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Moment that mattered: The People’s Climate March takes place in New York City

Demonstrators make their way down Sixth Avenue in New York during the People's Climate March Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. The march, along with similar gatherings scheduled in other cities worldwide, comes two days before the United Nations Climate Summit, where more than 120 world leaders will convene for a meeting aimed at galvanizing political will for a new global climate treaty by the end of 2015. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

“The People’s Climate March was an incredible day. I thought if we were lucky 200,000 people would turn up – not the 400,000 who did. I really loved being there, and I don’t generally love marches.

What was really amazing was that it was also a wonderfully diverse march. It wasn’t a march of the NGOs, which environmental protests often are, with matching signs and T-shirts. Instead the bigger NGOs who helped organise it, such as and Avaaz, stepped back and let the community groups lead. They didn’t try to brand it; they just made space.

The thing I found most inspiring was the way in which neighbourhoods in New York were represented, including some of the poorest. The South Bronx had a great contingent, which was talking about everything from gentrification to how in order for Manhattan to have organic food they were getting all the diesel exhaust from deliveries in their neighbourhood. And some of the communities I had visited after Hurricane Sandy like Red Hook and the Rockaways were out in force, which was great to see. For them, in post-Sandy New York City, climate change is not some abstract issue that university kids care about but no one else. Instead it’s ‘This is what destroyed your house. This is what left you in the dark for weeks while no one came to help.’

Then there was a fantastic contingent of nurses – an overwhelmingly immigrant workforce in New York – who were making the connections between health and climate change. There were a lot of labour groups there as well – that was also new. So there was really a sense of people fighting for something.

There were also a lot of people who were bringing renewable energy to their communities – so the solutions were there too. There was a sense of ‘We know what to do’. My favourite T-shirt said: ‘Ask me. I’m the expert. I’m the solution.’ At the end of the march they had this really beautiful installation where people were encouraged to write what things they were afraid to lose on a display of ribbons. Someone had written ‘Peru’.

One of the best things about the march was that there were no speakers. So it really was this diversity of voices. It was led by two Native American women: Crystal Lameman, who’s from the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation, and Melina Laboucan-Massimo, who’s Lubicon Cree – and they’re both from the tar sands region [in Alberta, where controversial extraction methods and pipeline infrastructure threaten to drastically alter vast swathes of terrain in western Canada]. Crystal’s family has a lawsuit against the Canadian government asserting Cree First Nation land rights in an attempt to block oil extraction, and Melina’s just been an incredible tar sands campaigner. They represent a new generation of leaders coming up – who are overwhelmingly young women. They were at the very front of the march.

To me, so much of this is really about understanding how power and counter-power work. And the thing I understand better since I’ve been out there talking and meeting with groups, is why we have to put justice at the centre of the climate change debate. Yes, some of the dirtiest industries are in the poorest areas; yes, some of the biggest pools of carbon are under the poorest people’s land – so yes, we need to address justice or it’s going to get dug up and will add to the problem. But even more than that, and this is what I really understood in New York, when people are fighting for their health, for their water, for the jobs and the infrastructure they desperately need, they fight like hell and they fight to win”

Naomi Klein’s latest book, ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate’ is published by Allen Lane.

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