The People's Climate March

I recently shared the exhilaration of joining an estimated 400,000 people to march through the streets of New York City to express growing political will for governments to acknowledge the impact of climate change today on global health and security and to respond now with national and international resolve to act specifically and dramatically to reduce global emissions, implement alternative energy sources, and otherwise modify societal behaviors through regulation, legislation, treaty, inter-governmental cooperation, and adequate public investment.

The People's Climate March was long, loud, colorful, and committed, made up of indigenous peoples, elders and politicians, youth groups, and hundreds of other organizations focused on multiple issues and situations, local and national, that comprise the catalog of impacts caused by changing climate and political indifference. While there was much fun and fervor, there was also certainly an under-current of frustration and anger at the ever-lengthening postponement and dilution of any meaningful action to be yet taken by the US Congress and President Obama. The organizers of the March, primarily among them, have taken the rejection of approval of the XL pipeline connecting the Canadian tar sands area across the American mid-west to southern refineries for export as the critical decision to indicate a change. The objections articulated to that project are many, to include the poor quality of the oil, the effect of its extraction on the natural landscape and watershed, the danger of its transportation, the emission output of its refining, and its export for consumption in places with even fewer and less effective regulation of its burning. But it is just one action, however, symbolic, and must be followed by many more.

Just a few days later, over 100 heads of state assembled at the United Nations headquarters in New York for yet another climate summit (see Climate Summit 2014: Catalyzing Action.) World Ocean Observatory was at a similar, very disappointing meeting in Copenhagen in 2009 where the political and financial commitment was disputed with threatened walk-out by small island nations and developing countries that found little help in the proposed actions and finances. At last week's Climate Summit President Obama listed certain actions to be taken by Executive Order and exhorted others. The leaders of China and India, the two other most formidable greenhouse gas contributors, did not attend the Assembly.

But even in these events, the ocean was curiously and conspicuously absent (see David Hillibrand's piece on this major omission). This is not new news. In fact, it is such old news that it is appalling to understand that ocean advocates have still not been able to insert the ocean into the global conversation. How can that be when the ocean sits at the epicenter of the climate problem; when it is the penultimate reservoir of emission consequence and embodies most of the potential for solutions? One of the reasons this situation endures is that there is no ocean lobby to make it so. Leonardo DiCaprio addressed the UN meeting, and, as an extraordinary proven donor to ocean conservation, mentioned ocean issues in an attempt to put the issue squarely on the UN agenda. But even he, along with so many others (scientists and the less famous) still may not be heard. The UN Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, the primary UN ocean entity, and UN-Ocean, the cross-cutting committee of all UN agencies with any responsibility for any ocean issue, attempt to voice this perspective from within, but that process is long, arduous, and mostly ineffective without major international support.

It may be that only from without that the message will find traction. The People's Climate March was but one such expression. The Global Ocean Commission call to action by a private group of political leaders also exhorted the UN meeting to address ocean issues. And there are other hopeful signs: states and communities are taking steps to legislate new behaviors locally for the benefit of the ocean. Certain investment groups, pension funds, Stanford University and other college endowments, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and other philanthropies, and individuals, with many shares or few, are divesting from energy companies and re-investing in alternative opportunities. It seems clear that we can no longer wait for the UN, or those elected to represent our interests and execute their responsibility, to govern. We can certainly no longer wait for reform by the energy industry that has doubled down in opposition.

Climate has been reduced to numbers. Easy to understand, easy to ignore. Until we as ocean advocates can make the case that climate itself is a function of the ocean, along with its impact on fresh water, energy, food, health, and security, the UN and other agents of governance will continue to struggle with the compromised attitudes and actions, or lack thereof, promoted by vested interests. The numbers marching exceeded expectation (nearly 400,000) but they must become more than a headline statistic to transcend one day or one meeting; we must all remain in the streets, with all that determination and exuberance, marching on until we get there.