Until now, many leaders of the climate movement have seen themselves as heroic knights in a fairy tale war against the Forces of Darkness. Armed with moral clarity and scientific data, they believed that if they spoke loudly enough and clearly enough, their message would spread throughout the kingdom. Ignorant villagers, long enthralled by the oil- and coal-fired lords of the underworld, would rise up and slay their fossil-fuel masters, creating a new empire of sun and wind.
Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. Nearly 30 years after NASA scientist James Hansen first sounded the alarm about global warming during his congressional testimony, Big Coal and Big Oil are as influential as ever, and the world is closer to a climate-driven catastrophe than it has ever been. You can fault the fairy-tale tactics of climate warriors, or the unexpected greed and power of the fossil-fuel industry, but the simple fact remains that we have delayed taking serious action to reduce carbon pollution for so long that only a radical effort to de-carbonize the world’s energy system in the next few decades will avert the worst impacts of climate change: quickly rising seas, mega-droughts, economic chaos, floods of climate refugees.
In some ways, the election of President Trump was a blessing for the climate movement. If Hillary were in the Oval Office today, she surely would have extended President Obama’s progress on carbon limits and climate adaptation measures, but it’s not clear she felt strongly enough about any of this to really push things forward (if she did feel strongly, she certainly kept it a secret during the election). With Trump, there is no pretense: Mother Nature is just another pussy to grab. Trump is not just an unrepentant climate denier, but a symbol of the dark ages where science is indistinguishable from superstition, and reality is whatever image is flickering on the TV screen. He makes previous science-challenged presidents like George W. Bush look like your dotty uncle. If Trump can’t galvanize the climate movement, then civilization as we know it is in big trouble.
Another favor Trump has done for climate activists is reveal the depth of the political power of the fossil-fuel industry. Of course, this has been obvious for a long time to anyone who’s been paying attention to all the Big Coal and Big Oil lackeys in Congress, but the industry’s naked display of power and influence in the Trump administration is remarkable. Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil – the company that has done more to confuse, distort and underplay the risks of climate change than anyone – is now secretary of state? Or consider what’s going on at the Environmental Protection Agency under Scott Pruitt. The EPA has had plenty of other administrators who were sympathetic to the fossil-fuel industry, but Pruitt has all but admitted that his goal is to destroy the agency that is charged with protecting clean water and air.
Among other things, Trump and his cronies have proven that climate denialism is, at the highest level, not an ideological battle. It is about greed. It’s about digging that last ton of coal out of the ground, pumping out those last few barrels of oil, building one more condo development on the waterfront or one more gas-guzzling SUV. It’s about putting cash in your pocket with one hand and flipping the bird to the future with the other.
The climate march on Saturday won’t change any of this. No matter how successful it turns out to be, Trump is not going to hold a press conference on Monday and announce his support for limits on carbon pollution. Scott Pruitt is not going to express his support for the Paris climate agreement. In fact, many Trump supporters are likely to see the march as evidence that the president is doing his job. You can hear the dude down at the end of the bar, watching the crowd of noisy climate activists on CNN: If Trump’s pissing this many people off, he must be doing something right!
This fight is not a fairy tale, but a long, tough guerrilla war. But Saturday’s event matters – because marching in the streets, side-by-side, arm-in-arm, is the most powerful form of political protest humans have yet invented. There is something primal about a march, something that no viral email campaign or online petition can match. Even monkeys understand the power of crowds. However peaceful the march may be, however spirited and disciplined the protest, there is also something dangerous about a boisterous crowd in the streets that makes people pay attention. After all, it is not such a long way from singing “We shall overcome” to demanding the king’s head on the guillotine.