Human-induced climate change was first identified in the late 1890s. Yet it took almost 100 years for people to begin considering the process a serious threat to modern life on Earth.
Even then, it was mostly scientists and scholars who understood and preached the perils of climate change. Yet, with the once predicted impacts of climate change now a demonstrably devastating reality, the public is increasingly taking action to bring awareness to, and to fight, climate change—mobilizing an entire movement to further their cause.
For those old enough to remember, today’s climate change movement calls to mind the myriad social and political movements of the 1960s, complete with marches, demonstrations, lobbying, community building and divestment actions. And, similarly to past movements, the climate change movement has been propelled by three key factors: education, firsthand experience and youths’ energy.
Education, said Taylor Apter, a 20-year-old Stony Brook University marine sciences major and environmental studies minor, was what brought her to the September 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City.
“We learned that the UN is talking about a bill on the 23rd here, and they need to know that people care,” said Apter. “People are upset about climate change; people want radical bills to be signed about how to change it.”
With an estimated 400,000 participants, the People’s Climate March—hosted by climate change activist group 350.org, is, as of the present day, considered to be the biggest climate change rally in history.
Thousands of college students of the 18-24-year-old set, both American and international made up a significant portion of the march’s population. Inspired by their education, part of this youth demographic included students (accompanied by their professors) from Stony Brook University‘s Sustainability Studies Program and School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, like Apter.
To be a participant in the People’s Climate March was to be enveloped in a loud, multi-colored sea of concern, care and hope for the planet, for humanity.
There were religious groups, including Capuchin Franciscan monks in brown robes who flew in from Rome for the event; politicians including former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon; and parents, with small toddlers carrying cherished stuffed animals. There were Superstorm Sandy victims marching together and carrying blue and yellow “Displaced: Underwater Homeowners” pop-up tents and protest signs shaped like orange life preservers. There were Latino-Americans with posters demanding “Tenemos La Solución;” Native American and other indigenous elders chanting and dancing in traditional garb; energetic street musicians from the Dominican Republic jamming with members of American high school bands…people representing virtually all imaginable demographic categories were present.
And that was the point of the People’s Climate March: bringing people together to demonstrate that, when it comes to climate change, all human beings are in the same boat.
“Oh this is fantastic, the biggest march I’ve ever gone on was the ‘No Nukes’ march in 1979 when there was 740,000 people,” said Dr. Marc Fasanella, Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program professor of ecological art and design. “I was hoping that this comes up to something like that; I don’t know if it will, but it’s great just seeing this many people out recognizing just how bad the situation actually is.”
It was back in 1988 when Dr. James E. Hansen, a former NASA scientist and current climatologist at Columbia University in New York City, announced to the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that science had proven it was “99 percent” certain that rising global temperatures were not the cause of natural climatic variation, but the result of a buildup of human-emitted carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—a major cause for concern.
Since Hansen’s proclamation to Congress was made public, non-profits, grassroots groups and individuals all over the world, especially young adults, have increasingly taken part in the fight against climate change.
In the fight against climate change, many believe that older, longstanding environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, have benefitted from an injection of youth volunteers and from uniting with younger, newer groups, such as the Hip Hop Caucus and 350.org.
Cory Tiger, 21, Stony Brook University senior and environmental humanities major, has been volunteering with the Sierra Club for the past three years. In that time, she said that she has noticed both a greater involvement of youth and greater success in the group’s ability to help bring about “positive pro-environmental progress,” including that made in the fight against climate change.
“I’m here to show that youth are playing a big role in this movement,” said Tiger of her attendance at the People’s Climate March.
One of the biggest youth contributions to today’s climate change movement has been young people’s use of the Internet, and, more recently, social media. For instance, the People’s Climate March youth volunteers campaigned for climate awareness and action during the months leading up to the event, using Facebook and Twitter to disseminate information about climate change, and the march itself, to the public.
People’s Climate March participants—young and old alike—were invited to tweet at @Peoples_Climate and use #PeoplesClimate to report, in real time, their thoughts, photos, videos and experiences at the event.
Presently, the People’s Climate March—which, besides the New York City event coincided with 2,646 climate change solidarity events across 162 countries—represents the apex of the climate change movement. Other large climate change actions have preceded the People’s Climate March, with each successive event growing in size and impact.
For instance, the April 2011 Brisbane Climate Action Rally in Brisbane, Australia, led by Union Climate Connectors, an Australia-based climate change activist group, drew an estimated 4,000 participants. Two years later, the February 2013 Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Sierra Club, drew an estimated 40,000 participants. As in the case of 350.org in hosting the People’s Climate March, the organizers of these climate actions made use of social media to educate, organize and report event updates to the public.
Critics of the climate change movement include not just climate change deniers, but those who believe the climate change movement, organized by NGOs and held up by members of the public, are too mainstream and not radical enough to make meaningful change. However, others point to the success of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C., which was, at the time, similarly criticized for being too tame and anti-capitalist.
Climate change activists acknowledge that, when it comes to inciting real political change, there is no sure-fire formula to get right. And then there’s the added pressure they face: to make change happen quickly enough to save the planet from climate change’s impending doom.
“We are in trouble,” said Apter, “and unless we start talking about it and telling people about it, it’s just going to keep getting worse and worse.”