Slow march for the climate: Now that you’ve got everyone, what are you changing?

I spent last Sunday at the People’s Climate March in NYC. By most reports, it was the largest climate action in the US ever. Over 300,000 people from a broad spectrum of affiliations showed up to support the cause. I found myself marching with the labor contingent, which meant I was surrounded by fewer greens than blues and reds (hotel workers and nurses, respectively). Other sections of the march had representatives from the front-line communities most impacted by climate change, from faith groups and scientists, from the classic environmental organizations, and more. Thousands marched in solidarity events in other cities.

So the organizers achieved the second half of their tag line: “To change everything, we need everyone.” It was big and it was inclusive. But what about the first half: What did it change?

The march itself could have been a metaphor for the policy situation. We all walked a winding mile through midtown Manhattan—from Central Park, through Times Square, and ending a couple avenues west of Penn Station—and it took over two hours. It was painfully slow. When my friends and I reached the end, we found no closing rally, no stage with speakers, and no one even asking us to sign a clipboard. We just encountered some folks with megaphones who said, in short, “This is the end of the march. Thank you for coming. You can go home now.” So we dispersed down a side street, found a bodega, and had lunch.

The soft ending to the march was almost fitting given the vague policy ask. We weren’t asking for anything in particular. We weren’t for cap-and-trade, higher emissions standards, investment in green energy, or financing for climate adaptation. Those things popped up on various signs from various contingents, but as a whole, we were just against climate change. That’s it.

This is the flip side of inclusivity, of course. You get everyone on board by targeting something bland enough that no one objects. That’s not necessarily a critique. The fact that I can call opposition to climate change “bland” is itself a sign of progress.

This was also reflected in the mood of the event, which felt somewhere closer to empowered-weekend-stroll than typical-protest-march. I’m sure some contingents were livelier and angrier than others, but a few of my more radical friends commented that overall it was the least contentious political action they’ve ever seen. There were no arrests on Sunday. The “Flood Wall Street” march on Monday had a few arrests, though even these were more orderly than during the Occupy days.

The extent to which opposition to climate change has been mainstreamed is also obvious in the funding for the march: a slew of corporate sponsors helped get the word out, along with classic environmental and social justice organizations. Lockheed Martin and BMW topped the list of donors.

The result of an inclusive coalition, corporate backing (some would say “greenwashing”), and vague policy ask is that no one was actually being held accountable for anything. Over a quarter of a million people showed up to say, “Hey, let’s fix this thing.” Yet without a concrete policy goal, every powerful actor and decision-maker is left with as much latitude as they’d like to ignore it or interpret it as support for their pet solutions (carbon sequestration, nuclear power, etc) regardless of how impractical, damaging, or mutually exclusive these might be. Advocates don’t have much leverage to push for good policies beyond saying, “Yep, all these people definitely care about this thing.” Demonstrating that people care about this thing is important, but it doesn’t necessarily get us closer to any particular solution.

So where does it go from here? The march was theoretically tied to the UN Climate Summit this week, but the marchers made no particular demands on those attending the summit. Even if we had, it might not have amounted to much, as the Climate Summit isn’t actually part of the UN climate negotiations process. Rather, the summit will “set the stage” (as almost every news organization phrases it) for negotiations later this year. Best case scenario is that the summit continues the awareness-raising with some speeches and maybe some climate-related commitments around the edges; worst case scenario, it deflects attention and serves as a release valve for pressure to take serious action.

When it comes to the hard choices about policies that will reduce emissions in the developed world or provide a meaningful financing mechanism for climate adaptation in the developing world, don’t hold your breath.