The People’s Climate March took months of planning and building. The formal announcement came on January 25, but it was possible due to a committee that formed three years ago.
After the original march hit New York City in 2014, organizers created the People’s Climate Movement, assuming there would be reason to come together again en masse in the future. Over 50 organizations formed a steering committee to mastermind the recent event, which flooded Washington, D.C. with up to 200,000 people last Saturday (April 29).
Attendees marched to demand that President Donald Trump take action to protect climate change’s most vulnerable victims, like Native Americans losing their land to fossil fuel development or Black Louisianans losing their land to receding coastlines.
Now, that momentum is over; the march is done. So where does the movement go from here?
Colorlines connected with several organizers who attended the march to assess their priorities post-event. Below, their answers to questions on where the environmental justice fight will go and how the People’s Climate March helped shape that vision.
Was the People’s Climate March a success?
While a true and pure success might have involved the president staying in town to witness the event firsthand (he was in Pennsylvania holding a rally), the march was still a win, according to the majority of organizers.
For one, frontline communities were at the front and center of the march, not celebrities or executive directors of Big Green organizations (like the Sierra Club or Greenpeace). That was intentional—and a thread organizers continued from the 2014 march in New York City.
“We made a clear decision to say, ‘No, this is about the people’s fights, about justice and jobs. We should have those people talk,’” says Angela Adrar, the executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance and a member of the steering committee.
The march also gave a chance for different people to connect and hear each other’s stories. Green for All Executive Director Vien Truong got to meet with Lakota women resisting the Keystone XL Pipeline, as well as families from Flint, Michigan working to ensure that their story isn’t forgotten.
So while the event gave voice to the unheard and showed unity against the Trump administration’s pending policies about climate change, "[the march is] not going to be the answer to deliver what we want,” says Truong.
How did the march prepare grassroots organizers for the work to come?
The march provided a boost of sorts for organizers; it served as a recharging station. Most, like Truong and Cherri Foytlin, the state director for Bold Louisiana, walked away feeling connected after meeting new people and rejuvenated after a tough couple of months. As Truong put it, the first 100 days of the administration have been “scary,” and it was hard not to feel alone.
For Foytlin, the march gifted much-needed hope.
“When I go and I’m with my indigenous sisters who are fighting extraction all over the country, [gathering together at marches] helps to lessen the scars of dealing with what we’re dealing with here on the Gulf Coast,” she says.
What battles are organizers tackling next with this newly-charged energy?
“All these local fights, that’s where all the big change, in my opinion, is going to happen,” says Foytlin. “And we have to support each other through that.”
Her next battleground is in Louisiana: the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. The 162-mile-long pipeline will run from Nederland, Texas to Lake Charles, Louisiana. Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) is behind this pipeline—the same developer behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. Foytlin and her Louisiana-based team are determined to stop ETP from “continuing [its] colonization of [their] natural resources.”
The administration, on the other hand, is determined to open offshore drilling in the Gulf and in the Arctic, as made clear through an executive order Trump signed April 28. That’s another issue on Foytlin’s radar, as well as on Faith Gemmill’s, an Alaska Native campaign organizer for Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands.
Gemmill wants resource extraction end in Alaska. Her people lead a subsistence-based way of life, so they’re especially at risk if their waters or land are contaminated. She wants to see the renewable sector become a force in Alaska. “We fought 10 years to get Shell out of the Arctic,” Gemmill says. “So now we’re back on the defense.”
Truong is focused on getting on the offense and building solutions. Part of that includes replacing the pipes in Flint as part of Green for All’s #FixThePipes initiative. But another stride toward solutions is transitioning away from a fossil fuel-based economy that poisons the air and water of communities of color, replacing it with one that centers renewable energy and clean air for all.
Elizabeth Yeampierre, the executive director of UPROSE in New York City, couldn’t agree more. She wants to figure out how groups can share their stories, resources and power to work toward this just transition—together. And by the term "just transition" she means transitioning away from fossil fuels in a way that’s healthy and sustainable for all the communities involved, both financially and physically.
Her organization concentrates its efforts in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park. There, Yeampierre is working on three different solar projects, as well as a plan to keep commercial development away because gentrification exacerbates inequalites within communuties.
This just transition work is what Adrar of the Climate Justice Alliance is zeroing in on—but at the national level. The alliance is planning 50 campaigns around the country, including creating art cooperatives in Detroit and food and bike cooperatives in Richmond, California. They’re looking at housing security, affordable public transportation, food sovereignty and racial justice overall.
Why such an emphasis on just transition?
Burning fossil fuels will just worsen what climate change is already doing to communities: severe floods, droughts, extreme weather, rising sea levels. Organizers are now emphasizing how to keep more ecological unrest at bay, especially in the face of an administration that wants to increase fossil fuel consumption.
“We know climate change is a symptom,” says Adrar. “It’s not an outcome. It’s a symptom of a greater dysfunctional system that we need to change. And looking at just carbon as the issue is not enough. You need to look at the justice component.”
Truong is ready to stop playing defense. She wants to see more homeowners saving money from energy bills by putting solar on their roofs. She wants to see more people employed in the renewables sector. She wants to see power plants burn less energy and emit less toxins, which, in turn, protects the health of nearby communities. She’s seen this happen in her state of California through its carbon pricing program, which charges polluters for the toxins they emit and then puts a portion of that money into low-income neighborhoods.
“What we’re talking about here is whole-scale transformation of an entire state because of environmental policy on big polluters,” she says. “So what we’re looking at is saying, ‘Let’s not just be about what we’re resisting and fighting against. Let’s look ahead and see where the big opportunities are and who we’re fighting for and apply our strength and muscle there.’”
Ultimately, working toward solutions and a sustainble future was a pillar of the march. Building a “vision that inspires us and gives us hope,” one that “protects our families, our communities and our climate,” as the march’s website says, starts with leaving behind an industry that does the opposite.
What can everyday people do to further this fight?
See what environmental battles—from proposed pipelines to toxic power plants— are taking place at home and how you can contribute. Find an organization by reaching out to national coalitions like the Climate Justice Alliance that team up with local groups or checking out 350.org’s map online, which lays out different chapters around the world. Every organizer was clear in the importance of taking action locally. “A march is not enough,” says Truong. “We need to do more.”
Strengthening the movement is imperative. That’s what Gemmill, who is from Arctic Village, Alaska, sees as a priority. To do that, people must be persistent, she says, in raising consciousness and awareness about how humanity’s survival will depend on what comes next in the climate change conversation. “People need to think of their future generations and what type of environment we’re leaving behind.”