitably materialized with so many groups hailing from North America. The ultimate target was the UN Climate Summit that took place on Tuesday, September 23rd. An important tidbit lost in the shuffle of the march is that the Summit was not part of the UNFCCC (Framework Convention on Climate Change) negotiating process, which is scheduled to occur in Lima, Peru in December. Rather, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, also a march attendee, hoped to kick-start the conversation at the Summit and prod world leaders to pledge to reducing emissions and mobilizing political will. Until these promises are substantiated by action, this Summit remains largely symbolic.

This did not discourage the New York City protestors, however. They marched on, driven by a broad range of issues. Most issues were undeniably pertinent to the environment – the largest contingencies marching were protesting against fracking, the Keystone XL pipeline, tar sands, and fossil fuels. A handful of issues were tangentially, though significantly, related to climate change. People rallied behind jobs slogans, global health campaigns, and demilitarization calls.  And still other groups could scarcely claim a tenuous connection to climate change at all: Some marched for anarchy, while others for peace in Palestine. The march thus represented more of a conglomerate than a unified, cohesive body.

The march was followed by an auxiliary protest on Monday, September 22nd, named Flood Wall Street to mimic the potential consequence of “an economic system based on exploiting frontline communities, workers and natural resources”. About 100 protestors were arrested that evening for blocking the corner of Broadway and Wall Street. A much smaller congregation than its predecessor –Flood Wall Street only had a few thousand participants at its peak – the protest was a relatively temperate affair. There were minor altercations with the police at the barricades, where pepper spray was administered, but the daylong protest, which at one point surrounded the Charging Bull statue, was allowed to continue peacefully until around 8 pm, when arrests were finally made.  More reminiscent of the Occupy protests than of the People’s Climate March, Flood Wall Street seemed to divert attention away from the latter’s main objective. Whereas the People’s Climate March centered around the common desire for aggressive international policy against climate change, the Flood Wall Street movement focused purely on anti-capitalism, a fringe campaign that does not have the same mainstream appeal or contextual relevance.

Flood Wall Street did not stop the Rockefeller family, a century-old emblem of capitalism, from announcing its plans to join the divestment movement. The symbolism behind the divestment by the Rockefeller family is more significant than the modest financial impacts the action itself will cause. The $860 million-worth Rockefeller Brothers fund, after all, traces its humble beginnings to the reign of John D. Rockefeller, one of America’s first oil moguls.

The fervor of the past two days’ events contrasts strikingly with broader U.S. opinion about climate change. In a Gallup Poll conducted earlier this year, it was found that only 24% of Americans say they worry about climate change a great deal. This places climate change 14th in importance in a list of 15 national problems. Year after year, Americans consistently rank climate change as a low priority, placing much more importance and urgency behind issues such as the size of the federal government, illegal immigration, and the economy. While response bias can distort this indicator, the overall trend of relative apathy is nonetheless noteworthy. It signals to American politicians that the people do not prioritize climate change, so they should not either. This effect is magnified when one considers the fact that the United States is a significant player in the climate change conversation occurring globally.

It has yet to be seen whether the largest climate change march in history is compelling enough to both galvanize American public opinion and push world leaders to enact meaningful legislation.

Image credit Ingfbruno from Wikimedia Commons.

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