People's Climate March

September 13, 2014

The People's Climate March in New York City on September 21, 2014 was the largest climate march in history. In this lesson students learn about the march and the current scientific consensus on climate change, and consider what we and political leaders should do about it. 

To the Teacher:

On September 21, 2014, protesters came together in New York City (as well as in cities around the world) for what turned out to be the largest climate march in history. The People's Climate March took place the same week as the United Nations Climate Summit, where heads of state from more than 125 countries began debating proposals for an international agreement to limit the rise of global temperatures. The march was designed to pressure politicians to take stronger action to address the climate crisis.
The following lesson consists of two student readings. The first reading explains why the People's Climate March was organized and the issues it spotlighted. The second reading highlights the current scientific consensus on climate change and discusses possible actions that would limit the negative impact of rising temperatures. Questions for class discussion follow each reading.

Reading 1
Why Are People Marching? 

On September 21, 2014, protesters came together in New York City (as well as in cities around the world) for what turned out to be the largest climate march in history. The People's Climate March took place the same week as the United Nations Climate Summit, and was designed to pressure politicians to take stronger action to address the climate crisis.
At the UN Climate Summit, convened by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, all UN member states—as well as leaders in business, NGOs, and local organizations—came to the UN headquarters in New York to discuss climate change. The goal of the summit, according to the UN, is to "mobilize political will for an ambitious global agreement by 2015 that limits the world to less than 2-degree Celsius rise in global temperature."
The organizers of the People's Climate March used the summit as an occasion to show world leaders that there is broad, popular support for aggressive action to reduce the fossil fuel emissions that are causing global warming. The People's Climate March's website states, "We think that organizing, mobilizing, and building social movements are ultimately what changes the course of history."  

Over 300,000 protesters from across the United States participated in the New York City march. More than 1,000 groups co-sponsored the march, including many youth organizations, indigenous groups, unions, and major environmental and scientific groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Sierra Club. Students from 320 colleges and universities attended. On the same day some 2,000 other demonstrations were staged in 150 countries, including London, Rio de Janeiro, Lagos, and Bogotá. 

In a September 8, 2014 post, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune explained why he would be marching:

History is filled with examples of those who stubbornly clung to old paradigms even when it was against their own best interest. Of course, the better way of doing things eventually wins out. But... we simply can't afford to wait any longer for common sense to prevail. Not if we want to stop climate disruption.

That's why it is so important that, as a society, we increase the pressure on our leaders to take action right now to advance clean energy solutions and to resist the temptation to drill, mine, and frack as if there were no consequences and no tomorrow.

...On September 21, I will be marching along with thousands of Sierra Club members and so many others in New York City. The People's Climate March will be the biggest climate demonstration in U.S. history... There'll be blocs of families with young children, gatherings of clean energy advocates, and much more. We'll be calling on President Obama and other world leaders to take more significant action to curb carbon pollution. Join us, and take a stand where you stand.

People's Climate March organizers hope that this enormous protest marks the beginning of a movement that will push politicians to make bold, substantial commitments to address the climate crisis.

For Discussion:

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might these be answered?
2. What is the purpose of the UN Climate Summit? What does it hope to accomplish?

3. Based on the reading, what did participants in the People's Climate March hope to accomplish?
4. What do you think? Is marching an effective way to draw attention to this issue? Why or why not?
5. What are other actions that people might take to spur action on climate change?

Reading 2:
A Case for Urgency on Climate Change

The vast majority of the world's scientific community agrees that rising global temperatures caused by fossil fuel emissions have created a very dire situation. 

For the past 26 years, thousands of scientists from around the globe have participated in a UN-sponsored effort called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which collects and analyzes scientific information related to climate change. The IPCC predicts a global temperature increase of at least 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 100 years.  While this may not sound very dramatic, rising temperatures have already had a major impact on oceans, plants, animals, and people. Recent reports from the IPCC have warned that climate change is accelerating and that immediate aggressive action is needed. As reporter Justin Gillis writes in an August 26, 2014 article for the New York Times:

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.

What can be done to combat this crisis and limit the impact of rising global temperatures? The world must move away from fossil fuels as an energy source. Some argue that our societies must figure out ways to reduce the amount that we produce and consume overall, while ensuring a better distribution of what we do produce. Limiting population growth would also reduce humans' environmental footprint.   

In a September 11, 2014 article, George Monbiot, a British columnist for the Guardian, argues that the "obvious solution" to climate change "is to decide that most fossil fuel reserves will be left in the ground, while alternative energy sources are rapidly developed to fill the gap."  Politically, this would be very hard to achieve, since we still depend on oil and other fossil fuels to produce energy, and since the oil and gas companies have a great deal of influence on political systems across the globe. Nevertheless, Monbiot contends that history provides a positive example of when countries were able to successfully address a similarly dire crisis:

In 1974, before any noticeable issues had arisen, the chemists Frank Rowland and Mario Molina predicted that the breakdown of chlorofluorocarbons - chemicals used for refrigeration and as aerosol propellants - in the stratosphere would destroy atmospheric ozone. Eleven years later, ozone depletion near the South Pole was detected by the British Antarctic Survey.  
Had governments not acted, the UN estimates, "atmospheric levels of ozone depleting substances could have increased tenfold by 2050."
The action governments took was direct and uncomplicated: ozone-depleting chemicals would be banned. The Montreal protocol came into force in 1989, and within seven years, use of the most dangerous substances had been more or less eliminated. Every member of the United Nations has ratified the treaty.
This was despite a sustained campaign of lobbying and denial by the chemicals industry - led by Dupont - which bears strong similarities to the campaign by fossil fuel companies to prevent action on climate change....

So what's the difference? Why is the Montreal protocol effective while the Kyoto protocol and subsequent efforts to prevent climate breakdown are not?

Part of the answer must be that the fossil fuel industry is much bigger than the halogenated hydrocarbon industry, and its lobbying power much greater. Retiring fossil fuel is technically just as feasible as replacing ozone-depleting chemicals, given the wide range of technologies for generating useful energy, but politically much tougher.

While the science behind climate change is clear, politicians have been hesitant to take the steps necessary to confront the fossil fuel industry, reduce energy usage, and identify alternative sources of energy. The hundreds of thousands of people who showed up for the People's Climate March believe that direct popular action will increase the political will for bold action.

For Discussion:

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might these be answered?

2. According to the reading, what has the IPCC concluded about the likely extent and impacts of climate change?

3. What are some of the challenges preventing stronger action to combat climate change?

4. George Monbiot uses past efforts to save the ozone layer as positive example of how countries can come together to address an international environmental crisis. What do you think of this example?

5. What do you think is needed to make leaders act on this issue? How do you think people can help generate political will for stronger policy measures?

- Research assistance provided by Yessenia Gutierrez.