Tigers on the People's Climate March Photograph: Shahrzad Shemirani

Elaine Graham-Leigh: The People’s Climate March sent a clear message to the politicians – climate change remains an issue of central importance and we are watching what they do

The People’s Climate March in London on Sunday was the largest UK mobilisation on climate change since 2009 and the demonstrations accompanying the climate summit in Copenhagen. As part of a global day of action before the UN climate summit begins in New York, it sends a clear message to the politicians. Climate change remains an issue of central importance and we are watching what they do.

Beyond that, the message of the march was less explicit. It was a clear call for action on climate change, but what that action should be was not in focus. Indeed, one of the most numerous placards, from the Climate Coalition (formerly Stop Climate Chaos, a coalition of various NGOs including Friends of the Earth, WWF and the RSPB) read, with a fine lack of specificity, ‘Let’s do something about climate change’. Avaaz, one of the other organisers, was at least a little more concrete in calling for ‘100% clean energy’ but gave little clue about how they wanted this to be achieved.

The organisers would perhaps argue that keeping the focus on a general call for action was necessary to build the demonstration as big as possible, and in many ways that would be correct. As a general proposition, only the lunatic fringe of climate change deniers don’t believe in the idea of some sort of action to deal with climate change. Calling on politicians to do something, anything, about climate change therefore has the possibility to bring lots of people together. Sunday’s march included contingents from Cafod, the Women’s Institute, St James’ Church, Piccadilly, and local climate action groups from places like the Weald and Bradford on Avon, none of whom are usually expected on protest marches. Oddly, the protests around the world have been so broad that they have even included members of the bodies at whom the protests are aimed: the march in London included a sizeable contingent of LibDems, who are after all part of the governing coalition, while Ban Ki Moon, the United Nations general secretary, said this week that he would be joining the march in New York.

The problem is that calling for just any action on climate change sets us up to have to be satisfied with whatever the politicians might decide to do. The Bishop of London, introducing the rally at the end of the march, said that we had to ‘give sympathetic politicians room to manoeuvre’ at the climate summit, while another Avaaz placard, in a similar vein, told Cameron that it’s ‘time to lead on climate’. If the political classes had been uniformly denying that climate change was happening or important, this might be a reasonable position to take, but that’s not where we are. Cameron after all pledged before his election that his would be the greenest government ever. He told us that we could ‘vote blue and get green’. There has been no shortage of greenwashing from politicians, the problem is that their solutions have not led to any reduction in emissions.

In some ways, that the march was rather more middle-class than protest marches often are, may increase its immediate effectiveness at convincing Cameron to pay attention to the climate change issue. Many marchers, even from the Tory shires, are the people who he has to keep happy if he is to have any chance at all of hanging on to power past the next election. More green posturing from the Tories, of the type we saw in 2010, may help their election strategy, but it is not going to help the climate. Rather than calling on Cameron to take a lead, real action on climate change has to include criticism of where he would lead us to.

That up to 27,000 people care enough about climate change to march for action remains encouraging, but how far we can regard it as a genuine resurgence of the climate movement is more doubtful. We have seen impressive mobilisations before from NGOs for major climate protests: the iCount rally in 2006 attracted around 25,000, while the Wave demonstration in 2009 had up to 40,000 people on it. These did not however lead to sustained, large-scale campaigning between the major protests. While it is too soon yet to tell if Sunday’s protest will be different, the signs are not particularly hopeful. Avaaz, one of the main organisers, is explicitly not in it for the long haul, as their stated tactics are to parachute in to an issue for a short time and then turn their attention elsewhere.

The People's Assembly on the People's Climate March

We need to fight for real action on climate, but we need to do so with the recognition that the market-led solutions proposed by the mainstream are part of the problem. While the technological answers are there, climate change remains an intractable problem because the needs of the climate are not compatible with the need for profit. To fight it we therefore need to fight the logic of the system that puts profit before all else and that means taking on the austerity agenda which is at the heart of the government’s policies. Sunday’s demonstrations around the world were an important reminder that climate change matters, but for us in the UK, the TUC demonstration against the cuts on 18th October is even more important as part of the fight for a world where real solutions to climate change are possible.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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