An unprecedented public outcry for world leaders to acknowledge the science of climate change and address the problem through fossil-fuel cutting policies took place in New York at the People’s Climate March Sunday, with more than 150 Madison residents among the 400,000 who participated in the event.
Longtime environmentalist and former Wisconsin state Rep. Spencer Black was there. The Madison Democrat marched with a poster of the Statue of Liberty holding a windmill in his hand. Black, vice president of the national Sierra Club, described the event as an amazing experience, with the 400,000 participants far exceeding estimates from organizers.
“I think the People’s Climate March will be to the climate movement what the March on Washington was to the civil rights movement,” Black said Tuesday.
The march was organized by more than 1,500 groups, including the Sierra Club, and spearheaded by 350.org, the same climate activist group that has turned the proposed Keystone XL pipeline into a political problem for President Barack Obama.
The march comes just two days before more than 120 world leaders and other high-ranking officials, including Obama, met in New York City for a United Nations climate change summit.
Countries are working toward reaching an international climate change accord at the end of 2015 that would go into effect in 2020.
"Our citizens keep marching and we cannot keep pretending we do not hear them," Obama said at the summit Tuesday.
While China is the world’s largest polluter, the United State is the top polluter per capita and historically contributed more than any other country to pollution problems, Black said.
He described the Obama administration’s new carbon emission caps on power plants as a real sign the United States is “starting to really walk the walk."
“We have an obligation to lead by example,” Black said. “The reality is the United States cannot do it alone.”
The impacts of climate change and the ongoing inaction by most politicians from the state, national and international levels to act prompted
Mark Redsten, the executive director of Clean Wisconsin, and his wife to get on one of the three buses leaving Madison and make the trip to New York.
Redsten said the financial impacts of climate change are staggering, from the damage caused by flooding to the toll the weather is taking on agriculture and yearly crop yields, for example, but politicians are either refusing to act or not acting fast enough.
According to Clean Wisconsin, drought and other severe weather also threaten long-term livestock production. This is a crucial threat considering 44 percent of the land in Wisconsin is devoted to agriculture. Some experts say we could lose 90 percent — or more — of native trout habitat. This would be a blow on both ecological and economic levels, as sport fishing is a multi-million dollar component of Wisconsin tourism.
“We are seeing things go in the opposite direction in Wisconsin,” Redsten said. “There is so little interest from government leaders to mitigate the impacts or take action to prevent further events from happening. Look at what has happened with renewable energy in our state. That is an example of a solution that exists but is being rejected.”
Beth Esser, with 350.org’s Madison chapter, said most people attending the People’s Climate March knew this week's summit was a first step toward the binding agreements that many are hoping for from the UN’s climate change summit scheduled for Paris in December of 2015.
She said in the mean time, Obama needs to stop supporting all forms of energy production, namely the construction of the tar sands pipeline and the boom in hydraulic fracking for natural gas. Wisconsin is now the leading exporter of frac sand, making the issue relevant for many in the state.
She and Black both described the moment at 12:58 p.m. Sunday when the march stopped and its 400,000 participants fell quiet in a moment of silence for those who have already been impacted by climate change.
At 1 p.m., the crowd erupted into noise with shouting and noisemakers to “sound the alarm” on climate change.
“I was overcome with emotion,” Esser said.
New York Mayor Bill De Blasio told Politico he hoped this week’s events would mark a “turning point moment” for the climate cause, but conceded that that’s far from certain.
“Summits sometimes spark great change — rallies, protests sometimes spark great change. Sometimes they don’t,” de Blasio told Politico.
He added, “My sense is that the energy you are seeing on the streets, the numbers that have amassed here and in other cities around the world suggest something bigger is going on.”