A Reporter’s Notebook from Forward on Climate Rally

(Jason Mark is writing an article for the April issue of The Progressive on the Forward on Climate rally and the prospects for climate action in Obama’s second term.)

1. The Kids Are Alright

For the staff at the W Hotel in Washington, DC, it must have seemed like the world had turned upside down. The posh hotel across the street from the Treasury Department is usually a prime hangout for the capital’s power brokers. On Sunday morning, the day of the large Forward on Climate rally, it was the site of something more like an activist carnival.

On the main floor, 350.org and the Sierra Club were hosting a pair of breakfasts. Meanwhile, the basement conference rooms had been taken over by more than 200 college environmentalists who are running campaigns to get their institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies. Some student activists were huddling in the corners swapping strategies for pressuring campus administrators; others were busy making signs for the big day ahead; many were sprawled out on the floor, probably trying to catch some rest after all-night bus trips to the capital.

Amid the maelstrom I bumped into Fabienne Antoine, president of the Young Democrats club at Spelman College, the all-women historically Black college in Atlanta. She and her friends organized a bus with 50 young women to make the trip to DC. This, she says, is just part of the school’s spirit: “As Spelman women, we’re committed to this, because we want to make sure that the environment is here for our children, for our grandchildren.” Trying to explain her political commitment, she later said: “This is my life.”

I also chatted for a while with Chloe Elberty, a junior at SUNY-Freedonia, as she helped a friend make the lettering for a sign reading, “Act Now — Before It’s Too Late.”

“I’m so excited to be a part of history,” she told me. When I asked what she meant, she said: “I just hope he [President Obama] sticks to his word. And if Congress won’t do it [take action on climate change], he should.” She then started in on a complaint about how marginalized environmental issues remain in the national discourse. “In order to learn about these things, you have to dig deep. It should be taboo to not talk about climate change, not taboo to talk about it. I don’t really think he [the president] has done much to change that.”

A few feet away, a young woman was putting the finishing marker touches on an elaborate marijuana pipe that was the centerpiece of her demonstration sign. The slogan: “Pack Pipes — Not Pipelines.”

As I left the room, the students were beginning to chant: “Who’s got the Power? We got the Power!”

2. Slackers

I had a sense that the Forward on Climate rally could very well exceed organizers’ expectations when I went to the volunteer training meeting on Saturday night at St. Stephens Episcopal Church. The sanctuary was packed, nearly every row filled, with upwards of 300 people getting instructions on how to manage the crowd for the march to come. The most persistent question from the would-be rally marshals had to do with bathrooms: Would there be enough? “There will be 60 Porta-Potties at the main rally site,” the 350 organizers told the volunteers. “And along the march route there are plenty of Starbucks.” Cue guffaws.

Standing at the back of the church I found Ted Glick, a longtime peace and social justice activist who now works as the national campaign coordinator for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. Back in 2007 or 2008 (I can’t recall), Glick did a multi-week hunger strike to call attention to the climate change crisis, so he’s a man who takes the long view. He told me he was thrilled to see the environmental movement finally engage in a mass mobilization around climate: “For a long time the dominant organizations who were working on this issue, the way they did activism was to tell people to change their light bulbs or get a hybrid car. That lifestyle stuff is fine. But you need political action. The fact that, finally, there is this national mobilization is a big step forward. It’s a sign of maturity. It’s very important. It’s not like the peace movement, where you have a history of mobilization. But here you have an upward momentum.”

Glick, like many people I spoke with over the weekend, was desperate to see the president exhibit real leadership by using his bully pulpit to elevate climate change into the national consciousness: “He was terrible in his first four years. He deliberately went silent. It was either a lack of nerve or a failure of courage. Either he didn’t get it or he self-censored. Now he needs to speak out on the issue, and mobilize the American people, who are ready to be mobilized.”

A little later I introduced myself to Fiona Druge, a West Virginia native who is going to school at Smith College in Massachusetts. A former 350.org intern, she had organized a bus full of fellow students to make the trip down to DC for the rally. She told me: “In his inauguration, Obama promised to take steps on climate. But that’s not easy. But events like this show that people want him to fulfill his promise. I feel like I’ve heard these things from him before and haven’t seen any action. I’m hoping that this time is different. This is the time for the environmentalists’ fight.”

As I left the church, it struck me that everyone there were either Glick’s age — Baby Boomers — or else Millenials like Druge. I didn’t spot a single Generation X-er like me. Maybe we’re all too busy at this time in our life with children. Or maybe the stereotype is true: We’re just a bunch of slackers.

3. Focused

10:40 a.m., Sunday, February 17, an hour before the scheduled start of the Forward on Climate rally.

Author-activist Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org and arguably the most prophetic voice on the danger of climate change, is charging down 15th Street, making his way from the W Hotel to the rally site at the base of the Washington Monument. He’s head down, seemingly lost in thought. At the intersection of 15th and Pennsylvania Avenue he walks into the street, evidently without noticing that he has a red light, and that the cars going in two directions have green arrows. His college-age handlers are stranded on the sidewalk. They watch in shock as cars swerve to miss him.

Then it hits me: This is the singular focus required to help spark a movement for climate justice. Sometimes you need to be a little bit wrong to be a whole lot of right.

4. Party for Two

The media tent behind stage is a complete shit show. It’s a small geodesic dome, made out of PVC piping and canvas, and far too tiny to accommodate an odd dozen reporters and the VIPs they’re supposed to talk to. Everyone is jostling for interviews.

In the midst of the scrum I manage to get a one-on-one with Van Jones, the former White House green jobs advisor who now heads Rebuild the Dream. As always, Jones is sound bite ready: “If we’re just going to lay back and say this [the inauguration] was a great speech and we’re done, we’re going to lose.” Using a line he will later repeat from the stage, he then says: “This is the last minute of the last quarter of the most important game in history. We can’t have the president on the sidelines being the referee. He needs to be on the field, being the quarterback and leading.”

Jones then tosses out an idea that I think has some real merit: What the president needs to do is pursue a bi-lateral greenhouse gas reduction treaty with China. The UN process, after all, is horribly bogged down. The United States and China are the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters. What if they were to reach their own climate change mitigation deal, with the hope that the rest of the world will follow along?
This idea isn’t new. But as Jones explains it, it has a virtue beyond the geopolitical. It can also give the president a vehicle for telling a story about the climate crisis: “A bilateral with China would allow him [Obama] and [Secretary of State John] Kerry to play the role of educator-in-chief in the lead up to the talks. It could build momentum in the lead up to the midterm elections. It’s not the message, it’s being the messenger with the megaphone. We know the message — that we’re going to cook the planet if we don’t do anything. What we need is the most powerful messenger in the world.”

5. Senator Whitehouse

In January Senator Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island and California Representative Henry Waxman formed a “Task Force on Climate Change” to push the issue forward in Congress. In a letter to the president, they wrote, “We will benefit even more from a concerted effort between your administration and your allies in Congress to marshal the latent public support [for action on climate] into a political force.” Standard Washington-ese, you could say.

In person, I found the senator to be impressively candid about the president’s failings to date, and the risks he faces if he goes ahead and approves the Keystone XL pipeline. Senator Whitehouse told me: “If he goes and gives a speech like that [the inaugural address] and then allows Keystone XL, he will have a major credibility gap. … He’s been largely AWOL on this issue in his first term, especially as a public voice. The agreement with the auto companies [to nearly double fuel economy] was important, but it didn’t enter into the political dialogue. That has changed — he has found his voice. He needs to follow that up with strong executive action.”

Later he will say from the stage: “Congress is sleepwalking through this Congress, and it’s time to wake them up. The polluters — they do not want you here. They do not want your voices heard. They have lobbyists and Super PACs and they have the situation under control. And then we show up. We are going to be heard and we are going to make this right.”

We need more like Senator Whitehouse.

6. Signage

The rally organizers have printed up thousands of handsome placards with the slogan, Forward on Climate and a rip off on the signature Obama campaign logo. As always, however, the homemade signs are much better — or at least more fun.

Here are some of my favorites:

• Climate Change — A moral issue.

• Photo of blasted wasteland with the caption: “Mordor.” Photo of a blasted wasteland with the caption: “Tar Sands.” Kicker: “Any Questions?”

• Texas Baptists for Clean Energy. … Reverse side: The Earth is the Lord’s — Not TransCanada’s.

• There Is No Planet B … probably the most common hand-lettered sign in the crowd

• Record Profits for Fossil Fuel Companies — Paid for with our Future

• Change the System — Not the Climate

• Clean Energy = National Security

• Keystone à Tombstone

• Windmills, Not Oil Spills

• Obama, Keep Your Word

• This Plan is Not Spillproof

• Earth flag with the caption, “Too Big to Fail”

I also liked the fellow dressed up as the grim reaper with paper scythe that said, “coal.”

7. Storyteller Wanted

As Reverend Yearwood from the Hip Hop Caucus is giving his speech from the stage, I’m walking the crowd and happily to run into Betsy Taylor, president of the 350.org Action Fund. When she was in her twenties, Taylor was a lead organizer on the massive rallies against nuclear power. She later went into the philanthropy world and then founded the Center for the New American Dream, which works to redefine Americans’ ideas about work and consumption and our ideas of progress and the good life. She is, in short, a movement veteran.

I asked her what she thought of the scene. “Ah, it’s great, this is really great” she said. Then she struck a cautionary note. “But we don’t just need 30,000 people. We need 3 million. We need to start thinking in those terms. We’re out of time, and we need to be disruptive. We can’t continue thinking in linear terms.”

She then echoes much of what I have heard from other people, a desire for the president to become a storyteller and to begin to craft a narrative that can educate the American people about the threat of climate change. “In his second term he’s free to speak the truth,” she tells me, “and he absolutely has to. He can stop Keystone, but he can’t stop the oil industry’s assault on any leader who steps up. So far he doesn’t’ have public demand behind him, and public demand — that’s on us.”

Taylor’s talk about “speaking the truth” reminds me of something I heard earlier in the day from Mike Tidwell, the director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network: “The president should have done a lot more on telling the story of climate change. He still has not given a single speech on climate change, and that on its face is a failure. … He is the best communicator we’ve had in this country in a generation. He needs to pack a bus with the media and take them to the drought-stricken areas of Texas, and the forest die-offs in Colorado, and the melting permafrost in Alaska. But he hasn’t done that. He needs to use his oratorical skills to tell the story of climate change.”

8. Numbers Game

As a movement journalist I make it my business to double check crowd estimates, and over the years I have honed some techniques for figuring how many people are in a march or rally and comparing my own estimates with law enforcement figures and the inevitable boasts from organizers to arrive at a mean I feel confident sharing with readers. The easiest method is relatively simple, especially for street marches: Count every single head in a certain amount of space (say, one city block) and then multiply that number by the number of similar segments. (Obviously, this becomes nearly impossible for an on-the-ground reporter once you break, say, the 75,000 threshhold, as happened to me at the height of the Iraq War protests.)

On Sunday I twice went to the back of the rally to do an informal crowd estimate, and when Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said there were 35,000 people in the crowd, I thought, bullshit. But when we started marching it seemed plausible. From the southern edge of the Ellipse I could see the crowd flowing all the way up to the Corcoran Museum and the Old Executive Office Building, and still there were thousands of people on the field in front of the Washington Monument. Thirty-five thousand seemed legit.

When 350.org later claimed there were as many as 50,000 people at the event, I was especially incredulous. Then I talked with Matt Leonard, the 350 organizer who was the liaison with the DC police and National Park Service. He told me that Park Service employees were apoplectic with him, angry that the march had exceeded its 50,000-person permit. There weren’t enough toilets, the Park Service complained, nor enough paramedics on hand in case of an emergency. (This story is difficult to confirm as the Park Service stopped going crowd estimates for rallies after a kerfuffle over Louis Farakhan’s Million Man March.)

So I’ll take that 35,000 to 50,000 number. But, in any case, does it really matter so much? At the end of the day it becomes the political version of arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.

At the very least we know that tens of thousands of Americans endured freezing winds and muddy conditions to express their fervent desire that President Obama will take bold action on climate change — and that, it seems to me, is news enough worthy of a story.