BRATTLEBORO—In the wee hours of Sept. 21, more than 400 Vermonters will take their seats on buses and in cars bound for New York City.
Together with what’s expected to be about 1,000 other Vermonters, they intend to send a unified message to world leaders at the United Nations: Climate change is here. The world needs action now.
Organizers behind the People’s Climate March bill the demonstration as a historic mobilization designed to deliver a definitive message that citizens want actions — new legislation — and commitments — not voluntary measures — to slow climate change.
A week of workshops and other actions on climate change (frequently referred to as global warming) preceeds the Sunday march in New York, London, and other cities around the world. The coalition behind The People’s Climate March include organizations such as 350.org.
The march, expected to attract hundreds of thousands of people, coincides with a the arrival of world leaders gathering for the United Nations Climate Summit, which opens in New York on Sept. 23.
In conversations about climate change in Vermont, people point to Tropical Storm Irene, an earlier start to sugaring season, and shifts in animal habitat as examples of a warming environment.
Three buses, sponsored by 350vt.org, Post Oil Solutions, and Ben & Jerry’s, will leave from Brattleboro. At last count 15 buses will make the trip.
According to the documentary “Disruption,” produced and directed by Kelly Nyks and Jared P. Scott and released by 350.org last week as part of the leadup to the Sept. 21 march, scientists knew about the connection between greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, and climate change as early as the mid-1800s.
Despite warnings, however, leaders repeatedly passed over opportunities to stop or slow climate change, the filmmakers and interviewees said.
Considered one of the bigger climate offenders, the United States, under President George W. Bush, withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001.
The Kyoto Protocol, drafted in 1997 by the United Nationals Framework Convention on Climate Change, set binding international reduction levels for greenhouse gas emissions.
The problem, said “Disruption” interviewees such as activist Bill McKibben, civil rights advocate and attorney Van Jones, and Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes, is that the Earth’s rate of warming may have reached a tipping point and may be climbing faster than humans can cut emissions.
This warming is expected to set off environmental chain reactions.
State Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, said she plans to march. She ran for the House in part over her concerns about climate change. She serves on the House Committee on Transportation.
“Now,” she said about climate change, “the future is here.”
According to Burke, 44 percent of greenhouse gases produced in Vermont come from transportation sources such as cars.
When Hurricane Katrina pounded Louisiana in 2005, Burke said she watched in horror.
“Oh, my gosh,” she remembers thinking about the storm. “This is really here.”
Torrential rains from Tropical Storm Irene caused flash flooding in Vermont in 2011 and brought climate change to Burke’s backyard.
When asked why she’s making the trek to New York, Burke answered, “because here’s an opportunity to be a body as a visual reminder to world leaders.”
Protest represents an avenue for citizens in a democratic society to enact change, Burke said, because national leaders can’t ignore people crowding into the streets telling them to take action.
Sept. 21 also marks a day for bearing witness to the message’s urgency, she added, saying that “very-well-funded opposition groups,” are working against the country’s transition away from fossil fuels.
Vermont has taken action to slow climate change through the state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan and other actions to cut emissions, said Burke.
The snag, however, is that the state ties into a larger system, and not all parts of the system take responsibility for cutting carbon dioxide, Burke said.
“How do you turn the engine off, literally?” Burke said of taking actions necessary to slow climate change.
According to Keith Brunner, communications coordinator with the Vermont Workers’ Center and a volunteer with the grassroots anti-climate change organization Rising Tide Vermont, climate change is a justice issue.
Brunner said that one of the solutions to climate change is building a new economy from the ground up: an economic system centered on human rights and environmental responsibility.
Environmental disruptions don’t hit communities evenly, said Brunner: Low-income communities, communities of color, and developing nations experience destruction resulting from environmental disasters more often.
Internationally, he added, the communities least responsible for contributing to climate change are usually the first and worst hit by fluctuations in the environment: low-lying nations, islands, small farmers, and communities that depend on glaciers for drinking water.
In Vermont, Tropical Storm Irene flooded a large number of mobile home parks, Brunner added. These parks are often built on less-desirable land such as flood plains. Many of the people who can afford these homes live on low incomes.
Brunner lends a note of caution to the exuberance of the upcoming march.
The Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, a collaboration of organizations including the Workers’ Center, has expressed concern about what it sees as the corporate takeover of the Sept. 23 U.N. Climate Summit.
In a statement that GGJA said represents 200 million people worldwide, the alliance wrote that the Summit “has been surrounded by a lot of fanfare but proposes voluntary pledges for emission cuts, market-based and destructive public-private partnership initiatives such as REDD, Climate-Smart Agriculture, and the Sustainable Energy For All Initiative.“
“Climate change is the result of an unjust economic system and, to deal with the crisis, we must address the root causes and change the system,” said the statement. “There will be no going back from the climate chaos if we do not fight for real solutions and do nothing to confront and challenge the inaction of our governments’ policy-making being hijacked by polluting corporations.”
According to Brunner, change is coming from the grassroots.
That said, he added that he doubts President Obama will follow such grassroots work and pledge the United States to anything more than voluntary emissions cuts.
Robb Kidd, organizing representative for the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club, said “It’s a bad sign when New Englanders complain about the weather.”
According to Kidd, in the United States, the government has yet to create substantial policies that dramatically address climate change, such as a carbon tax on companies producing high carbon emissions.
He said that industrial agriculture, one of the largest contributors of carbon into the atmosphere, is an industry most people overlook when discussing climate change.
Industrial agriculture uses a lot of petrochemicals and large equipment that uses fossil fuels, and it ships products over long distances, he explained.
Tim Stevenson of nonprofit Post Oil Solutions said that without drastic international action, humans may find themselves on an uninhabitable planet.
POS worked to organize and build the Vermont leg of the climate march.
Stevenson said he believes the People’s Climate March represents “the very last opportunity” for decisive, immediate action:
We’re no longer in a position of arresting climate change in the future. The work of the moment is to hold back “cataclysmic situations. … It is that drastic,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson noted that while the march will focus on reaching world leaders, local communities must ask it they can respond to a changing environment.
Natural disasters carry big price tags, he said. He asked, What local selectboard has built in a climate change line item into its municipal budget? What communities have asked their selectboards to consider climate change during budget time?
Three years ago, Stevenson approached the Brattleboro Selectboard about establishing a task force to explore Brattleboro’s climate readiness. The board declined.
“I hate having this kind of conversation with anyone,” Stevenson said.
No one wants to hear doom and gloom, he added. But of climate change, “it is us, it is now, and we have to act.”