New York City found itself the hot center of global attention on Sunday, Sept. 21, as activists, scientists, politicians, celebrities and citizens from every walk of life marched down Manhattan to make the urgency of climate change resonate throughout the world.
And resonate it did. Organizers estimate more than 400,000 people were in attendance at NYC's march and globally, more than 2,600 events took place in multiple cities to echo the efforts of the People's Climate March.
Despite the months of buzz preceding the event and the enormous amount of preparation that went into it, I was surprised. Polls documented an underwhelming amount of concern for the climate and in the midst of other issues, such as ISIS, Russia and Ukraine, the Scottish independence vote and Ebola, I was left thinking climate change was still a problem vocalized only by a few. I believed, with such present issues resulting in more directly observable problems than climate change's gradual effects, that not many people cared (my apologies to Secretary of State John Kerry, who says the threat of climate change is just as immediate as the threat of terrorism and Ebola).
To witness firsthand why event organizers were calling this the most historic moment in climate debate history, I made my way up to the march. It seemed to begin in the subway. I joined the sea of people boarding the train, ducked under banners and squeezed into a seat between a windmill and a polar bear. I then gave up my spot to a suited-up beekeeper holding too many posters and handouts to possibly be comfortable standing.
Getting off the train at 81st, onto the platform and up to the surface took an apologetic amount of shoving and maneuvering. My exit aboveground was met with booming drums and chants and a generally festive air.
People were here and people were there, holding more banners than I could even attempt to read as I let the crowd jostle me around. Marchers played volleyball with a giant, blow-up "carbon bubble." A papier-mâché Statue of Liberty wore a giant life vest as it was lifted through the sea of people. Students from universities throughout the U.S. chanted for divestment from fossil fuels. A moment of silence before the march was filled with restless, buzzing energy. Our hands were in the air for a cricket-chirping, bird-singing, leaf-rustling, symbolic minute and then a deafening cheer swept all the way from Columbus Circle up to 86th. Its approach was thrilling, somewhat frightening and completely impossible not to get caught up in.
And that, I think, is the reason the march was possibly the largest in history. While climate change is a daunting problem, with its long-term projected effects, and the entire planet possibly at its mercy, it's also a problem that really needs an event like this to get people to listen. So those who don't normally turn their heads and open their eyes at climate and warming statistics can get caught up in the movement, realize the dangers, choose to learn more about the problem and make it their own.
Will it urge those leaders meeting for the U.N. Climate Summit in NYC today, Sept. 23, to make more drastic efforts to combat climate change? We'll see. An agenda is already set and while the march's hubbub may have inspired leaders to try to do more, big-picture solutions for an issue this global understandably need more talk before action. Maneuvering through the world's diverse economies, governments, cultures and other pressing conflicts requires more than a (very impressive) display of expression and solidarity.
I do, however, think it's important to keep in mind the people from the People's Climate March. Climate change action is at the intersection of the average citizen and the powerful leader. The amount of change I can bring about obviously differs from the amount of change U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (who joined the march on Sunday) can inspire, but the march reminded me and countless others that there is always something we can do. So hit the lights, conserve water, recycle, carpool, take the subway, discuss and debate often and loudly, stay educated and, when there's a giant march going on, join in for solidarity's sake (although try, perhaps, not to get arrested).
In the words of the U.N. Secretary-General, "There is no Plan B because we do not have planet B." Catchy and true, Mr. Ban.