On Sunday, September 21, 2014, the global climate movement mobilized as never before. Organized by 350.org in 160 countries, in over 2,600 separate events, over 600,000 people spoke as one. Those voices demanded that we reject fossil fuels, protect the climate and save our own lives.
The impetus for the rallying and marching was an unlikely man—a man who until 2007 was an unknown South Korean diplomat. Obscure, and slated as unlikely to have a real chance to be chosen as United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon threw his hat in the ring anyway. As more high profile candidates were vetoed, Mr Ban emerged as the consensus choice. In 2007, he took over the job which, the very first UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie told incoming Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, was ‘the most impossible job on earth’.
Ban Ki-moon has been a climate champion in a way no previous UNSecretary-General has ever been. Soon after his appointment, he made an unprecedented trip to the Bali negotiations (COP 13 in December 2007) to help break a deadlock in the talks. He has focused on climate and has attended most Conferences Of the Parties meetings.
I met him at COP19 last December in Warsaw, Poland. The negotiations were dismal. Poland was a poor choice of host as its government pushes hard for coal-fired power and coal mining. The Polish Prime Minister fired his environment minister, chairing the COP, in the midst of the negotiations because he was too cautious about fracking. The sole ray of hope came from Mr Ban’s announcement of a Climate Leaders’ Summit to take place just before the meeting of the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2014. He explained that his goal was to create momentum; to inject some oxygen into the negotiations before they resume in December in Lima at COP20. Time is running out as the UNFCCC process has set Paris’ COP21 in December 2015 as the deadline for a new agreement, including all nations, to reduce emissions.
This summit created an opportunity. Since the train-wreck in Copenhagen in 2009, the whole global climate movement has been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The movement had turned away from the depressing spectacle of the failure in Copenhagen to more local and grassroots actions. But despite the Copenhagen debacle we urgently need to re-focus on the global. We cannot avoid runaway global warming, and the resulting catastrophic levels of climatic disruption, without deep cuts on an agreed and targeted basis. It must be global and legally binding. We need a treaty. And the deadline is not political. It is driven by the science. We have run out of time for procrastination.
The opportunity of the UN Climate Leaders’ Summit was to get the global media, the national governments and the peoples of the world to focus once again on the reality of a deadline and the pathetic, anemic responses by governments.
That led Bill McKibben and 350.org to take the on the challenge of throwing everything they had, through social media and networks, at calling for 100,000 people to march in New York, together with organising hundreds of other demonstrations around the world.
Since I was already in Ottawa for Parliament, I went to New York, taking the train from Montreal with my daughter, to join the rally. We didn’t get 100,000 people. We marched with 400,000 people.
It was incredible. 350.org had helped the process of marching by establishing staging areas by interest groups. The staging area ended up being forty blocks of solid people. Scientists with scientists, impacted local peoples with other victims, womens’ groups, peace groups. I decided to march with the many groups of Canadian youth who bussed in from Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax. Most of the young people had never been in a large march. Hundreds of young people had come, mostly on buses that travelled through the night.
The march was slated to start at 11:30am. As we waited and waited to start marching, standing, fairly squashed in a sea of people for nearly three hours, people ask ‘why aren’t we moving yet?’ I explained: ‘the longer we wait, the more successful this march is. It means there are so many thousands of people ahead of us that we cannot move. Somewhere, the front end of the march started hours ago and we still are standing here.’ Then they smiled.
Finally we started to move, and people along the line of march applauded. When stopped again, as we frequently were by people feeding into the march from side streets, I would thank the NYC cops. Amazingly, over and over again, they would smile and say ‘No, we thank you for being here.’
I never got to the end of the march. By 6pm messages received through twitter urged marchers to disperse. There was no room for any more people at the end point. At that point, my daughter, raised on someone’s shoulders, could still not see the front of the line of marchers or its end.
350.org had set up a few giant screens along the line of march, so that we had the treat of looking at photos from around the world of demonstrations on different continents—Hong Kong, Paris, Berlin, Nairobi. Brilliant.
When I was much, much younger, as we marched a familiar chant was ‘The whole world is watching’. On Sunday we chanted, ‘The whole world is marching’.
And at the head of the line of marchers, breaking precedent again, was the UN Secretary-General. If Ban Ki-moon’s summit was half as successful as the civil society efforts to capitalize on the opportunity it created, we have new momentum for Lima and COP20.
We need to see September 21, 2014, as the turning point. Adopting the title of Naomi Klein’s new book, let’s hope this changes everything.