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Why It's So Hard to Protest Climate Change

Politics, blame, and other road blocks that are holding the movement back.

| Mon Mar. 4, 2013 3:58 PM EST

The San Francisco Forward on Climate march, February 2013.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Two Sundays ago, I traveled to the nation's capital to attend what was billed as "the largest climate rally in history" and I haven't been able to get the experience—or a question that haunted me—out of my mind. Where was everybody?

First, though, the obvious weather irony: climate change didn't exactly come out in support of that rally. In the midst of the warmest years and some of the warmest winters on record, the demonstration, which focused on stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline—it will bring tar-sands oil, some of the "dirtiest," carbon-richest energy available from Alberta, Canada, to the US Gulf Coast—was the coldest I've ever attended. I thought I'd lose a few fingers and toes while listening to the hour-plus of speakers, including Senator Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island, who were theoretically warming the crowd up for its march around the (other) White House.

And I also experienced a moment of deep disappointment. When I arrived early at the spot in front of the Washington Monument on the National Mall where we were to assemble, my heart sank. It looked like only a few thousand protestors were gathering for what had been billed as a monster event. I had taken it for granted that I would be adding one small, aging body (and voice) to a vast crowd at a propitious moment to pressure Barack Obama to become the climate-change president he hasn't been. After all, he has a decision to make that's his alone: whether or not to allow that pipeline to be built. Nixing it would help keep a potentially significant contributor to climate change, those Albertan tar sands, in the ground. In other words, I hoped to play my tiny part in preserving a half-decent future for this planet, my children, and my new grandson.

Sixty environmental and other organizations were backing the demonstration, including the Sierra Club with its hundreds of thousands of members. Given what was potentially at stake, it never crossed my mind that the turnout wouldn't be substantial. In fact, on that frigid day, lots of demonstrators did turn up. Evidently, they knew the dirty little secret of such events: that much talk would precede a modest amount of walking and inventive slogan shouting. So they arrived— poured in actually—late, and in real numbers.

In the end, the organizers estimated attendance at somewhere in the 35,000-50,000 range. Media reports varied between the usual "thousands," generically used to describe (or, if you're in a conspiratorial frame of mind, minimize) any demonstration, and tens of thousands. I have no way of estimating myself, but certainly the crowd was, in the end, sizeable, as well as young, enthusiastic, and loud. It made itself heard passing the White House. Not that President Obama was there to hear anything. He was then on a golf course in the Florida warmth teeing up with "a pair of Texans who are key oil, gas, and pipeline players." That seemed to catch another kind of climate-change reality of our moment and strongly hinted at the strength of the forces any such movement is up against. In the meantime, Keystone builder TransCanada was ominously completing the already green-lighted first half of the Texas-Oklahoma leg of its prospective future pipeline.

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In the end, I felt genuine satisfaction at having been there, but given what was at stake, given Frankenstorm Sandy, the devastating Midwestern drought and record southwestern fires of 2012, the Snowmageddon winter storm that had recently dropped 40 inches of the white stuff on Hamden, Connecticut, the blistering spring and summer of 2012, the fast-melting Arctic sea ice, and the fact that last year broke all heat records for the continental United States, given the build-up of billion-dollar weather disasters in recent years, and the growing emphasis on "extreme weather" events on the national TV news, shouldn't hundreds of thousands have been there? After all, I've been in antiwar demonstrations in which at least that many marched and in 1982, I found myself in my hometown in a crowd of a million demonstrating against the possibility of a world-ending nuclear war. Is climate change a less important issue?

"There Is No Planet B"

While protesting that Sunday, I noted one slogan on a number of hand-made signs that struck me as the most pointed (and poignant) of the march: "There is no planet B." It seemed to sum up what was potentially at stake: a planet to live reasonably comfortably on. You really can't get much more basic than that, which is why hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, should have been out in the streets demanding that our leaders begin to attend to climate change before it's quite literally too late.

After all, to my mind, climate change, global warming, extreme weather—call it what you will—is the obvious deal-breaker in human, if not planetary, history. Everything but nuclear catastrophe pales by comparison, no matter the disaster: 9/11, 70,000 dead in Syria, failed wars, the grimmest of dictatorships, movements of hope that don't deliver—all of that's familiar history. Those are the sorts of situations where you can try again, differently, or future generations can and maybe do far better. All of it involves human beings who need to be dealt with or human structures that need to be changed. While any of them may be the definition of "the worst of times," they are also the definition of hope.

Nature and the weather are another matter (even if it's humanity that, by burning of fossil fuels at increasingly staggering rates, has created its own Frankenstein's monster out of the natural world). Climate change is clearly something new in our experience. Even in its relatively early but visibly intensifying stages, it threatens to be the singular event in human history, because unlike every other disaster we can imagine (except a full-scale nuclear war or, as has happened in the planet's past, a large meteorite or asteroid impact), it alone will alter the basis for life on this planet.

Raise the planet's temperature by three to six degrees Celsius, as various well-respected scientific types and groups are now suggesting might happen by century's end (and possibly throw in some more heat thanks to the melting of the permafrost in the north), and if you live in a city on a coastline, you'd better watch out. And that only begins to suggest the problems humanity will face.

The world, at best, will be a distinctly poorer, less comfortable place for us (and from there the scenarios only get uglier).

Don't misunderstand me. I'm no scientist. I doubt I'd even be considered scientifically literate (though I try). But the scientific consensus on the subject of climate change seems striking enough to me, and what's happening around us is no less striking as a confirmation that our world is changing—and remarkably quickly at that. Whether you read about melting glaciers, the melting Greenland ice shield, melting Arctic waters, melting permafrost, acidifying oceans, intensifying storms, greater desertification, wilder wild fires, or so many other allied subjects, doesn't it always seem that the rates of bad news are on the rise and the word "record" is usually lurking somewhere in the vicinity?

So I continue to wonder, given our situation on this planet, given our future and that of our children and grandchildren, where is everybody?

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