Climate change protests have traditionally been top-down affairs organized around a single demand such as stopping the Keystone XL pipeline or negotiating a better treaty at the United Nations. Big NGOs and unions have played an important role in preparations for the People’s Climate March as well. However, this time organizers for the climate march are relying much more on a decentralized “network” approach to mobilizing people that draws on the experience of the Occupy movement.
The centerpiece of this effort is the climate march’s roughly 100 autonomous working groups (or “hubs,” as they are called) that are self-organizing around visions of climate justice that reflect the priorities of their members.
The various hubs encompass a wide array of constituencies. Some hubs, like “Communications” and “Videographers,” will serve a particular function at the march. Others focus on environmental issues such as fracking and nuclear power, and still others on possible solutions — “Clean and Green Business,” for example. The largest number of hubs are based on local, regional or state geography (including one hub for each of the five boroughs) or identity: women, elders, immigrants, vegans, youth, scientists and LGBTQ and indigenous people, among others.
Some of the hubs, such as the labor and faith blocs, have been part of the organizing from very early on, while others received a boost after a large organizing meeting at the New School on July 1. Many of these hubs are currently focusing their efforts on how to build a meaningful and memorable presence at the march itself — the fracking hub, for instance, has been meeting, hosting conference calls and holding art builds with the intention of conveying fracking’s threat to the climate during the march itself. In doing so, however, alliances are being built and networks are being established for organizing together around longer-term goals.
Big Tent Organizing
Like Occupy Wall Street, the People’s Climate March has refused to issue a unified set of demands. It has, instead, favored “big tent” organizing. And like OWS, which took on the 1 percent’s power over the political process, this march is tackling an issue that many know is a serious problem but that still remains outside mainstream discourse
Given this, it makes sense that similar tactics would be adopted in both messaging and structure. Like OWS, the march’s greatest success may ultimately be both its impact on the larger conversation and the continuing activities of its constituent parts — just as many Occupy-inspired groups did important work after the Zuccotti Park encampment was destroyed by the NYPD.
However, the OWS analogy goes only so far. Unlike Occupy, this march was initiated by large NGOs such as Avaaz and 350.org. There are great disparities in money, influence and media access among the various groups working on the climate march. For this event to be a foundation for a new kind of movement, larger organizations will need to continue providing support to the grassroots groups that are giving so much of their time and energy to ensuring the march’s success.
This means supporting the work of environmental justice groups like The Point in the Bronx and UPROSE in Brooklyn and taking local infrastructure campaigns — such as the fight against Port Ambrose, the proposed liquefied natural gas terminal that could be built off the shore of Long Island — seriously. It also requires understanding that the climate movement must support larger struggles for social justice and understanding that the climate crisis is a crisis of capitalism.
One of Occupy’s greatest lessons was that organizers should not fear a radical critique. Radicalism facilitates a systemic analysis, and this larger analysis actually widens the constituency you are building as more and more people see their concerns voiced. It appears the climate justice movement is learning this lesson. But as significant as the march is, it’s what we do after it’s over that matters the most.