from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

A Dispatch from the People’s Climate March

People's climate march New York city Climate Change summit

September 23, 2014

People's climate march New York city Climate Change summit
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The People’s Climate March, which drew a reported three hundred thousand people to the New York streets on Sunday, deserves much of the applause and attention it’s attracted. No one who attended the march can deny the enthusiasm of the crowd, or the fact that the gathering has helped keep climate change on the front page for a week.  And yet, throughout the day, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d stumbled into an anti-fracking march that also happened to be about climate change.  And I couldn’t escape the conclusion that this focus could end up undermining the very climate change goals that the march was ostensibly about achieving.

Five years ago, climate change rallies were typically focused on coal. Whatever one thought of the old protest tactics, or the wisdom of the specific policy demands, there’s no question that the activities were targeting a significant climate problem.  Coal is the largest and fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions from energy use. Blunting coal use unquestionably reduces global greenhouse gas emissions.

Fast-forward a couple years. With a rally outside the White House in 2011 that generated front-page coverage, climate activism shifted focus to the Keystone XL pipeline.  Now the emphasis was on a project that promised to have little impact on climate change regardless of whether the protesters got what they wanted – perhaps not the ideal place to focus so much energy.

Sunday’s climate march had me pining for those good old days. There was barely any anti-Keystone paraphernalia beyond the small, designated anti-tar-sands section. There was little about coal outside the similarly small anti-mountaintop-mining zone. But boy were there a lot of anti-fracking signs. Ed Crooks of the FT noted on Twitter that anti-fracking signs “outnumber anti-coal signs by more than 10:1”; he followed that with an observation that there were “possible even more [signs] about #fracking” than about #climate”. Both are consistent with what I saw. This despite the fact that fracking, notwithstanding its problems and limitations, has reduced U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and helped create the political space for EPA power plant regulations that will do more.

Take a step back: In the last five years, organizers have gone from drawing a few thousand people to lonely protests to bringing out hundreds of thousands on the streets of New York. They’ve done that in part through superior organizing and by tapping into growing concern about climate change. But they’ve also done it in part by shifting their emphasis from a central part of the climate problem (coal) to a marginal issue (Keystone) to opposing something that, while decidedly imperfect, actually helps deal with climate change (natural gas). This seems to be a Faustian bargain at best.

More pragmatic players in the climate movement often explain this bargain by arguing that anything that gets people mobilized on climate helps the overall cause.  Playing a pure inside game on climate change has its limits. And it’s easier to mobilize people around opposition to energy developments in their back yards that scare them, carried out by companies that can be easily demonized, than to get them revved up about amorphous climate threats and subtle policies that might counteract those. (One friend at the march threatened to chant, “What do we want? Better seals on natural gas compressors! When do we want them? Now!” He wisely decided against it.) It’s also possible, in principle, to mobilize around one thing (say, Keystone) and then pivot to another (say, EPA power plant regulations) when the time for policy action arrives. Take this too far, though, and you back yourself into a corner: one has to wonder, among other things, how much the anti-fracking marchers will support the new EPA power plant rules once they discover that a central impact will be to increase demand for fracked natural gas.

It’s great to have leaders who help draw vocal attention to climate change. But those who care about confronting climate change yet understand how wrongheaded some of what’s being called is for need to speak up just as loudly.

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