Op-Ed: My Trip to the Biggest Climate Change Rally in American History

Photo by Ari Stern
Photo by Ari Stern

Usually, after our weekly improv comedy show at Improv Boston, all the performers grab a few beers and reflect on the night’s performance. However, last Saturday night, my fellow cast member, Tom, and I didn’t have time. When the show ended at 11:30 p.m., the two of us ran to CVS, picked up some granola and jerky, brewed some coffee, and hit the road to drive through the night to Washington, D.C. Our destination: the Forward On Climate Rally.

The rally was taking place in the wake of three governmental announcements that shocked environmentalists nationwide who had been disillusioned during the election when climate change wasn’t addressed specifically at a single major debate. First, Obama declared climate change mitigation a national priority in both his inaugural and State of the Union addresses. Adding to the love, Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced a new bill to the floor on Valentine’s Day that sets a price on carbon, regulates fracking, and ends oil company subsidies. Climate policy was finally on the agenda, now tens of thousands of Americans were descending on D.C. to demonstrate political will for climate action.

I was hoping to affirm my constant verbal environmental advocacy by taking some actual action supporting clean energy policy. Additionally, I was looking forward to joining 20,000 other active citizens who would make me feel not as outspoken as I normally do. However, by noon on Sunday I realized that this rally meant a great deal more than I had imagined. 50,000 people attended the Forward On Climate Rally, that in the end not only protested the Keystone XL Pipeline while advocating for clean energy, but also represented a growing fight to protect democracy in America against big business, demonstrated the lasting affect of the Occupy Movement, and united rival civilizations that had been disconnected for generations.

What is the Keystone XL Pipeline?

A protester with a Harry Potter themed sign. | Photo by Ari Stern
A protester with a Harry Potter themed sign. | Photo by Ari Stern

The main impetus for the Forward On Climate Rally was comprised of individuals around the nation wanting to urge

Obama to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline. The pipeline would transport tar sands from Alberta, Canada all the way to Texas. While many groups have expressed concern over possible spills that would harm wildlife and contaminate water, the main problem with the pipeline is that it would exacerbate climate change to the point of making any and all other American climate change mitigation strategies moot.

Currently, the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere is way over the maximum 350 parts per million that scientific consensus describes as the threshold, over which planetary preservation is impossible. Radical changes in choices of energy are necessary to bring the concentration of carbon down. The construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline would ensure the use of a fuel stock that could increase atmospheric carbon concentrations by 200 ppm.  Even worse, the infrastructure would reinforce America’s dependence on fossil fuels and inhibit the growth of renewables.

The rally on Sunday urged President Obama to use his power to reject the pipeline, which Bill McKibben summed up as “one of the largest carbon bombs in history.”

Preserving Democracy

A protestor's sign referencing the "99%" mantra of the Occupy movement. | Photo by Ari Stern
A protestor’s sign referencing the “99%” mantra of the Occupy movement. | Photo by Ari Stern

The truly inspiring thing about the rally was its manifestation of a growing fight of average Americans trying to win back their democracy. As movements like Occupy and the popularity of the term “99%” have shown us, there is growing unrest among Americans concerned that government represents big business rather than society, and that politicians can be bought. The last presidential election, the most expensive in history, reinstated that representation is a pay-to-play game. That is, unless the public defends itself. Van Jones, the former special advisor to President Obama on green jobs put it best on Sunday when he said, “In this city, if you don’t fight for what you want, you deserve what you get”.

Last Sunday, on that cold afternoon, I was surrounded by 50,000 other regular people participating in democracy and not sitting idly by while businesses use their dollar power to achieve their short term goals at the expense of society. It was a beautiful sight. Marching to the White House, chanting “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” brought a tear to my eye. Today we face a turning point in America. Do small, narrow-minded, wealthy interests control our government? Now is the time to act and rise against them. Our democracy will listen if we put aside our apathy and demand justice. Last Sunday represented such action.

A Lesson Learned About Occupy

The rally outside of the White House. | Photo by Ari Stern
The rally outside of the White House. | Photo by Ari Stern

Some of you may recognize the chant quoted above from Occupy marches last spring. Another important conclusion to take from the Forward On Climate Rally is that the Occupy movement never died. It has had a lasting effect. While today there seem to be few if any centralized, regional Occupy centers like the one in Zuccotti Park or the Boston Financial District, the Occupy movement created a giant culture of people who are now more ready to get to the streets and vocalize their concerns against threats to democracy. Civil unrest has risen in America and it will continue to grow until action is taken to loosen the grasp America’s wealthiest have on our government.

Uniting First Nations and Citizens of the U.S.

Finally, the rally also included speakers representing the First Nations of Canada and the United States. They were a shock to many in the crowd, including myself, who had never considered the descendants of those who lived here before us. They referred to places like Washington, D.C. by their original names, names that I had never heard, could not pronounce, and unfortunately do not remember. They spoke of the importance of protecting Mother Earth and how all their lives they have faced heartbreak after heartbreak while the Canadian and United States governments ignored their concerns. Finally, after generations, for the first times in many of their lives, Americans were standing with them. 50,000 Americans were raising their fists in the air cheering on a people who for the past century have been overlooked. I have to say, it was hard not to feel touched.

Another banner referencing the Occupy movement. | Photo by Ari Stern
Another banner referencing the Occupy movement. | Photo by Ari Stern

Moving Forward

It’s hard to say what will happen in the months to come. One thing is for certain: climate change issues are on the national radar again and now is the time to act. President Obama has the power to cancel the Keystone XL Pipeline, and if he does, will be remembered in history as making a decisive choice to prevent climate change and protect all people and future generations from economic turmoil.

As time moves on, all of us can help the cause. We just have to participate. Contact your representatives in Congress and President Obama, tell them to support clean energy, reject Keystone XL, and support Boxer’s and Sander’s climate bill. Above all, listen to what Van Jones said last Sunday to our generation: “Don’t be chumps.”


About Ari Stern

I am a BA/MA student at Boston University studying Energy and Environmental Analysis. When not thinking about the Earth's impending doom, I like to distract myself with comedy. I am the president/director of Boston University's improv group Liquid Fun. Every Saturday night, I perform as a cast member of Improv Boston's Face Off. I also won BU's funniest student viewers choice in 2010 and still tell people about it (at least I'm not as bad as PBR who still boasts about their blue ribbon from 1893). Finally, if you love puppies, we've got something in common.

View all posts by Ari Stern →

3 Comments on “Op-Ed: My Trip to the Biggest Climate Change Rally in American History”

  1. Well written and informative, good job!

    It’s encouraging and inspiring to see the rally have such success and I thank everyone who attended. My question is this: how can the environmental movement most effectively use the momentum and energy from the rally? Was there any focus on organizing more direct action and civil disobedience? Not to diminish the efforts of those risking arrest and who have been arrested, but so far direct actions against KXL have been relatively small. Could this be a turning point that really inspires people to get into activism, or was the rally a sort of “good job yall!” pat-on-the-back sort of thing?

    It seems to me that generally these types of rallies are important in showing strength and building activist connections but are ultimately ineffective in prompting policy change. I guess we’ll have to wait and see how officials respond (if they respond), but what do you think?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Mike.

      Those are important questions. Environmental causes have suffered over the past few decades from a lack of political will. If this rally demonstrated anything, it’s that political will for clean energy policies is on the rise. The challenge now is keeping that momentum building so that environmental causes can’t be ignored.
      This is a pretty large hurdle, because in politics, environmentalists are an easy issue group to overlook. Republicans know that environmentalists are not going to vote for them, Democrats know that even if they don’t take environmental action they’re not going to lose an environmentalist’s vote to a republican, and third party candidates do not have a shot in our current election process.
      It was not a simple “good job ya’ll” but instead an attempt to encourage and demand President Obama do what’s right and reject Keystone XL. One speaker told President Obama that these thousands of people “have his back”.
      This cause needs more and more citizens getting engaged before it will translate into the necessary revolutionary policy. So certainly, the Foward On Climate rally was a step in the right direction; however, it alone will not suffice.
      People need to continue protesting and participating. If pressure doesn’t persist and grow, policy makers will not listen.
      It’s possible that the rally did one more thing to help the fight for clean energy. Often environmental causes lose their footing before they get to grow because people laugh off environmentalists as “unrealistic” or “too few”. Hopefully this rally has made that argument harder to make. Hopefully now some people who used to disregard environmental advocacy out of “pragmatism” will see that 50,000 Americans gathered around this cause and that if people decide to continue the fight, then positive change and success are very real possibilities. Hopefully, this rally will encourage more people to get involved. I hope it does. The stakes are high.

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