The People's Climate March ambled genially down 6th Avenue in New York City on a Sunday afternoon in September. The slogan was "To Change Everything, We Need Everyone." Not everyone showed up, but the march did attract between 300,000 and 400,000 participants, making it by far the largest climate change mobilization in history. Prominent marchers included former Vice President Al Gore, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), along with such leading environmentalists as Bill McKibben, Vandana Shiva, and Leonardo DiCaprio. The marchers were hoping to pressure the United Nations Climate Summit into promising to adopt stringent measures to prevent catastrophic man-made global warming.
They sorted themselves into various affinity groups: faith-based organizations, scientists, students, labor unions, old folks, organic food enthusiasts, renewable energy proponents, indigenous peoples, and so forth. Wandering through the throngs prior to kickoff, it was apparent that every progressive cause can and does find a home in the climate change movement. The demonstrators' chief demand was "climate justice," which broadly entails redistributing wealth from the countries and industries that have benefited from the consumption of fossil fuels.
"System change, not climate change," was the ubiquitous slogan, and the system that they think needs changing is markets and private property. I overhead one marcher explaining to another, "We must have a better capitalism, better than the malignant corporate system we have now."
Among the chief capitalist villains: Monsanto. The assembled marchers fervently damned the crop biotechnology company despite the fact that modern high yield biotech crops cut CO2 emissions by 13 million tons in 2012-the equivalent of taking 11.8 million cars off the road for one year. By making it possible to grow more calories on less land, biotech crops helped conserve 123 million hectares from 1996 to 2012. Many of the protesters oddly believe that eating locally grown organic crops-which require more labor and land to produce less food- will somehow help stop global warming. Vegans are right that eating less meat would mean that more land could be returned to forests that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. On the other hand, researchers estimate that lab-grown meat could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 96 percent relative to farmed meat.
From the sidelines, I spied a man holding a sign that said, "Overpopulation Is Not A Myth." This provoked some marchers to come over to suggest to him that he was blaming the poor for their poverty. He responded that they were not the problem; rich Americans are the problem. Another guy, who was clearly not a marcher, approached to contend that the 19th-century doomsayer Robert Malthus had been proven wrong. The stalwart furiously responded that Malthus would be proved right and that the end was nigh, thanks to out-of-control population growth.
In fact, shortly before the march, the respectable journal Science published an article warning that world population will reach 11 billion by the end of this century. But the Science study misses the mark, mostly because nearly all of the projected increase-4 billion people-is in sub-Saharan Africa. Demographers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis counter that the researchers behind the Science projections failed to take into account the pace and extent of improved schooling in Africa, which will dramatically lower future population increases.
Fracking aggravated a lot of the demonstrators. Artful placards alluded to another f-word as a way of indicating displeasure. Many asserted that fracking taints drinking water. Yet just the week before the parade, new studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by research teams led by the Ohio State University's Thomas Darrah and the U.S. Department of Energy found that the controversial technique to produce natural gas does not contaminate groundwater. And never mind that burning natural gas produces about half of the carbon dioxide that burning coal does.
Another low-carbon energy source was also a cause of stress for the demonstrators: nuclear power. Some demanded that the Indian Point nuclear power plant on the Hudson River be closed down. This particular petition is just perverse, since nuclear power is a big part of why New Yorkers emit a relatively low average of 8 tons of carbon dioxide per person each year, compared with the U.S. average of 16.4 tons per capita.
No less an environmentalist than James Hansen, the climatologist who testified before Congress back in 1988 that climate change had already begun, declared in a 2013 open letter cosigned by his colleagues Kenneth Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research that "while it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power." As it happens, in October, researchers at Lockheed Martin declared that they had devised a cheap fusion reactor that could be deployed in a decade.
While I found much that provoked dismay at the march, there is one placard with which I wholeheartedly agreed: "Enough, For All, Forever." Sadly, many of the marchers oppose the only system that has ever enabled hundreds of millions of people to rise above humanity's natural state of abject poverty.
Did the world leaders who gathered later in the week for the U.N. Climate Summit fulfill the hopes of the earnest marchers? Not so much.
The formal statements at the summit made it clear that there is still a wide gulf between the developed countries and the poorer nations when it comes to who bears responsibility to act and who should pay for that action. When President Barack Obama noted that America is on track to reduce the country's greenhouse emissions by 17 percent below their 2005 levels by 2020, he added: "We can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every nation-developed and developing alike. Nobody gets a pass." He further observed that emerging economies-China, India, Brazil-are both growing rapidly and emitting ever-higher levels of greenhouse gases.
In total, humanity emitted about 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2013. Roughly speaking, China emitted 10 billion tons, the U.S. emitted 5 billion tons, the E.U. emitted 3.6 billion tons, and India emitted 2.5 billion tons. China now emits more carbon dioxide per capita (7.2 tons) than does the European Union (6.8 tons). The U.S. emits 16.4 tons per capita; for India, the figure is just 1.9 tons per capita.
In his statement, Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli made it clear that his country expects to get a pass when it comes to reducing the amount of its greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, Zhang reiterated China's pledge to cut its carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 from its 2005 level, noting that it had already achieved a 28 percent reduction. Assuming that China's economy grows at 7 percent per year, some researchers calculate that meeting that carbon intensity goal would actually allow China's carbon dioxide emissions to increase from about 10 billion tons today to as much as 14.7 billion tons by 2020. That increase would nearly equal current U.S. carbon dioxide emissions and is almost two and a half times greater than the two billion tons it argues the U.S. is obligated to cut between now and 2020.
In his summary remarks on the Summit, Secretary-General Moon claimed that the leaders who met there "committed to finalize a meaningful, universal new agreement" next year. As it stands now, that amounts to little more than a pious hope.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Enough, For All, Forever".