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A Dispatch from the People’s Climate March

by Michael Levi
September 23, 2014

People's climate march New York city Climate Change summit My kind of protest sign.


The People’s Climate March, which drew a reported three hundred thousand people to the New York streets on Sunday, deserves much of the applause and attention it’s attracted. No one who attended the march can deny the enthusiasm of the crowd, or the fact that the gathering has helped keep climate change on the front page for a week.  And yet, throughout the day, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d stumbled into an anti-fracking march that also happened to be about climate change.  And I couldn’t escape the conclusion that this focus could end up undermining the very climate change goals that the march was ostensibly about achieving.

Five years ago, climate change rallies were typically focused on coal. Whatever one thought of the old protest tactics, or the wisdom of the specific policy demands, there’s no question that the activities were targeting a significant climate problem.  Coal is the largest and fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions from energy use. Blunting coal use unquestionably reduces global greenhouse gas emissions.

Fast-forward a couple years. With a rally outside the White House in 2011 that generated front-page coverage, climate activism shifted focus to the Keystone XL pipeline.  Now the emphasis was on a project that promised to have little impact on climate change regardless of whether the protesters got what they wanted – perhaps not the ideal place to focus so much energy.

Sunday’s climate march had me pining for those good old days. There was barely any anti-Keystone paraphernalia beyond the small, designated anti-tar-sands section. There was little about coal outside the similarly small anti-mountaintop-mining zone. But boy were there a lot of anti-fracking signs. Ed Crooks of the FT noted on Twitter that anti-fracking signs “outnumber anti-coal signs by more than 10:1”; he followed that with an observation that there were “possible even more [signs] about #fracking” than about #climate”. Both are consistent with what I saw. This despite the fact that fracking, notwithstanding its problems and limitations, has reduced U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and helped create the political space for EPA power plant regulations that will do more.

Take a step back: In the last five years, organizers have gone from drawing a few thousand people to lonely protests to bringing out hundreds of thousands on the streets of New York. They’ve done that in part through superior organizing and by tapping into growing concern about climate change. But they’ve also done it in part by shifting their emphasis from a central part of the climate problem (coal) to a marginal issue (Keystone) to opposing something that, while decidedly imperfect, actually helps deal with climate change (natural gas). This seems to be a Faustian bargain at best.

More pragmatic players in the climate movement often explain this bargain by arguing that anything that gets people mobilized on climate helps the overall cause.  Playing a pure inside game on climate change has its limits. And it’s easier to mobilize people around opposition to energy developments in their back yards that scare them, carried out by companies that can be easily demonized, than to get them revved up about amorphous climate threats and subtle policies that might counteract those. (One friend at the march threatened to chant, “What do we want? Better seals on natural gas compressors! When do we want them? Now!” He wisely decided against it.) It’s also possible, in principle, to mobilize around one thing (say, Keystone) and then pivot to another (say, EPA power plant regulations) when the time for policy action arrives. Take this too far, though, and you back yourself into a corner: one has to wonder, among other things, how much the anti-fracking marchers will support the new EPA power plant rules once they discover that a central impact will be to increase demand for fracked natural gas.

It’s great to have leaders who help draw vocal attention to climate change. But those who care about confronting climate change yet understand how wrongheaded some of what’s being called is for need to speak up just as loudly.

Post a Comment 19 Comments

  • Posted by Nick Grealy

    Bravo Mike
    Well said. Unfortunately, gas has gotten conflate with all fossil fuels somehow another. While it’s certainly a carbon fuel, only ten years ago everything was about a low carbon world. Now it seems to be about no carbon at all.

  • Posted by Klaus

    There wasn’t over 300.000 people at the march, maybe 125.000. See:

    Exaggeration (in other words lying) for a perceived good purpose seems to be an eminent part in climate discussions.

  • Posted by Mark Gubrud

    Mike, as you know, the difference between the CO2 per energy unit produced for coal vs. gas is about a factor of 2, which means if we replaced 100% of coal burning with fracked gas (which is not even anybody’s plan) we’d achieve a substantial but wholly inadequate reduction of CO2 emissions at the cost of significant increases in CH4 emissions and, more importantly, the diversion of many G$ of energy investment (which I understand you believe to be a limited resource) from long-term solutions (solar/wind/fission) to new gas-burning power plants and infrastructure, all because the costs of the latter are somewhat higher today and will remain so longer due to the aforementioned diversion of investment. Since that is the short-term profit-driven choice of the big decisionmakers (utilities, banks, governments) and not the course desired by a public that is deeply alarmed about climate disruption and wants to move to a sustainable zero-carbon future with all deliberate speed, it makes sense for protesters to focus their fire on fracking and the current comfortable delusion that fracking is the answer to all of our worries.

  • Posted by Ross Hammond

    Sadly predictable response. It’s a wonder you waited so long to post it since you could have written it before the march even took place. The preponderance of signs on fracking *could* have to do with where the march took place (i.e. in NY and bordering PA) but certainly glad you didn’t let that get in the way of your larger point. As far as KXL being “marginal” that’s an interesting take, both because of the difficulties that tar sands producers are now having getting the oil to market (in part because of the fight against Keystone) and because it misses the larger point of the pipeline being a good organizing tool. For such an incredibly bright person, you still don’t really seem to have any clue about movement building or what it’s going to take to get some of the elements we all want (e.g. a carbon tax) enacted.

  • Posted by JC

    With 60 BILLION food animals on the planet, this should be our first step in the Climate March!

    “As environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future: deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.” Worldwatch Institute, “Is Meat Sustainable?”

    “If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetables and grains… the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads.” Environmental Defense Fund

    “A 1% reduction in world-wide meat intake has the same benefit as a three trillion-dollar investment in solar energy.” ~ Chris Mentzel, CEO of Clean Energy

    There is one single industry destroying the planet more than any other. But no one wants to talk about it…

    Step by Step Guide: How to Transition to a Vegan Diet

  • Posted by Aldous

    Hey Ross,

    Perhaps blocking KXL is “marginal” because the tar sands represent such a marginal percentage of global carbon emissions.

    Though no doubt it plays a non-insignificant symbolic role in the repetoire of the modern neurotic environmentalist more concerned with with narcissistic acts of social status seeking then actually meaningfully transistioning civilization towards a carbon free economy.

  • Posted by Nancy LaPlaca

    Earlier, I posted that this article is an embarrassment. Let me explain why.

    Contemplating why there are more anti-fracking signs than anti-coal signs is not relevant. You are a lot smarter than that, Mr. Levi.

    In fact, I would even call it a “narcissistic act of social status” to mock people who care enough about our future to actually DO something about it.

    Why don’t you put your considerable brain power into figuring out exactly how we change to a low-carbon future?

    I’ve spent nearly 10 years now on transitioning. I’ve gone up against some of the most powerful fossil fuel players in the world as a sole intervener against utilities like Xcel Energy. As Policy Advisor to a utilities commissioner, i got lobbied by everyone. And who had the most money by far? The natural gas industry. It was interesting to watch at NARUC meetings as coal’s power declined and natgas’s power increased.

    The first rule of holes is to stop digging. The people in the march don’t understand combined cycle v peaker gas units, they don’t understand why carbon capture and sequestration will never work, and they don’t even know who or what the public utilities commission is.

    But they know that destroying their own future is not a good idea. They care enough about their children and communities to show up.

    Showing up is the first step. Now it’s time for the next steps. I sincerely hope you will put your energies toward solving problems rather than mocking those who show up.

  • Posted by Patricia Goldsmith

    You are incorrect about natural gas’s ability to improve emissions. Yes, it helps improve CO2 emissions, but we are now aware that methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas. When you factor in methane, natural gas may actually be worse than coal. As for better seals on compressors, here’s the problem: those seals have to hold perfectly, forever, against methane gas, something that is very hard to contain. New York’s draft regulations for fracking don’t even require sites to be permanently marked, so any seal that’s set when the operator leaves is IT, forever. No seal can do that. This is not a technical problem that can be fixed given enough time. Fracking is simply another form of climate denialism, a way of not facing the ultimate fact that we have to get off fossil fuels NOW.

  • Posted by Joanne Corey

    Fracked methane is still a fossil fuel. When it is burned, it produces half the amount of carbon dioxide, but it is still adding fossil carbon to the atmosphere, where it will continue to impact climate in a negative way for generations to come. It is much preferable to transition directly to non-carbon emitting energy sources, such as solar, wind, water, and geothermal, or even biomass, which, while it emits some carbon, is not bringing an additional carbon burden into the system as fossil fuels do.

    Unfortunately, atmospheric methane concentrations are at an all-time high: They have been climbing since 2007, which corresponds with the fracking boom. This is a major concern at this time because methane, while not as long-lived in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, is much more potent as a greenhouse gas, about 86 times more potent over a twenty year time frame. Given that we must get total greenhouse gas emissions down in the very near term, it is exactly the wrong time for humans to be increasingly releasing fossil methane into the atmosphere.

    Methane is released by multiple means throughout the extraction, processing, transporting, and waste phases. It is nowhere near as simple as tightening compressor seals. If only about 3% of methane escapes to the atmosphere, it becomes worse for the climate than coal for producing electricity (and remember that most methane is burned for heating/cooking, not used for electricity). Scientists have measured methane over fracked gas fields at 4-9% of production. There is a huge problem with venting or flaring of methane in fracked shale oil plays, such as the Bakken, where the methane is not considered valuable enough to build infrastructure to bring it to market. Leakage occurs in gas processing and compressor facilities. It leaks from underground pipelines and from the old delivery systems in cities. Studies in Boston and Washington DC found thousands of leaks in the distribution systems in those cities. LNG facilities release methane in making the methane liquid, keeping it chilled, and in converting it back to a gas. New studies have found that, even when properly plugged, over time abandoned wells leak methane to the atmosphere. Fracked fossil methane is not part of a solution to climate change.

    A good source for a summary of this issue with copious citations can be found here:

  • Posted by John Bijarney

    Fracked gas cannot be a solution because it presents way bigger and complex problems than coal. Besides the unfixable methane issue which disqualifies it as a solution already, fracking is an air and water pollution machine destroying rural communities socially and environmentally. We can’t be sacrificing our fellow citizens to the invasion of a conscienceless, heavy industry loaded with tens of thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals and a yen to lace the local water supplies with them. Then, the infrastructure of pipelines and compressor stations keeps us anchored down in this fossil fuel for the foreseeable future. Solution? Under what definition?

  • Posted by Hugh Kimball

    In addition to compressor stations, wells leak, the bores leak, pipelines leak, and a lot of methane seems to be vented or otherwise leaked into the atmosphere during the process of getting natural gas out of the ground. And then there is the pollution of air, ground, and water with chemicals, flowback which includes salt and heavy metals. And then there is all the trucking and other impacts which uses other fuels during the harvesting. Natural gas is not a fix for a warming climate.

  • Posted by Nick Grealy

    The continuing use of Howarth’s methane emissions study as settling the science while ignoring the vast majority of studies which disagree is not helpful.

    People who agree with the 3% of scientists that AGW is not happening are described as bonkers or deniers. But 93.75% of scientists say that gas is better than coal. (and that doesn’t include the IPCC or the Calderon report) aren’t right? That’s cherry picking – not right in climate science, not right in shale science

  • Posted by lijlij

    The new energy that needs to be used for the 21st century and beyond is above the ground, not below it. We need to harness, in a responsible way, locally, through many sources, renewable and sustainable energy. This new energy will create an abundance of jobs. Just imagine, every road and bridge a solar energy gatherer. All one has to do is pull over and plug in to have your car back on the road. Impossible? Expensive? Well take a good look at what happened to NYC during Sandy. Take a look at what is happening in California right with the drought. And the list goes on and on. It is expensive NOT to convert to renewable energy. We are at a precipice. We need to change our habits and realize that nothing should be taken for granted. WE are over populated and the resources we need can be created using wind, solar, geo thermal, hydro, and food waste into energy COMBINED. Wind and solar need not be HUGE amounts spread over hundreds of acres of land, which is killing the bird populations. No, it needs to be done on a local basis. Where you house, or a building becomes the energy producer, not beholding to a grid which keeps everyone’s energy usage at a disadvantage for a possible threat. High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing , and the activities associated with it, is drowning out the drums for renewable and sustainable energy. With one well, the need is for up to 7 million gallons of water, a cocktail of 600 known carcinogens that is pumped into the ground and cracks the shale. The waste comes out and is toxic. The methane that is burned off , sometimes at a 30 foot high flame for days, sounding like a jet plane, kills birds and destroys habitats of animals around the well. Studies have shown that water is contaminated from leaky pipes and the casings in fracked sites are made by the same company who brought you the casings in the Deep Water Horizon. Too many problems with extracting natural gas and oil. It is time to move on. It’s the politics that is in our way. For they, get paid a big sum of money for their campaigns from this industry.

  • Posted by K. Roberts

    Okay, so you were at the march, you participated, but you still don’t GET it!! Hydrofracking emits tons of methane at all stages, and methane is significantly worse for climate change than even CO2!!!

  • Posted by John Buckley

    Whether we use gas or coal is in the long run really an irrelevant argument All fossil fuels will soon be gone much faster than any of us imagine. We need to use them sparingly and wisely to build a sustainable energy infrastructure as quickly as possible. Just take a moment to imagine what would happen if the fossil fuel runs out before we are self sufficient with sustainable energy.
    What then?? We need to stop arguing and start investing in and building a sustainable economy NOW.

  • Posted by Diana Wright

    Yes, I was there and yes, the energy was extraordinary. And yes, the people there understand very well that fracking is just as bad as coal. The reason this fact is hard to plant in people’s minds is that while one can SEE the results of the carbon being burned in the air from coal in the form of smog, Methane is invisible. You can’t SEE how much is out there that we are breathing, that is acidifying the oceans, melting the ice caps and changing the precious balance of life on this planet. If only we could color methane gas, we would be horrified. And methane gas is emitted into the air through natural gas fracking at rates enormously higher than than other forms of fossil fuel extraction. The only way to keep this planet inhabitable is to keep ALL fossil fuels in the ground. Renewable energy can replace it with no negative impact and many benefits.

  • Posted by Lynn Cahill-Hoy

    Correction: there were > 400,000 people at the People’s Climate March in NYC. Of course this is a global issue, and this march demonstrated that as such. There were 2646 solidarity events in 162 countries.
    Here in the U.S. the problem rests with how we develop public policy. Money now controls our elections, and therefore our policy. No one is wealthier, and in more control in the U.S. than the fossil fuel industry. Thus, we are not able to develop renewable alternatives on a scale that can have a meaningful impact.
    A great place to start in correcting this enormous problem in the U.S. is in amending the constitution in that corporations do not have the same rights as individual U.S. citizens, and their money is not considered speech as protected by the first amendment. Our elections and policy are now bought by those with the greatest wealth, and it is this fundamental issue that fuels all of our current problems, including climate change.
    There were people present at the NYC march that were representative of how policy change will take place in forming a green economy- examples are the Green Party and the national grassroots effort of Move to Amend. There may have been others, but with > 400,000 people there, it was hard for me to take it all in.
    To be successful in developing policy that obviously the people want, we must stop the purchasing of elections and power in our country.

  • Posted by Jack William

    flooded absorber consisting of two sheets of metal stamped to produce a circulation zone;

  • Posted by Steven

    Attended and enjoyed the march immensely but found great irony in all the littering. I partook in the former and was absent for the latter. A side note, not a super enviormentalist but devote in partaking in history. You could literally feel the energy from the subway stop at Columbus circle through waiting I believe three stagnant hours on Central Park West all the way to the end on 34th and 11th. Really great time that I’ll look back on when I’m 80 and the environment is in worse shape then today and remind myself that I at least tried on September 21st, 2014.

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