On Bill McKibben’s ‘call to arms’ for the New York climate summit

By Anne Petermann, Executive Director of Global Justice Ecology Project, from the Venezuela Social Pre-COP

Today’s blog post is not addressing directly what is happening here in Venezuela at the SocialPreCOP, but something on the minds of many people here–the next step in the series of climate meetings/actions this year.  That is the upcoming climate march planned for New York City on September 21st, two days before UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s UN Climate Summit–a closed door session where the world’s “leaders” will discuss “ambitions” for the upcoming climate conference (COP20) in Lima, Peru. Part of the objective of the Venezuelan government at this SocialPreCOP meeting is to come away with a set of demands from people gathered here that they can take to this exclusive summit.

The September climate march was called for by Big Green NGOs 350.org and Avaaz, who have thrown copious quantities of cash at it. But many environmental and climate justice organizations and alliances based in the New York/New Jersey region and across the US have demanded a seat at the organizing table to ensure that the voices of front line and impacted communities are heard, despite their small budgets.

The demands of the march: there will be none. That’s right. The march will simply bring together an estimated 200,000 people to march through the streets of New York and then…  There will be no rally, no speakers, no strong political demands.  Just people showing up with the overarching message that the world’s leaders should take action on climate change.


What kind of climate action should be taken is a question that has long been debated by climate justice activists, organizations, social movements and Indigenous Peoples all over the world for decades.   “Climate action” can include things like geoengineering schemes–manmade manipulations of nature on such a massive scale that the impacts can’t possibly be known, but could definitely be catastrophic.  They can also include actions already taking place, such as the building of vast hydroelectric dams that flood vast expanses of land and displace thousands of Indigenous Peoples or land-based communities. Climate action can also include ongoing grabbing of land for the development of vast plantations of oil palm, GMO soy or non-native trees for so-called bioenergy.

So no, not all “climate action” is good.  A lack of clear justice-based and ecologically sound demands in this “historic” march will leave a vacuum.  And no vacuum remains empty for long.  It’s simple physics.  The media will not cover a march with no demands. They will find a message.  And likely, as so often happens, those with the connections and the money will win the messaging game.

The movement’s oddly charismatic de facto leader, Bill McKibben, is one of those I predict will get the microphones shoved in his face.  Why is this a problem?  While the man is a brilliant conservation biologist with a very full grasp of the dire nature and science of climate change, he is not an activist, and has little understanding of movement strategy and history.  Take, for example, his June piece in Rolling Stone magazine, “A Call to Arms: An Invitation to Demand Action on Climate Change.”  In the article, he explains the importance of the September 21st march in making real strides for climate action.  He states,

So in this case taking to the streets is very much necessary. It’s not all that’s necessary – a sprawling fossil-fuel resistance works on a hundred fronts around the world, from putting up solar panels to forcing colleges to divest their oil stocks to electioneering for truly green candidates. And it’s true that marching doesn’t always work: At the onset of the war in Iraq, millions marched, to no immediate avail. But there are moments when it’s been essential. This is how the Vietnam War was ended, and segregation too – or consider the nuclear-freeze campaign of the early 1980s, when half a million people gathered in New York’s Central Park…

Right.  Okay.  Where to start.  First of all, as has been pointed out to Mr. McKibben on countless occasions, stopping fossil fuels will not stop climate change. If business as usual continues based on bioenergy (the US military for example is transitioning some of their fleet to biofuels and is investigating the manufacture of “green bombs” using synthetic biology), then we still lose. As a scientist friend calculated, to replace the amount of fossil fuels we are currently using with bioenergy will require six planet’s worth of land. We truly do have to change the system. Not what is fueling it. Business as usual has to go. Unfortunately power concedes nothing without a demand. In fact, power concedes nothing without being given no other options.

Which brings me back to the Rolling Stone article.  Marching.  McKibben writes about the power of marching to make great change.  Two of the examples he gives are ending the Vietnam War and stopping segregation.

Let’s just focus on the Vietnam War for a moment.  Yes, there were marches and they were huge and they were great.  But there were also mass direct actions, as MayDay 1971 when affinity groups took over the bridges and traffic circles of Washington, DC with the aim of shutting down the city.  My husband, who was part of an affinity group there watched the marines land at the Washington Monument.  The Weather Underground conducted over 6,000 bombings of military targets in the US.  There were the Yippies, White Panthers, the SDS, VVAW.  The GIs in Vietnam, sick of the pointless and bloody war, started turning their weapons on their officers.  The army was facing a mounting internal rebellion. And of course the Vietnamese People staged an effective and tireless resistance to the US invasion–even in the face of casualty numbers of more than 50 to one–and even in the face of their luscious homeland being turned into a toxic wasteland by Monsanto’s Agent Orange.

The sum total of these parts is what ended the Vietnam War.  Not a march, not promoting green alternatives to the war, and not electoral politics (unless you count the Yippies running Pegasus the Pig for President in 1968). People on many fronts made both the war and business as usual impossible.

Likewise with segregation.  The civil rights movement did not make the gains it made with a march that was organized with the permission of the police.  There were marches, yes, but the marches themselves were unpermitted acts of civil disobedience, and they were met with extreme repression fuelled by hate. We all remember the black and white videos of the firehoses and the police dogs; the many civil rights activists who were beaten, jailed, murdered. There were bus boycotts and lunch counter sit ins.  And these nonviolent actions collectively represented a fundamental challenge to power.   And not to forget the crucial role of the Black Panther party, which took up arms in 1966 in order to further advance civil rights and to defend their communities against attacks by the police.  But they also ran breakfast programs for children and promoted a comprehensive set of demands.

But back to this march in New York City, planned in cooperation with the police, and void of demands.  Will the mere presence of 200,000 people marching in the city be meaningful enough to make a difference–to shake up the world’s leaders to take climate change more seriously?

In his Rolling Stone piece, McKibben quotes a Princeton scientist who stated, “we are all sitting ducks.”  That is true.  However, the missing analysis in this assertion is identifying just exactly who is holding the shotgun. The inference is that it is climate change pointing its double barrels at us, but I disagree.

We are sitting ducks alright, but the ones threatening our existence are the ones on Wall Street and its equivalents, buying policies that maintain business as usual. Like Chad Holliday, the Chair of Bank of America (who co-Chairs the UN’s absurdly named Sustainable Energy for All initiative), the Koch Brothers, Chase Manhattan Bank, and on and on.  A smorgasbord of power elite.

My hope is that some folks coming for the march will be inspired by the powerful accomplishments of the movements that came before and will form affinity groups to take their outrage and their demands directly to the source. Directly to the ones holding the shotguns. Making their business as usual impossible.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out, “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be… The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

1 Comment

Filed under Actions / Protest, Climate Change, Climate Justice, Posts from Anne Petermann

One Response to On Bill McKibben’s ‘call to arms’ for the New York climate summit

  1. Well said! And one additional point; can people please come by foot, bike or bus? Flying in 200.000 people is not exactly climate-friendly.