On Sept. 21, less than two weeks ago, people from all over the country and the world gathered in New York City for what has been deemed the largest climate march in history. A crowd of 400,000, four times more than the most generous expected attendance, flooded the streets of Manhattan, celebrating our unity and demanding action. Among those 400,000 were ten UCSB students and five alumni who came together to represent UC Santa Barbara at the march. I was one of them. Our group ranged from a freshman taking her first step in environmental activism to a graduate student and alumnus who are deeply involved with groups like the Environmental Affairs Board and the California Student Sustainability Coalition.
The march, dubbed the People’s Climate March, was endorsed by more than 1,000 environmental and social justice organizations. It was intended to be a public call for action on climate change from world leaders and planned to coincide with the 2014 United Nations Climate Change Summit that took place in New York City two days later.
Talking about climate change can be disheartening, especially when we focus on all the effects it seems to already be wreaking on this planet. This march had the opposite effect. For me and everyone I encountered there, this march empowered us and gave us a new sense of hope in the face of this crisis. We chanted, smiled and embraced fellow marchers in a joyful display of unity across the huge diversity of those represented, from workers unions, indigenous groups and religious organizations to student groups like ours. The event took on a more somber tone when at 12:58 p.m., silence filled the air as the crowd linked hands overhead and took a moment to remember those who have suffered or are already suffering at the hands of climate change and the fossil fuel industry.
At 1:00 p.m. however, a wave of sound rose from one end of the march to the other as participants sounded the alarm on climate change, an alarm scientists have been sounding since at least 1988. It was what Bill McKibben called, “the burglar alarm on those who are trying to steal our future.” The sense of community felt among participants was awe-inspiring. We were all there together to demand action and say that these issues are everyone’s issues.
“When the march began, I didn’t think it was possible for so many people marching, singing and beating drums, to suddenly fall silent,” said Leah Schulman, one of the Gauchos with me. “But when it came, you could hear a pin drop. The only thing more powerful than that silence was the rush of noise that came after.”
In addition to the masses that gathered in New York City, 2,646 solidarity events took place the same weekend in 162 countries, including several in California. What is evident from these events is that there is a global movement to fight climate change and that it is the “front-line communities” — indigenous groups, island nations and those already affected by climate change — that are at the forefront of it.
Climate justice was a leading theme of the march, since it is countries that have contributed the least to climate change who, so far, are seeing its effects the most strongly. It was inspiring to see dozens of people from island nations and communities from the Ecuadorian Amazon lead the march. These people’s homes and ultimately lives are at stake — when disaster strikes they have nowhere else to go and often do not have the resources to adapt to the changing environment. It is critical for us to join in solidarity with those already affected by climate change, even if we have yet to witness the consequences of climate change in our own lives.
Another aspect of the event from which we all drew inspiration was the number of university students represented. Including those of us from UCSB, it is estimated that more than 50,000 university students took part in the event. This is not surprising, for the divestment from fossil fuels campaign that has spread across the nation began with college student activists. It has now grown to such strength that the Rockefellers, who owe their immense wealth to oil, have recently pledged to divest their funds from the fossil fuel industry.
It was uplifting to engage with students from universities across the country and learn about all of their campaigns, including divestment aimed at fighting the fossil fuel industry and the influence it has over our democracy. It can be easy for individuals to feel disempowered but this march did the opposite. We gained a sense of the magnitude of the fossil fuel divestment movement that is taking place at hundreds of universities across the United States and the enormous strides it has already taken in changing the public’s opinions of the fossil fuel industry.
In the aftermath of the march, it is critical to understand what this means for ourselves and for our community here at UCSB. As university students, we enjoy a privileged position in society and must use this to bring light to the struggle of frontline communities in the face of climate change. It is our responsibility to speak out on the environmental injustices that are being wrought against our generation and generations to follow.
One way of doing this is by demanding that our university divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry. While this alone is not enough to slow climate change, if the entire University of California system were to do so it would send a message to the nation, perhaps the world, that investment in fossil fuels is no longer a viable option for those interested in preserving a livable climate for our own and future generations.
With 400,000 people at the People’s Climate March, the event has been considered an overwhelming success. However, the true success stems from the empowerment individuals gained through this march to return to their communities and enact change, however small or big that may be. Whether that means composting or becoming active in one of UCSB’s 40 environmental groups, it is up to individuals how involved they want to be in this movement. There is a UC fossil fuel divestment campaign active at UCSB where students are always welcomed and encouraged to get involved in through the Environmental Affairs Board. Students should stay informed about the upcoming mid-term election in Nov. and the “Healthy Air and Water Initiative,” otherwise known as Measure P, which would “effectively ban extreme fossil fuel extraction in Santa Barbara county.”
The People’s Climate March was an inspiring and empowering demonstration of an active democracy and if you would like to hear more about our experience there, please come to our presentation at the Environmental Affairs Board meeting at 7 p.m. on Oct. 15. We will share personal anecdotes, photos and videos from the People’s Climate March and give more information about how to get involved in the solutions that have been proposed to combat climate change. We hope to see you there.
Fighting climate change will be a long and arduous task but if our generation does not do it, then who will?
Katie Koerper is a fourth-year Communications & Global Studies major