Climate protest: Big deal or big dud?

Climate-change activists march through the streets of New York City on 21 September, 2014. Image copyright Getty Images

Protesters took to the streets of Manhattan on Sunday to call for global action to address climate change. The event's organisers estimated that turnout exceeded 300,000, making it one of the largest environmental-related protests in US history.

The event's success has many on the left heralding a new dawn for climate-change activism. After stalled efforts to pass limits on greenhouse gas in 2009, the issue had been pushed to the political margins. President Barack Obama made moves to strengthen regulation of greenhouse gases through administrative action and there have been numerous battles in the courts, but the public as a whole has been unengaged.

CNN's John D Sutter says he was starting to wonder if the Americans would ever really care about climate change, but Sunday's protest "put those doubts completely to rest".

He says he saw marchers calling for "quick, assured action".

"I met people from China, Tibet, West Virginia, Arizona - all of whom want the world to act," he writes.

Tim McDonnell and James West of Mother Jones write that "passions were sky-high" during the protests:

"Aside from the powerful message about climate change and fossil fuel dependence, fracking stood out as a key focal point of the march. Young people also dominated the crowd - teenagers sang and danced, tweeting and Facebooking all the way."

The New Republic's Rebecca Leber calls the demonstrations "genuinely a big deal".

"Mobilisation and activism around the issue are at unprecedented levels," she says.

Conservative commentators, on the other hand, were not impressed.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Byron York says Sunday's protests was the latest incarnation of the left-wing protest culture

The National Review's John Fund says the protests smacked of desperation.

"There was a tone of fatalism in the comments of many with whom I spoke; they despair that the kind of radical change they advocate probably won't result from the normal democratic process," he writes. "It's no surprise then that the rhetoric of climate-change activists has become increasingly hysterical."

According to the Washington Examiner's Byron York, the massive street protest was just another hodgepodge of liberal issues and protest culture.

"When People's Climate is the banner, any sort of lefty cause can be subsumed underneath it," he writes. "Thus the 'DECOLONIZATION COOLS THE PLANET' people, and the 'CLIMATE CHANGE IS A HEALTH CARE CRISIS' people and the 'VEGANISM SAVES THE PLANET' guy all march together."

He contends that the spirit of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street financial protests infusing the climate march meant that the main theme was less about addressing the environmental issue and more about "climate justice" - that is, making corporations, conservative billionaires and the rest of the 1% pay.

York concludes:

"Put it all together - all the justice demanders, the tax Wall Streeters and the spirit of Occupy symbolized by the angry pacifist - and the People's Climate March was one long, loud, loosely organised demand that vast sums of money be taken from the wealthy and given to the clients of the coalitions and alliances and networks and task forces that make up today's environmental justice movement. They've had enough of debating climate models. They want to start taking - now."

Even on the left there has been some dissatisfaction with the march's broad vision and lack of a clear action plan. It is, in effect, "a massive photo-op", writes author and activist Quincy Saul for Truthout.

"The People's Climate March has a powerful slogan," he says. "It has world-class publicity. But the desire to bring the biggest possible number of people to the march has trumped all other considerations."

"No target, no demands, no timing, no unity, no history and no integrity amounts to one thing: no politics," he continues. "The whole will be far less than the sum of its parts."

Whatever the motivation, and however disparate the interests, it's hard to get 200,000-plus Americans to gather together for anything that doesn't involve sport or outdoor music festivals.

The question, then, becomes what the march can accomplish. The Occupy Wall Street protests came and went, and Wall Street hasn't missed a beat. If the People's Climate March is to be any different, the participants will have to take the slogans and chants of a balmy New York Sunday and translate them into political action.

That, as we've seen, is a difficult task. Although the marchers's goal was to influence the international climate talks hosted by the UN this week, the reality is - barring some sort of clever negotiating maneouvre on the part of the Obama administration - any deal will have to get through Congress.

Unless Congress changes - and, it's worth noting, there is an election a few months away - hopes for significant action on climate change will likely die there.