Global Environmental Politics

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Andreas Karelas: The People’s Climate March and Why It Matters

This post was written by Andreas Karelas (Natural Resources and Sustainable Development ’08) and originally appeared on  He is the founder and Executive Director of Re-volv, a nonprofit that aims to increase investment in renewable energy.  

People's Climate March

An estimated 400,000 people attended the People’s Climate March in New York City on 9/21/2014.  A large screen showed images from actions and marches around the world that were part of the global event.

I was on the fence about attending.

I was going to a wedding in Maryland the day before the march and already had a ticket back to San Francisco for the next day. I knew it was going be costly to switch my flight and require an early morning journey to get to NYC on time.

I had reservations about going not only for logistical reasons, but for ideological reasons, too. I’ve been to a lot of climate marches, but how much of an impact have they really had? Our demands at the marches have been the same for almost a decade and they have not been met.

About a week before the march I had the privilege of having breakfast with my friend Paul Wapner, a former professor of mine and a current RE-volv board member. Paul recounted a story for me. He was listening to a singer talk about her experience marching for peace during the Vietnam War. “People said those marches didn’t matter. Well, they mattered to me,” she said. In other words, regardless of the direct shift in the policies that resulted from the march, it was deeply meaningful to her as an individual to be able to join with her peers in solidarity.

The same week I met with Paul I had a chance to visit the Lincoln Memorial. On the steps of the monument is a plaque commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom Aug. 28, 1963. Here is another instance where the effect of the march was not an immediate change in policy. However, that march and that speech changed the way American’s perceived race relations forever. This cultural shift opened the door for the sweeping civil rights policy changes that took place in the years following.

So perhaps the effectiveness of a march is not a measure of its impact on policy but rather its ability to move people in an emotional way- in other words, to have a cultural shift, which necessarily precedes policy shift, as the civil rights movement showed us.

Scientists have been sounding the alarm on climate change for 30 years. It’s not like elected officials don’t realize there’s a problem. And they certainly see that people are upset about it. I didn’t think that another march would motivate them to action.

Instead I thought about what the impact on our culture would be. With this in mind, I realized I had to be there.

And I’m glad I went. Not because of the statements made at the UN Climate Summit after the march. Because of the chills that the 400,000 of us felt marching arm in arm down the streets of Manhattan, screaming for action and justice; the deep comfort we all shared seeing the size and dedication of the movement; and for the incredible impression it made on the world as every major news outlet streamed images of almost half a million people taking to the streets in the name of our planet. These impacts are beyond measure.

This march was different than any other march I’ve been to, not just because of its size, but because of who was there. People representing a myriad of issues and groups all came together under the climate banner. People marched representing Indigenous peoples, front-line communities, labor, students, peace and justice organizations, vegans, various political affiliations, faith communities, the scientific community, and more.

Climate change doesn’t have boundaries. The havoc it will cause is global in nature. This march demonstrated what I believe could be the silver lining of climate change: that for the first time in history, all of the human race will unite in common cause to preserve the planet we call home.

Now back in San Francisco, I remain truly inspired. I met students at the march from Dayton, OH who had bused for 18 hours to be there and then turn around and head back. The citizens of the nation are hungry for ways to take action on climate change and this march proved that. We’re ready to do what it takes.

And in order to succeed in shifting the cultural perception of climate change we need to continue to keep up the pressure. We need to continually remind the citizens of the world the fierce urgency of now. And if we work together in solidarity, as we did September 21st, we will certainly succeed in our efforts.

The Global Environmental Politics program in the School of International Service at American University is a diverse and inclusive community. The program does not necessarily endorse the ideas contained in this or any other guest post. Please understand that our aim is to provide a space for the expression of a range of perspectives on global environmental concerns.

Author: sisgep

The Global Environmental Politics program in the School of International Service at American University offers a unique, specialized, and world-leading graduate environmental studies education. We have two degree tracks: Global Environmental Policy (GEP), and our dual-degree Natural Resources and Sustainable Development (NRSD) option with the UN-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. Join us!

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