If anyone doubted the existence of a mighty climate movement in this country, then the sight of more than 400,000 determined, joyful, vociferous people marching through midtown Manhattan in the People's Climate March in New York City last Sunday has set them straight. Even for those of us who knew that people are ready for climate action, the sight of so many people from so many different backgrounds, all united behind the same righteous purpose, was both exhilarating and humbling. I'm sure I wasn't the only one thinking, "So this is what it feels like to be part of history."
Only time will tell exactly how big a turning point Sunday was in our progress in stopping climate disruption. Personally, I think it was a huge one. But I also know that what matters most right now is not what we did last weekend, but where we go from here. Our job now is to build on this incredible moment.
Let's not forget, though, that the march in New York was only the largest and most dramatic event on this historic day. People took action at over 2,700 events in more than 150 countries. This was a shout heard round the world -- but it was also heard seven blocks away at the United Nations.
The march was timed to coincide with the UN Climate Summit because, after all, this is the ultimate global issue. We all share the world's climate, and everyone stands to lose if the nations of the world can't agree on a plan to limit carbon pollution. This week's summit and the climate talks scheduled for Paris next year will be critical. As President Obama and representatives from other nations spoke on Tuesday, no one denied the urgency of the crisis, and several countries announced major new commitments.
Among the European nations, France promised $1 billion for the Green Climate Fund, Germany announced that it would not directly finance any new coal plants, and Denmark said it will become fossil-fuel free by 2050. The European Union committed to cutting emissions 80 to 95 percent by 2050.
Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli made his country's first-ever commitment to peak its carbon emissions, but would only set a deadline of "as early as possible." Coming from the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, that's a start.
As for the U.S., President Obama said only that his administration would announce new carbon reduction goals by next year. He focused instead on how the U.S. will step up its international efforts -- including a new executive order that requires federal agencies be guided by the need to build climate resilience into all international development programs and investments. The president spoke of how "Our citizens keep marching. We cannot pretend we do not hear them." On Keystone XL and the Alberta Clipper tar sands pipelines, on LNG gas exports, and on coal and oil leases, the president will have the opportunity to show us he's listening.
Even before the UN Climate Summit started, though, we were seeing results of the growing moral pressure exemplified by the People's Climate March (and also by the following day's Flood Wall Street protests, which shut down a 10-block stretch of lower Broadway for nearly seven hours).
On Monday, Google chairman Eric Schmidt revealed that his company would no longer help fund the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a free-market lobbying group that has worked to kill renewable energy programs and teach climate denial in schools. "We should not be aligned with such people," Schmidt said, "they're just literally lying."
The Google news was great, but Monday's addition of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to the fast-growing list of philanthropic organizations that have committed to divest from fossil fuel companies was both welcome and wonderfully ironic. These are the heirs, after all, of John D. Rockefeller, the world's first oil billionaire. More importantly, though, divestment is a trend with momentum. The number of institutions that have committed to divest from fossil fuels since the beginning of this year has more than doubled -- and they represent more than $50 billion in assets. Double that a few more times and -- you do that math.
Ultimately, though, the most important message of the People's Climate March was one of empowerment. Although most people believe we have a responsibility to act on climate, the challenge can seem overwhelming to just one person. After this week, no one ever needs to feel alone in this fight. We are millions of people, all around the world. Together, we have power that even the wealthiest corporations in the world will be unable to resist.
The march may have ended on Sunday, but the movement is just getting going.