Nearly three years ago, hundreds of thousands of people assembled in the streets of New York City for the People’s Climate March. The event came as world leaders were gathering for a United Nations summit focused on climate action and as countries around the world were moving toward what would become a landmark accord the following year in Paris to collectively combat global warming.
How times have changed.
When demonstrators flock to Washington on Saturday for the next iteration of the People’s Climate March — a date that coincides with the 100th day of the Trump administration, which during its short tenure has begun to roll back Obama-era environmental protections, ease regulations on the fossil fuel industry and ponder pulling out of the Paris climate agreement — the tone is likely to be more confrontational.
Climate activist Bill McKibben, an author and co-founder of the advocacy group 350.org, was a driving force behind the 2014 march in New York. In an interview with The Washington Post over email, he spoke about how the motivations this time around are different, even if the sense of urgency remains. “The climate movement will convene in D.C. to show that the election didn’t cancel physics,” McKibben wrote recently about the symbolism of Saturday’s march. “Politicians need to be reminded, even as they do the bidding of the industry, that the rest of us are watching,”
The following exchange has been edited lightly for length and clarity:
Washington Post: Last weekend, tens of thousands of people descended on Washington and other cities around the globe for the March for Science. Many of them carried messages about the need to address climate change. How does this weekend’s climate-focused march differentiate itself from that demonstration? How large a crowd are organizers expecting?
Bill McKibben: I don’t know how many the organizers are expecting, but my sense is that Americans are getting used to the idea that citizenship is not a one-shot deal. And since Trump obviously takes his 100th day seriously, it will be a particularly good day to be around his house reminding him how badly he’s doing. (There’s also a small crowd headed to Mar-a-Lago, too, because, you know …)
WP: You were one of the main organizers for the 2014 People’s Climate March. What is the rationale for a massive march this time around? How have the motivations changed?
McKibben: Different motivations. In 2014, we were urging Obama and the U.N. to do something. The massive march was clearly one of the key lead-ins to the Paris climate talks — as Obama said, “When people march, we have to listen.” The fact that a movement existed made Paris work much better than, say, Copenhagen in 2009, when there was little in-the-streets movement and nothing happened.
But this time, the fossil fuel industry has fought back and put one of its own in the White House — a guy who even this week was figuring out how to open more national parks to oil drilling, a guy who buys the company line that global warming is a hoax. So now, the task is full-on resistance.
If marching were all we were doing, that wouldn’t work. But marching is the least of it — we’re busy around the country every day taking on the fossil fuel industry. Just this week, for instance, news came that after massive pressure from students, faculty and alumni, Harvard had de facto divested from fossil fuels, a huge win. Every pipeline and frack well is fought close to home. Once in a while, though, it’s good for all of us to come together and make some noise.
WP: You wrote recently in a Rolling Stone essay that the opposition to the Trump administration’s fossil fuel-friendly policies “will need to be savvy and dynamic, focused constantly on keeping the momentum of the energy transition growing, not slowing.” What did you mean by that?
McKibben: I mean, nothing good is going to come out of D.C. in the immediate future. So that’s why people are so focused on pushing in cities and towns, in states and regions. Renewable energy is now often the cheapest form of power. But the power of the fossil fuel industry is so strong that they can resist even those economics unless we fight.
WP: You also insisted that when it comes to energy and the environment in coming years, “many of the most consequential battles won’t be in D.C. at all.” Where will they be? What will they look like?
McKibben: Sacramento and Albany are key capitals, home to the world’s fifth- and 14th-largest economies. They’re the scene of potentially disruptive and transformative change, on everything from renewables deployment to rethinking what it means to be a utility. Hell, Jerry Brown has said he might launch his own climate-sensing satellites if Trump shuts down NASA’s fleet. Then there are a bunch of states that are doing the wrong thing, letting their public utility commissions (who are usually captives of the industry they regulate) make it hard and expensive to put a solar panel on the roof. These are titanic fights.
Coming out of the march, we’ll be organizing with people across the country to do what we can to block the expansion of the fossil fuel industry, promote renewable energy and build enough grass-roots political power to turn the tide back in the right direction.
And at the heart of almost every battle is the question of environmental justice. Climate change — here and around the world — damages communities in inverse proportion to how much of the trouble they caused. That’s why those communities will be on the front line of the march in D.C. — they’re on the front line every day.
WP: Clearly, most folks who descend on Washington this weekend for the march will be people who feel strongly about the need for climate action. But for many Americans, even many who acknowledge the existence of the problem, climate change is not a front-burner issue in the way that the economy or immigration or health care is. How do you foster a sense of urgency in others? Are you optimistic that can happen on a broad scale?
McKibben: I actually think an enormous number of people are quietly panicked about the world we’re leaving our kids. But global warming seems so big, and we seem so small. Things like this march help people understand that many others share their feeling, and that supplies us all with the plausible hope something can be done. It’s a virtuous cycle.
WP: During his first 100 days, President Trump has proposed huge cuts to the EPA budget, issued executive orders aimed at speeding up pipeline construction and offshore drilling and begun to roll back key environmental regulations of the Obama era. What most troubles you about those actions? And beyond public protests, what can you and other activists do to actually combat those policies, given that the White House and Congress are controlled by a Republican Party that has largely backed the sort of actions Trump has taken? It seems like the environmental movement has few levers of power these days.
McKibben: They’re absurd scientifically, and they’re hated politically — the polls show his anti-environmental actions are the least popular part of his woefully unpopular agenda. What bothers me is that the government is being run to benefit a tiny coterie of big companies. We can’t stop most of them right now. The GOP is a wholly owned subsidiary of the fossil fuel industry (which has also succeeded in scaring too many Democrats). But we can use this march, and things like it, to build a new progressive idea about what must be done should people ever regain power in our country. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Jeff Merkley are introducing a bill on Thursday that would require the country to push hard towards a set goal of 100 percent renewable energy. It won’t pass right away, but it will become the standard around which people of good faith muster. And that will mean a sea change in our politics eventually.
WP: Do you foresee more climate marches ahead?
I foresee more marches of all kinds — immigrant rights, health care, women’s rights, peace. 350.org and the coalition behind the People’s Climate March will be supporting demonstrations this May Day, for instance. For the foreseeable future, weekends are for fighting tyranny.
WP: On a lighter note, which group will have the more clever signs — the March for Science or the People’s Climate March?
McKibben: The March for Science, I imagine. Gosh, there were some wonderful ones. (“They told me to bring a sine.”) The People’s Climate March will feature some truly amazing art, though — everyone’s been building floats and painting parachutes. I hear we’ve actually sold the entire country out of 12-foot parachutes. And it will also have a truly American diversity. People have this idea that environmentalism is something for rich white people, but that’s not true anymore. A huge percentage of the leadership of this fight looks like all the rest of America.