From those promoting civil rights to those condemning the use of nuclear weapons, history has shown that peaceful protest can be a powerful mechanism for inciting political change. On the 21st of September, thousands of protesters took to the streets marching in 150 different cities around the world. The largest of these took place in New York, where an estimated 100,000 to 300, 000 people turned out to participate in the People's Climate March, coinciding with the United Nations climate summit.
Large protest movements are often at risk of becoming dominated by certain groups or even failing to get a coordinated message across. However, as pictures from the People's Climate March around the world indicate this has not been the case. Indeed, from the young to the elderly, from everyday mothers and fathers to those from various social, environmental and economic organisations, from grassroots organisations to multinational corporations, politicians and celebrities - all were united under a common message. That time is quickly running out and that the international community must institute bold, long term climate change policies if it is to avoid continued rapid growth in greenhouse gas emissions and the long dreaded 20C warming scenario.
Even the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon broke protocol and joined the protesters in New York alongside other notable marchers such as Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, Dr. Vandana Shiva and Dr. Jane Goodall.
Protestors mobilised all over Australia. Much of the media attention was directed at protests in both Melbourne and Perth, which had the largest turnout. Interestingly, however, the turnout in Sydney was comparatively weak.
In fact, there was no march in Sydney at all. Attending the Sydney event, I realised that many of the people present were familiar to me - regular activists, campaigners, passionate individuals and great friends.
As I left the event, I found myself asking a number of questions. Firstly, why had so few turned out for the People's Climate March in Sydney? Second, did this indicate that the mobilisation had failed to garner public support and thus to pressure the government?
The first question is difficult to answer. There could be any number of reasons for the low turnout in Sydney. For example, a 2012 survey by the New South Wales Government entitled 'Who Cares about the Environment' found that despite 78% of respondents having concerns about the environment, only 12% thought that climate change was top priority. Alternatively, the low turnout could reflect a general scepticism because the people in Sydney are sceptical about the government's ability and commitment towards addressing the issue of climate change. Public support for action on climate change did nosedive after the spectacular failure of the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009. Regardless of the speculative reasons, the post mobilisation analysis by the organisers will hopefully shed some light.
While the low turnout was disappointing and perhaps may lead observers to conclude the mobilisation a failure, I personally choose to still remain optimistic. Reflecting back on Sunday, I realised that despite mass mobilisations and protests, the most influential and powerful environmental movements have been those at the grassroots level. Recent successes such as stopping the $40 billion gas hub at James Price Point (Western Australia's Kimberley region), preventing a national radioactive waste dump in Muckaty (Northern Territory) and stalling Metagasco's coal seam gas operations in Bentley (New South Wales) show just how important local communities can be when it comes to defending their right to a clean and healthy environment.
Further, marches and protest mobilisations should not be regarded as the only mechanism for challenging the status quo. Indeed, the Government may chose to remain disengaged from social movements and therefore other mechanisms of power and influence need to be explored. One such strategy has been the embrace of solar power by households in Australia. Again, it is communities getting together and becoming leaders in climate action, very much a grassroots movement.
Another strategy for challenging the status quo has been the divestment campaign, which seeks to redirect investment from high-carbon activities to low-carbon activities. What started as student led, grassroots activism on university campuses has snowballed into a global campaign. Currently, there are divestment campaigns being coordinated on the grounds of university campuses around Australia. Supporters of the divestment movement have included; Stanford University ($18 billion), Australia's HESTA Super Fund ($26 billion), and the World Council of Churches (representing nearly 600 million people worldwide). The biggest announcement came following the People's Climate March in New York, when the heirs of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund decided to divest $860 million from the fossil fuel industry.
Last Sunday saw the largest climate march take place in 150 cities around the world. Hundreds of thousands of people descended on New York pressuring world leaders into setting ambitious goals towards a binding international agreement in Paris next year. While the mobilisation in Sydney resulted in low attendance numbers, it should not be seen as a failure. In fact, the environmental movement has been its strongest at the grassroots community level. Further, protests and marches should be seen as part of a larger strategy to challenge the status quo of hyper conservative governments and carbon intensive industries. Solar panels and divesting funds are two tangible solutions that concerned citizens can exercise, putting the power back into the hands of people. With that said, I hope that these marches and protests continue to grow and gain momentum in the future as we move to address climate change.