“Is Earth fu**ed?” asked a provocatively titled talk at the 2012 American Geophysical Union, one of the largest gatherings of climate scientists in the world. Believing — like most scientists — that although planet Earth will continue to exist in the face of global warming, its inhabitants are indeed currently fu**ed, I decided to postpone laundry and lab and head to Manhattan for the People’s Climate March the Sunday before last.
Having volunteered as Security Marshals, our duties began at 7 a.m. along New York City’s Central Park West. Sporting fluorescent green shirts, white caps and walkie-talkies, we helped the gathering crowds assemble between 61st and 65th Streets. These six blocks were reserved for the first of the march’s six contingents: those at the frontlines of the climate crisis. It was only half an hour before the 11:30 a.m. start that I realized the privileged responsibility conferred upon us. Our job was to protect the front line.
Forming a semi-circle around the head of the march, our small legion of marshals knelt to allow the world’s media a clear shot of our standard bearers: a row of children, mostly colored and mostly poor, and none older than 16, singing songs calling for a better tomorrow.
“Look at all these people, here because they care about your future,” I overheard a young couple say to their little boy. On the jumbo screens in front of us, pictures were beamed live from some of the 2,807 other events happening across the globe. As we set off I spotted London, where at that very minute my dad was risking a bad knee to be part of his first march.
For the next two-and-a-half hours, we walked hand-in-hand; we were the bow of this 400,000-person strong ship, wading gently through an endless sea of photographers and journalists. Occasionally I would sneak a peek over my shoulder, struggling to comprehend the four miles of energy, hope, and determination that followed just meters behind us.
At 12:55 p.m. on 42nd Street, in the valley of Times Square’s towering lights, we brought the march to a halt. This human Ark carried every color and creed, every age and ethnicity, every social standing and education, and at 12:58 p.m., we all held hands and raised our arms to the sky. Suddenly and completely, all went quiet.
As we observed two minutes of eerie silence, I thought of the farmers in the fields of California, trying to salvage crops from the state’s worst drought in recorded history. I thought of boys with guns in Syria, drawn into a conflict catalyzed by four years without rain. I thought of the tens of millions of Bangladeshi families whose lives will be uprooted by feet — if not meters — of sea level rise, now locked-in by the West Antarctic ice sheet’s irreversible collapse. And I thought of my own home in Winchester — the ancient capital of England — where last Christmas we saw the worst floods in a quarter of a millennium.
Halfway back in the crowd, Hendrik Hertzberg described what happened next in an article published in The New Yorker: “Then came the wave — first a rolling tsunami of arms thrown into the air, travelling swiftly at us from the head of the march, two miles away, then, like thunder after distant lightning, a wall of sound, a deafening, exuberant roar of human voices all around.”
Activism and politics have not come easily to me as a science grad student, but on Sunday I marched because we have so few years to put the brakes on impending climate catastrophe: a mere decade or two for global greenhouse gas emissions to peak and then plummet faster than they have risen for the past 160 years; and only a year or two to stop building all fossil fuel infrastructure, according to the International Energy Agency.
I marched because despite the threat of losing everything we love, 2012-13 saw $674 billion spent on fossil fuel extraction and the largest annual increase in carbon dioxide levels in 30 years. I marched because this summer the Canadian government muzzled its scientists from speaking publicly about climate change; because Australia became the first country in the world to repeal its carbon tax; and because the U.S. Senate failed to pass a resolution simply stating that climate change is real.
I marched because climate change preferentially afflicts those least to blame, for want not of solutions, but of courage in the face of greed. I marched because, as Einstein put it, “Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.” How can I stand idly by as both my future and the science that I love get dragged through the gutter? The only thing that can match the power of the money preventing climate action is the power of a social movement. And so I marched.
So enormous was the gathering that it wouldn’t be for several hours that those at the back of the march would even begin to move. As our front line reached its terminus, we took up traffic control with the NYPD, and for the next five hours watched people stream continuously by. Three hours in, my MIT friends (and 50,000 other students) came into view, bearing the giant banners we had made the week before. “MIT for climate action!” one read. “Stand with Science!” implored another. From freshman undergrads, to final year PhD students, to alumni lawyers, architects and professors, and everything in between, this group of 70 could not be stereotyped. This was MIT’s quiet and loud, our academics and activists, our young and old.
We had promised our friends the chance to help make climate change history, and as I laid eyes on The New York Times’ front page the next morning, I knew we had delivered. The People’s Climate March was headline news, and three other stories made it above the fold: a new scientific report confirming 2013’s record carbon dioxide levels; the United Nation’s Climate Summit in New York City the following Tuesday; and an extraordinary new development in the fossil fuel divestment campaign.
Even before the march had ended, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund — a philanthropic arm of those who made their fortune from Standard Oil and spun off Exxon Mobil and Chevron — revealed that it was to divest its $860 million of assets from fossil fuel companies, bringing total global divestments to $51 billion. Divestment would feature prominently in the United Nation’s climate discussions two days later. TIME magazine declared, “College kids helped divest $50 billion from fossil fuels.” Perhaps, at long last, the climate change dots were beginning to be joined between science, politics, and activism.
The People’s Climate March was the biggest climate change mobilization in human history, and it highlighted that this is an issue of justice as well as environmentalism. It lent a collective voice to frontline communities, unions, faith leaders, businesses, scientists, students, and so many others, and it put those at the front lines of the climate crisis where they belong: at the front.
Yet there is no time to bathe in the afterglow of what will surely be looked back upon as a singular moment in the climate change movement. The longest of journeys begins with the first step, and the People’s Climate March was just that. History is in the making, and we must keep moving forward.
Geoffrey Supran is a graduate student in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering, a member of Fossil Free MIT, and a member of the MIT Climate Change Conversation Committee.