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The Climate March’s Big Tent Strategy Paid Off

Mike Theiler / Reuters

WASHINGTON, D.C.—On President Trump’s hundredth day in office, a flood of protesters—fearful of the more literal floods to come—deluged the nation’s capital.

Tens of thousands of people filled downtown Washington on Saturday to protest the Trump administration’s environmental agenda and the decades-long history of American inaction on climate change. Over the course of a sweltering 91-degree day, they shut down Pennsylvania Avenue, surrounded the White House in a massive sit-in, and rallied in front of the Washington Monument.

“What do we do when our communities are under attack? Stand up, fight back!” said Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network and one of the emcees of the rally.

The protesters had come to fight back. But they had also come to see each other and feel relief—here were thousands of other living, breathing people who cared as much about climate change as they did. They came from across the country and around the world to be together. (The event officially estimates that more than 200,000 people attended.)

A minimum of 200,000+ marching in #climatemarch in DC. pic.twitter.com/QVURCQfNAr

— Adam Parkhomenko (@AdamParkhomenko) April 29, 2017

“We had to come down for this—climate change is the most important issue of our time. But then we bought carbon credits to make up for it,” said Deborah Markowitz, the former Vermont secretary of state and a current professor at the University of Vermont. She marched with her daughter and her husband—whom she met, 35 years earlier, at the 1982 protest against nuclear weapons in Central Park.

“It’s important to affirm to ourselves that this is a huge community,” she told me. “It also sends a message to the corporations that really run things that people care. Even in Appalachia, now, the power companies are moving to renewables. Marches like this continue that pressure.”

Archana Dayalu, a doctoral student in atmospheric chemistry at Harvard, also came down from New England to be at the march. She had rallied the previous week at a March for Science event in Boston. “If you’re in your first few years of grad school, you can lull yourself into a false sense of complacency. You think, the work’s getting done. As long as I’m researching, I’m getting work done. But if you step out of that zone, you realize how little of your research is being translated into meaningful action,” she told me.

“I don’t think that I can solely be a research scientist anymore. If it’s an issue of this much importance, I need to show that action as well as research is important right now,” she said.

“For me, climate change is a theological issue,” said Jerry Bertleson, a 33-year-old pastor who leads an American Baptist congregation in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “The first gospel is creation. Jesus, when he spoke, rarely said ‘The Bible says….’ He often pointed to creation to illustrate deeper truths. If we don’t take care of it, then we’ll lose that witness.”

Laura Isensee, a 65-year-old physician, had come from Houston, Texas, to march as part of Elders Climate Action. She had spent the week meeting with lawmakers as part of that group’s second major conference. She learned about Elders Climate Action after a long-time friend, an attorney at the Securities and Exchange Commission, told her about it. “From the time I was a child, I just loved trees and nature. My plea is please, please, care about our planet. It’s the only one we have—how dumb is it to mess up your own home?” she said.

The event is officially called “The People’s March for Climate, Jobs, and Justice,” a title that—if not exactly succinct—captures the interests of the progressive movement and the breadth of the climate movement that mirrors it.

This breadth has been key to the success of the People’s Climate Movement, the organization which hosts the march. The event declares a common concern and invites everyone who cares about it to come together. But it does not specify an ideal climate policy, allowing individual groups to advocate for their own proposals. In effect, the group allows all the different parts of the modern-day left—racial and indigenous justice groups, labor unions and the modern Fight for $15-style campaigns, Democratic Socialists and ‘Big Green” non-profits like the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club—to come together under one banner.

And it works. Along with the fights over the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline—which were led by many of the same organizers—it constitutes one of the few successes in the long and frustrating history of U.S. climate politics. The People’s Climate Movement has also worked to build up local grassroots support: Since 2014, it has sponsored regular meetings across the country that allow local labor, social justice, and environmental groups to meet and organize together.

It succeeds in part because climate change is the second-most-pressing concern for many politically activated progressives, who often have another stake in the fight through some other favored issue. Paul Getsos, a national coordinator for the march, told me that he partly cares about climate partly because a future boom of renewable energy jobs would help unions and labor groups shore up their own future.

Key also to its success is the the rising importance of the idea of environmental justice in American progressivism. That philosophy—which sees pollution and degradation as an affliction of poor and minority communities—allows the merger of new and old progressive ideas about race, poverty, and the environment. (It’s also true, as far as it goes: Almost 80 percent of all black Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant.) Environmental justice enlivened the fight at Standing Rock, and, on Saturday, dozens of signs served as reminders that the cost of climate change will be borne by poor people of color: “Climate Change Will Hit Communities of Color First,” or “I Am a Marshall Islander—Where Will I Go?”

The rally was hosted by Goldtooth, who is Diné and Dakota and who was prominent during the Dakota Access fight, and Carrie Fulton, a black environmental-justice organizer in D.C.

The weather did its part admirably. The blazingly hot day tied the daily record for April 29 in Washington, forcing elderly marchers to sit and rest in the shade trees lining Pennsylvania Avenue. But the more significant record fell the night before, when temperatures failed to drop below 70 degrees overnight. As The Washington Post notes, that had never happened before in D.C. in the month of April. It foretells more climate damage to come. The heat-trapping powers of greenhouse gases are most obvious at night, when heat trapped in the land during the day cannot radiate back into space.

Marchers kept smiling through the heat. Lois and Al Howlett marched in the first Earth Day protest in 1970; they came down from Yarmouth, Maine, to be in this one. (“Married 45 years!” Al told me.) Jared and Latosha Catapanos, a more recently married couple, walked with the Washington, D.C., teachers union. Jen Foster from Frederick, Maryland, towed her kids behind her—ages 11, 9, 6, and 4.

And beneath a sign saying “CO2 Is Hurting My Oyster Farm” stood Bill Mook, 63, who has spent the last three decades running a sea farm at the mouth of the Damariscotta River in Maine. Ten years ago, he started to lose thousands of oyster larvae every year as the water in his hatchery acidified past their survival point. He has since figured out how to work around that problem, but now he and his small staff are dealing with another one: They must immediately chill oysters after harvesting them to keep them from catching human pathogens in the warmer ocean waters.

“I grew up in the Vietnam War era—I was opposed to the war but I did not really protest,” he told me. “This is the first time I’ve ever really marched. I feel passionately about it. And this is directly impacting my business.”

“The reverse side of my sign says ‘A Healthy Environment is Good for Business.’ I really don’t think that’s an, um, alternative fact,” he added.