Why the People's Climate March Is Significant and What Was Missing

It seems that the primary goal of the march was to organize the "largest climate protest in US history." Organizers succeeded handily at that. But what was missing was a clear demand, solution or goal for how leaders should address climate change.
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Civil Rights activists mobilized by the thousands for the March on Washington, suffragists united for the right to vote with the Women's Suffrage Parade and anti-nuclear groups took to the streets for the Nuclear Disarmament Protests. On Sunday, climate activists had our turn when 300,000 took to the streets to protest climate change for the "People's Climate March." In the last few decades there have been numerous marches, actions, protests and boycotts worldwide to bring attention to climate change. What made this event unique?

1) Sheer numbers. March organizers engaged over 1,500 groups and by some estimates 400,000 marchers turned out. Additionally, there were over 2,800 coordinated events held in 166 countries. The People's Climate March will be remembered as the largest protest of climate change in US history and as one of the largest mass protests in the US, comparable in size with the Vietnam war protests and larger even than the March on Washington. Mass participation is critical for media attention and media attention is a critical ingredient for political action.

2) Representation. A prevalent message of the march was environmental justice. As such, organizers partnered with civil rights groups, labor unions and indigenous communities. They worked to extend beyond the proverbial "choir" to engage artists, students, religious leaders, civil-rights activists, business representatives, politicians, union members and community groups. In order to be impactful, the climate change movement needs to expand beyond the existing environmental groups and incorporate everyone afflicted by climate change--meaning everyone.

3) Timing. The march kicks off "Climate Week" and the UN Climate Summit. The Climate Summit, organized by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is intended "to galvanize and catalyze climate action." Ki-moon has requested that leaders come with "bold announcements and actions" to help lay the groundwork for a legal agreement in Paris in 2015.

So what was missing from the People's Climate March?

It seems that the primary goal of the march was to organize the "largest climate protest in US history." Organizers succeeded handily at that. But what was missing was a clear demand, solution or goal for how leaders should address climate change.

A 300,000 person march certainly raises awareness and demonstrates to our representatives that climate change is an important issue. But how does a public gathering in any way slow the rapid rise of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere? By raising awareness? Given the fact that we are rapidly approaching the precipice of a tipping point into complete global collapse, awareness raising is reminiscent of listening to the violinists play while the Titanic plummets.

Social movements are essential to achieving change and are critical to upholding the integrity of our democracy. Besides our vote, the right to assemble is one of our most powerful tools. But to be successful, we must be strategic. Marches, rallies, boycotts or protests are tactics, not goals. In order to affect change, these tactics should be structured to inform a strategy with measurable goals and a timeline.

Marshall Ganz, senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and life-long community organizer explains that measurable outcomes are critical to grassroots organizing. "A key to effective action is turning strategy into specific measurable outcomes with real deadlines," Ganz states. "Without clear outcomes, neither leaders nor participants have any way to evaluate success or failure, to learn or to experience the feedback essential to motivation." In Leading Change: Leadership, Organization and Social Movements, Ganz explains the key to the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott: "One strength of the Montgomery Bus Boycott... was the clarity of its strategic objective: desegregating buses in Montgomery, Alabama, a goal to which almost every member in the community could contribute resources by withholding bus fare."

The film Disruption, which was released in conjunction with the march, documents the planning process and was designed to mobilize attendance. The prominent organizer Leslie Cagan explains that the march isn't just about the day of the march, but is about what led up to it and what will come after it. Cagan is absolutely right. Grassroots actions, when designed properly, should build power, thereby building resources. The march should be part of a larger strategy so that the power that reverberated through the streets on Sunday can be harnessed and focused towards the ultimate goal of the movement.

The March on Washington was designed specifically to advocate passage of the Civil Rights Act. Marchers participating in the Women's Suffrage Parade called for a constitutional amendment for the right to vote. In 1969, a half a million people descended on Washington to end the Vietnam War. What will the People's Climate March leverage? What bill will we pass? What cornerstone policy will we enact?

The climate movement has grown and expanded over the last few decades. There have been books, grassroots actions and new organizations dedicated solely to the eradication of climate change. However, the one thing the movement is missing is focus.

The most direct solution to the negative externalities of burning fossil fuels is to put a price on carbon, to hold polluters financially accountable for their pollution. The organization Citizens Climate Lobby is exclusively focused on lobbying Members of Congress for a carbon fee and dividend bill. Now that marchers have gone home, participants should funnel that energy, inspiration, anger and excitement into action. Putting a price on carbon is one targeted policy that marchers could endorse as a clear message to our leaders. Simply screaming in the streets that "climate change is a problem, we need action" is obvious. What we really need is rally around one solution that we can all mobilize behind. And the march should be used as a stepping-stone towards a larger collective goal for the movement.

The National Breast Cancer Coalition has announced that they have one mission: to figure out how to end breast cancer by 2020. They have a timeframe and a specific goal in place. The climate movement has an advantage on groups like this. We know how to stop climate change. It is not a matter of how. It's a matter of if.