I saw a narwhal on New York's 6th Avenue last Sunday.
Alright, it was a narwhal-man. Or maybe just a man with a homemade, paper-mache narwhal hat. But I saw him.
This fantastical marine mammal was just one of the many characters in attendance at the People’s Climate March on Sept. 21. Three other Northwestern students and I were joined by polar bears, giant bananas and fish tangled in nets. Together we marched over 50 blocks.
At 400,000 people, it was the largest climate change action march in history. Groups from many backgrounds were represented, from Hurricane Sandy victims to the AFL-CIO to Catholic church congregations. Across the globe, 162 nations organized simultaneous protests as well. And then there were the big names: former Vice President Al Gore, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Jane Goodall, Leonardo DiCaprio, Edward Norton, Sting and many more showed up in support.
While we gathered in New York, United Nations representatives from around the world assembled in the city to discuss international action on climate change. Here’s the big picture: Scientists everywhere now agree that climate change is a fact, but calls for action have largely been ignored or diminished. In 1997, members of the UN signed the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty in which developed nations agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But the low commitments and minimal enforcements of that treaty have made it largely ineffective; the United States never even signed on. Now, world leaders will meet in Paris in 2015 to try to come to a new consensus.
The People’s Climate March, spearheaded by 350.org, aimed to demonstrate to these leaders that people take climate change seriously, and that out of the coming talks, we demand real action.
From 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., we packed the wide streets from sidewalk to sidewalk. Signs and banners shouted above our heads in bold Sharpie: Save the Arctic, Love Your Mother Earth, Conquer Coal. Voices joined in chants of “What do we want? Climate Justice! When do we want it? Now!” We danced, we cheered, we sang. We even made Chewbacca noises (That may just have been me).
And when we reached the end of the route, the entire United Nations came outside, said the magic words and POOF! Climate change was finished once and for all.
Okay, so maybe the 17-hour bus ride each way from Chicago to New York made me a little delirious. But more seriously, I’ll be the first to admit that the march was not the solution to climate change.
What was the point then? Why does it matter that 400,000 people, less than 1 percent of the American public, decided to inconvenience some traffic for a few hours on one day?
Honestly, in terms of tangible actions, there’s probably no straight answer. Who knows how this march influenced the UN Climate Summit that happened two days later? According to Ban Ki-moon, who organized the summit, the gathering aimed to “mobilize political will for a universal and meaningful climate agreement next year in Paris,” when the official climate talks will take place. In other words, this meeting looked to get momentum going, but not to produce any immediate results. The impact of the march is equally hard to pin down.
But what the People’s Climate March did achieve is not any less valuable.
First of all, it brought climate change as an urgent issue to the attention of both the media and leading politicians. Photos and videos from the march swept across social media, and the event was covered by many major news outlets, from the New York Times to NBC Nightly News. Additionally, proving that leaders do pay attention when the public speaks up, both President Obama and Ban Ki-moon, among others, directly referenced the march as a reason to take action during the UN meetings.
But to me, the most important achievement of the march had nothing to do with politics or exposure; it was more personal. Because climate change is the cause most important to me, I spend a lot of my time reading information and arguments about how we can solve the problem. With conflicting voices echoing on all sides, I’m constantly thinking about pros and cons, compromises and trade-offs, without ever really feeling confident about a path forward. Given the complexities of any issue, from education reform to income inequality to combating hunger, it’s easy to burn out on rational debates over what needs to be done. It’s even easier to feel like you’re the only one who even gives a shit at all.
The People’s Climate March reminded me why I care about the planet. While I sometimes become cynical thinking about the issue and the slow process of reform, marching alongside 400,000 other people was a reminder that there are other people who care as much about combating climate change as I do. I wasn’t frustrated thinking about logical arguments and counter-arguments (which are, of course, useful and necessary). Smiling, laughing and cheering, I was reminded of my love for the world that brought me to this cause in the first place. Most of all, my drive was reignited to keep fighting for change.
At Northwestern, surrounded by students, professors and other “smart” people, advocating for a cause often means critical thinking and debate about the complex solutions needed to solve the problem. But finding answers is never easy, and to keep our hearts in it, sometimes we have to just stop thinking and do something spontaneous and revitalizing.
For me, that meant taking a 34-hour bus ride to dance and shout in the streets. That might not be the thing for everyone. But what all of us should do is take the time to shut up, step back from the debates and do something that reminds us why we care. These fights are grueling, and when we ignore the needs of our hearts, I guarantee we can’t keep it up long enough to win.
So yes, there are more practical paths that need to be taken to confront climate change, or any other issue, than waving around cardboard signs. But coming together to make some noise is equally as important for our own well-being. We march not only to show world leaders and the public that we care, but also to remind ourselves. And, of course, to hang out with the narwhals — if only for a day.