On Sunday, thousands of people will gather in New York City for the People's Climate March, billed as the largest climate action march in history. This is a really exciting and important event, especially because it involves labor unions, local environmental justice and community organizations, and more - not just big environmental groups. This kind of solidarity and diversity is crucial to show governments that there's widespread demand for them to take real action to tackle climate change.
But the march is targeting the wrong thing.
Next Tuesday's UN Climate Summit - even though over 100 heads of state, including President Obama, will attend - is not where important decisions will be enabled, negotiated, or made. Some folks are calling it a "landmark summit" and comparing it to the 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark (which, incidentally, were a failure).
That's a mistake - there's nothing landmark about this summit. There will be no groundbreaking announcements of the sort that could really even begin to turn around the climate crisis. Instead, it'll be a forum for world leaders to make mostly empty speeches and to announce voluntary partnerships and initiatives with big corporations. Some of these initiatives might be useful; some might just be making business-as-usual appear green. None of them are going to be game-changers.
Luckily, the march itself could be a game-changer - or at least the beginning of one. There's power in protest, even if it lacks a coherent message or a perfect target. The remarkable global justice movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s led me to my political awakening and inspired me to make working for social change a core part of my life. Here's hoping that same empowerment and sense of global solidarity will invigorate a badly needed climate justice movement in the US and beyond.
Back on Labor Day, my former representative, Congressman Keith Ellison, said: "If politics is the art of the possible, organizing is the art of making more possible." Our politicians are busy trying to tell us that real global climate action is impossible. With the People's Climate March, we're organizing to tell them that they're wrong.
We won't achieve racial justice without people marching against structural racism in the wake of the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson. We won't achieve immigrant justice without people organizing against unabated deportations by the Obama administration. We won't achieve labor justice without workers at fast-food restaurants struggling for the right to organize themselves against uncaring employers. And we won't achieve climate justice without people from countries rich and poor, from all walks of life, fighting for systemic change against powerful polluting interests and politicians with vested interests in preserving the status quo.
In that sense, if change starts in New York somehow, it'll be from the bottom up, not the top down. It will start from the People's Climate March, not the UN Climate Summit.