This last weekend was not the first People’s Climate March. That happened in New York City in September 2014, and was meant to coincide with a U.N. General Assembly meeting and to ramp up pressure ahead of international climate talks in Paris the following winter. Drawing an estimated 400,000 people, that first march was the largest-ever demonstration on the issue.
Its follow-up arrived at a different time, politically. Donald Trump is president, and protests with tens of thousands of people are becoming more and more common – and not just in cities like Washington, D.C. and New York.
Similar marches and demonstrations were a regular feature of the Obama years. Complimented by year-round organizing, they seemed to work. The Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines were temporarily defeated. The Paris Agreement was negotiated and the Clean Power Plan showed at least a recognition on Obama’s part that climate change is a force to be reckoned with.
All of these victories could now be scaled back and more. Mustafa Ali left the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shortly after Trump announced his intention to cut the environmental justice program Ali had helped develop. A more than 20-year veteran of the agency, he now works with the Hip Hop Caucus.
“More folks are going to get sick, and – unfortunately – more folks are going to die,” he said of proposed cuts to the programs. “It’s really that simple.”
A theme among many of the people marching Saturday was an energy around what would happen in the months to come in their own backyards.
In the age of Trump, it’s a pragmatic position. So long as Republicans control Congress and the Oval Office, the likelihood of passing either comprehensive climate legislation or shaking a pro-climate executive order out of Trump seems unlikely. Hope for curbing emissions is increasingly falling on states and energy around stopping fossil fuel infrastructure is focused along those projects’ proposed routes.
As the day started to heat up (Saturday was tied as the hottest April 29th in D.C. history), Rae Ann Red Owl spoke about the next phase of the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline. A member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, she gets her water from the Missouri River via the Mni Wiconi Project Act, which established a water pipeline that serves her home in arid Kyle, South Dakota, and several others.
“‘Mni Wiconi,’ that means water is life. And that’s why we’re here,” she says. “If you look at Trump’s executive orders, the power that they have over our day-to-day lives is ridiculous. The jobs that they say they’re going to bring put our livelihoods at risk and put our earth at risk.”
Red Owl isn’t alone in her work against pipelines. Cherri Foytlin, director of Bold Louisiana, spoke Saturday with two of her children about the Bayou Bridge pipeline slated to cross through their community. The pipeline constitutes the tail end of the Dakota Access pipeline in the Gulf Coast, and could threaten some 700 waterways – “if we were to let it,” as Foytlin said. She and others in southern Louisiana are looking to start up an encampment to get in its way.
“I believe that it is damn selfish to put the effects of climate change onto our grandchildren,” she told the crowd.
The resistance to Trump’s fossil fuel dreams is taking the fights to the courts as well. One of Trump’s sharpest critics at the national level has been Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who showed up to support the march Saturday. Alongside New York Attorney General Eric Scheiderman, she has gone toe-to-toe with House Republicans in their probes over whether ExxonMobil misled the public about the existence of climate change. The somewhat ironically named House Science, Space and Technology Committee – chaired by outspoken climate change denier Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas – subpoenaed the attorney general offices and several green groups, requests they all chose to ignore. Healey was also among a group of state attorney generals suing Trump over his proposed Muslim travel ban.
“We’ve sued the administration already. We’ll be suing them again,” Healey said.
She also referenced the 10-year anniversary of Massachusetts v. EPA. In that case, Massachusetts and several other states took the EPA to the Supreme Court over its negligence in regulating certain kinds of emissions. The decision is among the most important Supreme Court cases in history with regard to climate, having established that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon as part of its duty to protect clean air and water. Unsurprisingly, its repeal is being looked at by those on the right as a target.
The morning after the march, around 150 people – most, but not all young – gathered in a community center near Logan Circle in D.C. to learn how to run for elected office. “First we march,” one slogan for the training put it, “and then we run.” Participants split off into rooms discussing strategies for local, state and federal bids. At the end of the training, several sponsoring organizations offered ongoing support to those wanting to run for office.
“Just as the Tea Party moved politics to the right, we can now be the Tea Party of the left,” Dominic Frongillo, co-founder of Elected Officials to Protect New York, told the crowd in a morning session. “We can be the revolution on the left that moves politics to a progressive direction, and start on the local level. It’s not going to take us 45 years.”