Arno Kopecky is an environmental journalist and author. His latest book is The Environmentalist’s Dilemma: Promise and Peril in an Age of Climate Crisis.
In 2019, Greta Thunberg headlined a global climate march that brought millions of people into city streets around the world. Thanks to the pandemic, there hasn’t been another one since. That’s finally about to change: The March to End Fossil Fuels has just been announced for Sept. 17.
I’m an independent journalist who has long held activism at arms-length, but the climate crisis has grown so urgent that straight-up reporting now feels like a passive response that verges on complicity. This time, I’m marching with the protesters.
Even for those who saw it coming, recent developments have been shocking to behold. Annual carbon emissions have steadily increased over the past four years, with Canada leading the charge – production in the world’s fourth-largest oil producer has doubled since 2010. The result has finally untethered itself from the abstract hypotheticals of scientific literature and leapt into the daily lives of several billion people.
Virtually all of North America is coping with some combination of record heat, drought, flood, wildfire and smoke. A heat dome stretching across North Africa and Southern Europe to the Persian Gulf has pushed highs past 40 C in Spain and Iran. China just set a new national record with the town of Sanbao experiencing 52.2 C. Extreme flooding has raged through England, Turkey, India and Japan. Some water in the Florida Keys is now the temperature of human blood.
I’ve never been big on slogans. I distrust the righteous certainty that so often accompanies activism. I tend toward doubt, which is fine for journalism but wreaks havoc on conviction – a vital prerequisite for blocking traffic at a protest. But this summer, after 20 years of writing about climate change and seven years of being a father, the magnitude of events finally caught up to me.
I felt myself succumbing to a strange type of manic depression. The urgency and the despair took on the quality of a terrible dream, like I’d been handcuffed and forced to watch as villains suffocated my daughter. This can’t be how it ends, I thought. There has to be something more I can do. I surprised myself by starting to reach out to my contacts to see if I could organize a march myself before I learned that the March to End Fossil Fuels was already in motion.
If you’re also wondering what on Earth you can do about all this, Sept. 17 is for you. “The time is ripe for a big climate march,” says Tzeporah Berman, chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative and a veteran activist who is among the organizers of the climate march. “Everyone is starting to realize that as long as we don’t shift our energy systems, there is nowhere that’s safe.”
As in 2019, the global strike’s epicentre will be New York City, where the UN is hosting both a Climate Ambition Summit and a General Assembly the following week. With organizing just now getting under way, thousands of groups are expected to assemble crowds in cities across the planet.
Caroline Brouillette, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, agreed that this could be a historic march. “We’re having a summer where different climate impacts are coming at us here and now and are often overlapping,” Ms. Brouillette told me from her home in Montreal. Two days before we spoke, she had to take refuge from both a heat wave and a tornado.
Ms. Brouillette cast September’s march as a chance to regain critical mass that COVID-19 sapped from the climate movement. “Organizing is about momentum,” she said. “The pandemic dealt a great blow to the energy and mobilizing that was happening right before everything stopped in 2020.”
That loss was the oil industry’s gain. In May, 2020, Sonya Savage, then Alberta’s energy minister, said: “Now is a great time to be building a pipeline because you can’t have protests.”
Bradley Lafortune, the executive director of Public Interest Alberta, says he hears all the time from Albertan politicians that you can’t run and win on climate action. “It’s really up to us to make our voices heard and show up in numbers to change that narrative in Alberta.”
Thankfully for the climate movement, it will be experienced organizers like these and not me who will organize society’s next great cry of hope and outrage. But the impact of that cry depends entirely on how many voices join in. I hope that others will recognize the true stakes of this moment in history, shake off their detachment, and join us on the streets this fall.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said noted temperatures in Spain and Iran had reached nearly 60 C; however, that was a measure of land surface temperature and the heat index, which factors in humidity. This version has been updated.