Why the People’s Climate March Fails As a Strategy

27 September 2014

Eighty-four years ago, Mahatma Gandhi set off on a march that would make history. The 24-day, 390 kilometre march led to the coastal village of Dandi, where, on 5 April 1930, Gandhi broke the British salt laws by picking up salty mud from the seashore and boiling it in seawater, thus producing domestic, and therefore illegal, salt.

The march triggered acts of mass civil disobedience by millions of people across India, resulting in the arrests of some eighty thousand people. The Salt Satyagraha, as it became known, had sent the British a simple but powerful message: that they could only govern India with the consent of the governed.

Last Sunday saw another march, the People’s Climate March, billed as “the largest climate protest in history.” The march came about through a “call to arms” penned by 350.org’s Bill McKibben in May this year, inviting anyone “who’d like to prove to themselves, and to their children, that they give a damn about the biggest crisis our civilization has ever faced.” The main march took place in New York City, with smaller solidarity marches taking place around the world. Scheduled two days before the 69th UN General Assembly and a climate summit of world leaders, the event brought some 400,000 people together on the streets of Manhattan to demand action on climate change.

What were the marchers demanding? And who were the demands directed at? Here’s what the official website said:

a world with an economy that works for people and the planet; a world safe from the ravages of climate change; a world with good jobs, clean air and water, and healthy communities. 

Here’s the strange thing about this unprecedented march. There were no demands beyond the above—a vague set of words akin to a demand for “world peace,” or “a world free of poverty.”

And stranger yet, who were the people making these demands? The march was advertised in major cities, for example, via ads on the subway in New York City and the underground in London. The idea was to invite as many people to the march as possible. In addition to the usual civil society actors, institutions like the UN (Ban Ki Moon was one of the participants) and the World Bank joined in and took to the streets—for an afternoon—demanding climate action. A number of business leaders also participated in the march. Broadening participation in the march was a key goal.

This is a deeply problematic strategy for dealing with climate change.

Addressing climate change requires drastic reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases, and this is the goal of the UNFCCC. Governments need to agree to clear, quantifiable targets and then act on those targets to reduce emissions. The inability of governments to agree to legally binding targets led to the collapse of UNFCCC talks in Copenhagen in 2009. Suffice to say that for many reasons the world’s governments are reluctant to set targets. This means that corporations, many of whom benefit from unregulated emissions, are free to set vague, voluntary and unaccountable goals for themselves. The presence in the march of both multilateral institutions (constituted by governments) and corporations is disturbing because this seems to send the message that “we’re doing all we can, but others are not, and it’s those others we are marching against.” But are they really?

And into this situation, where governments are reluctant to make binding commitments, to set targets, comes the strategy of direct action.

Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha was effective not because the British repealed the laws on salt production, but because the march demonstrated what would happen if the British did not sit down with Indian leaders and negotiate a settlement. The country would become ungovernable through mass civil disobedience. A year of civil disobedience bought the British to the negotiating table, and the Gandhi–Irwin Pact was signed.

The People’s Climate March was organized in cooperation with the New York Police—who formally issued a permit for it. It had pre-arranged start and end times. It had a pre-agreed route that ended a mile away from the UN building (not that global leaders were there on a Sunday). There were no closing speeches. No laws were broken. No arrests were made.

In contrast to this was the vastly smaller and less publicized Flood Wall Street protest on Monday (importantly not on a Sunday), not linked to the People’s Climate March.

The aim of Flood Wall Street was “to confront the root cause of the climate crisis—an economic system based on exploiting frontline communities, workers and natural resources.” Echoing the Occupy movement, 3,000 people attended the unpermitted protest, with the intent of trying to shut down the New York Stock Exchange, resulting in some 100 arrests. Among the participants were a number of activists, including Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and public intellectual Chris Hedges who, with writer and activist Naomi Klein, helped kick off the protest with rousing speeches. The general mood of the protest was anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist. In Hedges' explanation to a reporter, he said, “We’ve undergone a corporate coup d’état” and “mass acts of civil disobedience is all we have left.” According to one report, the People’s Climate March decided not to draw attention to Flood Wall Street, making “a branding decision not to promote the Flood Wall Street action. These are not radical organizations.”

So what message did the two days of protests, the People’s Climate March and Flood Wall Street, send to governments? What did “the people” do?

Well, the largest climate protest in history resulted in perhaps 400,000 people on the streets of New York City on a sleepy Sunday—no laws were broken, no arrests were made; in fact, the working week was not even disrupted. The march saw corporations and civil-society actors link arms and talk about the dangers of climate change. No commitments were reached. It’s as if Gandhi, in organizing his Satyagraha, sat down with the British Indian government and asked them what they would allow him to do and not do—what would they find acceptable? It’s close to inviting the British to march alongside him to protest their own laws—an absurdity. Meanwhile, at a side-event, some 3,000 people showed up with a clear anti-capitalist message, and about 100 were arrested. Some laws were broken.

The People’s Climate March and its lack of support for Flood Wall Street sent a clear message to those governing us—that they have the consent of the governed despite their inaction on climate.

Zaid Hassan is a strategist, writer and facilitator. He is author of The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach To Solving Our Most Complex Challenges (2014 Berrett-Koehler). He is based in Oxford, England. Follow him on @zaidhassan.