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After the People’s Climate March: A Q&A with Beacon’s Alexis Rizzuto and Tom Hallock

Photo by Tom Hallock
Protesters at the People’s Climate March, photo by Tom Hallock

Climate change is happening, and faster than scientists expected. Polar ice caps are melting faster, island nations are going underwater, the ocean is acidifying and warming. In the US, we are suffering catastrophic droughts from California to Texas, along with severe flooding in the East. The answer is to stop burning fossil fuels, but the World Meteorological Organization says that, in 2013, CO2 rates in the atmosphere were rising faster than ever. So what can we do? On Sunday, September 21st, hundreds of thousands of people from around the globe converged in Manhattan to show the world exactly how critical the issue of climate change is to them, and to demand action. Beacon’s Senior Editor Alexis Rizzuto and Associate Publisher Tom Hallock were there to bear witness. We recently spoke with them about their experiences at the march and why climate change is fast becoming one of the most important issues of our time.

Could you each talk about why you went to the People’s Climate March, and what it felt like to be there?

Alexis Rizzuto: It was amazing to be there. The final tally was 400,000 people, and it was just a sea of humanity taking over the west part of Central Park and Times Square, all full of people who believe the same, that we need to make climate change a priority.

I think the point for me and for a lot of other people was that the UN Summit was happening. When I was recruiting people to come to this march, one of my talking points was that we’ve had twenty climate summits before this one yet the World Meteorological Organization just said in 2013 that our CO2 emissions were higher than ever and rising at a record rate. We need to be cutting emissions but we’re doing the opposite.

So far the UN Conferences and Climate Summits have done pretty much nothing as far as a binding global agreement to cut carbon emissions. And so the whole point of this for me was to say to the UN leadership, “We need something tangible to come out of this.” There’s no more time left for fooling around and inaction and not getting things done. The window is closing. We need our leadership to act.

Tom Hallock: I had planned to go to the march, but as it got closer a million small things called me to stay home. And that is exactly the problem: we are too caught up in the short term to do what needs to be done in the long term. It’s easy for all of us to stay home, and it’s easy for all of us to feel overwhelmed, and that there’s nothing that an individual’s effort can do to impact this almost unimaginable problem. Stepping out of my day-to-day busyness to do something bigger was kind of an antidote to my own sense of hopelessness and despair on this issue. It’s inspiring to get out and see that you’re part of a larger movement and to see the variety of ways that people are tackling it. And to realize that our hope is for people to get involved.

What were some of the things you saw at the march? It was amazing to see the sheer variety and creativity of the people who marched.

TH: One of the things that made the March so effective came from the fact that there wasn’t a set of demands. That approach made space for people to participate who came at this issue from a lot of different political, philosophical, and personal viewpoints. The effect was quite powerful. You would have vegans, veterans, communists, socialists, Methodists, Congregationalists, Unitarians, and all kinds of local groups as well as the national organizations like the Sierra Clubs and the Common Cause.

AR: And the groups included not only enviros like 350.org, NRDC, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Environmental Defense Fund, but also teachers’ unions, labor unions, nurses’ associations, farmers, indigenous peoples’ groups, marching bands, bicycle brigades (“the revolution will not be motorized”), floats, puppets, people on stilts spinning wind turbine blades, a melting ice sculpture that formed the words “Our Future,” people meditating in a climate vigil, students, monks, Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, Veterans for Peace, religious groups, social justice groups, scientists rolling a chalkboard with the science laid out (“The debate is over”), anti-fracking groups, anti-mountain top removal groups, anti-tar sands, pro-solar and pro-wind groups, people who lived through Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan, old people, young people. I saw a toddler in a bicycle seat wearing a helmet made from a globe, people dressed as bees and bee-keepers holding huge tissue-paper flowers, people hanging banners out of windows above the streets, Ricoh’s “only solar-powered billboard in Times Square,” women in headscarves, the “Raging Grannies…” 

TH: You could see different communities coming together around a shared concern about climate change. Some saw excesses of the capitalist system, some saw the impact of wars that have been waged for energy, others were concerned about fracking, or the loss of bio-diversity. There were people whose costumes and skits evoked bees, tapirs, butterflies, polar bears, all kinds of animals. People were really called on to use all of their creative energies to express their concern for the planet. There was a lot of costume, dance, music, theatre, and chanting. I’ve often been turned off to that as a political tactic because I think it can cause the media to focus on the most extreme thing and to miss the core message. But in this case it seemed appropriate. People were really trying to awaken a larger community—specifically political leaders—to the urgency of this issue. They were doing everything that they could. I really had the sense of people not marching so much as individuals but in groups that had already been doing work on climate change in their communities. In that sense, I felt like the march manifested what was already happening on a grassroots level around the country and around the world.

Photo by Alexis Rizzuto Photo by Tom HallockPhoto by Tom Hallock Photo by Tom HallockPhoto by Alexis Rizzuto Photo by Alexis Rizzuto

What was the most powerful moment for you?

AR: For me, the most powerful part of the day was the moment of silence followed by the moment of alarm. At 12:58, everyone fell silent. Sixty blocks of people-packed streets, all mute and raising our arms high, in solidarity with those on the front lines of climate change, those hardest hit and suffering, human and otherwise. Then, at 1:00, we raised the alarm by making as much noise as possible—a roar of outrage from 400,000 voices, horns, bells, drums, whatever we had. Being there on the street, you were only able to see and hear the few hundred people around you, which was powerful enough. But afterwards, seeing the aerial photos and videos from above showing the sheer masses of people brings tears to my eyes.

TH: To see 400,000 people fall silent at the same time in the middle of this huge, busy, and very loud city, was quite powerful. First, there was the power of the silence followed by the immense energy of the sound that broke the silence. There was one guy there who was wearing a yarmulke and blowing a shofar, which is a traditional way around the High Holidays to raise the alarm and focus the community’s attention. The breaking of the silence after the March was like one long, loud note on the shofar, intended to wake up the world’s leaders to the urgent need for action on this global threat.

What’s the next thing that people can do? What can we expect from our leadership?

AR: May Boeve, the executive director of 350.org said, “Today, civil society acted at a scale that outdid even our own wildest expectations. Tomorrow, we expect our political leaders to do the same.” Some of them have. At the UN Summit, Obama laid out some aggressive goals for carbon emission reduction, and China’s Vice Premier said they want their country’s greenhouse gases to peak “as early as possible” and then decline. Some of the largest companies responsible for deforestation, including Cargill, have agreed “to halve tropical deforestation by 2020 and end it completely by 2030.” And the Rockefeller Foundation said they would divest from fossil fuels and invest instead in clean energy.

TH: I think one thing is that people will be going back to their communities with a renewed sense of energy, possibility and commitment—talking about the march and looking for actions that can be taken locally. I think it will have an effect that way. Media coverage obviously matters as does the message to political leaders that there is a constituency for this issue that is bigger and broader than they may have imagined.

A lot of time people think that the kinds of changes that are going to be required of us to live within our means from an energy and environmental standpoint are going to be negative, and actually I think a lot of times it’s the opposite. Bicycling is a good example. I certainly bike to work because I enjoy it and it’s a quicker and cheaper—but it’s also good for the environment. Living responsibly can push us to live in ways that are ultimately more satisfying. That was something I felt through the march, that there were new paths that people were advocating, whether it’s how you eat or what you use for transportation. Starting to experiment with those things and to actually live a little differently is really exciting.