NEW YORK—Two days before a United Nations summit on climate change, thousands of people marched in cities around the world Sunday to urge their leaders to act boldly to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving the changes.
The "People's Climate March" took over much of Manhattan for several hours Sunday as more than 120 heads of state began gathering in New York City for the Tuesday summit, convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Ban, who joined in the New York demonstration, is urging heads of state to take concrete steps to switch to cleaner sources of energy, prevent deforestation, and help vulnerable countries protect themselves from the damaging effects of climate change: persistent droughts, violent storms, forest fires, and sea-level rise. (Read "When the Snows Fail" in National Geographic magazine.)
"We think that the world's leaders have done a bad job of dealing with climate change, so we figured we ought to come too," said Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, the group that organized the rallies. "Left to their own devices, we know they would do what they always do and what they always do is is not very much."
Some 2,000 demonstrations were staged in 150 countries on Sunday, including in major cities such as London, Rio de Janeiro, Lagos, and Bogotá.
At the outset of the march in New York City, organizers said the crowd stretched along Central Park West from 60th Street all the way to 93rd Street. People gathered in groups, including those designated for young people, physicians, Native Americans, scientists, domestic workers, immigrants and religious groups.
“It’s stupendous. I’m 60 and I haven’t seen anything like this since the March on Washington,” said Iya’Falola Omobola, a community activist from Jackson, Mississippi. She attended the historic civil rights march as a child in 1963.
Most of Manhattan was snarled in traffic as marchers made their way through the city carrying cardboard polar bears, tiny wind turbines, and posters with slogans such as “Change the System not the Climate” and “Keep the Oil in the Ground.”
Myra Howard, 45, of Brooklyn, New York, was marching with her husband and two children.
"I want to leave a planet for them where they can be prosperous," Howard said.
In recent days, her 8-year-old son Kaylem had taken flyers about the march to his school. "I want other people to know about climate change," he said.
"It's important that our children know that they can make a difference," said Myra Howard. "They don't have to wait to be adults."
Her daughter, Milan, 12, described climate change this way: "All the carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases make the Earth into a giant oven, or greenhouse. If it heats up too much, it will melt our ice caps, which will cause our planet to overflow."
New Yorkers were joined by people from many other states and countries.
Hundreds of buses brought people from all across the United States, and students from 320 colleges and universities planned to join the throngs trekking through Manhattan from Columbus Circle to West 34th Street, according to organizers.
Mari Rose Taruc made the trip from Oakland, California, to highlight how burning fossil fuels and rising temperatures contribute to air pollution that can trigger asthma attacks in her children and others.
“We’ve had enough trips to emergency rooms so my kids sent me here to New York,” said Taruc, who lives near a petroleum refinery. “I’m here at the People’s Climate March because we’re tired of waiting for the United Nations.”
Efleda Bautista, a retired teacher and climate activist from the Philippines, traveled to the march to remind the world about the devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan (known as Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines), which killed more than 6,000 people in November 2013. (Read: "Super Typhoon Haiyan: Why Monster Storm Is So Unusual.")
One of the strongest tropical cyclones on record, the typhoon devastated Bautista's home city of Tacloban.
"We're the ones suffering from the mistakes of the First World countries," said Bautista.
Although it is difficult to blame climate change for particular storms, scientists link the growing intensity of such storms to climate change.
At 1 p.m., a hush fell over the march as demonstrators observed a moment of silence for victims of climate change. Then the crowd let out a sustained roar of loud cheers, clapping, and music to send an “alarm” to world leaders and corporations to cut fossil fuel use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"The scale, pace, and power of the organizing happening right now is something that we haven't seen before," said May Boeve, executive director of the international climate group 350.org, which organized the march. "People realize that we can't leave the fate of the planet up to our politicians," she said. "We need to come together, raise our voices, and apply pressure where it counts.” (See "Ahead of UN Climate Summit, Environmental Report Sees Economic Opportunities.")
Despite all the enthusiasm displayed in New York and elsewhere on a muggy September Sunday, public opinion polls consistently show that climate change is not a high priority for most Americans.
The march and UN summit come as the nations of the world are negotiating a new strategy to manage climate change. Their new agreement is expected to be completed in December 2015, when countries that are signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meet in Paris.
The negotiators are far apart. (See "Ahead of UN Climate Summit, Global Treaty on Warming Looks Unlikely.")
European, African, and small island nations want the countries of the world to agree to a treaty to make deep, mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to match what scientists say is necessary to avoid dangerous disruptions to the climate such as melting ice sheets, rising sea levels, and desertification.
The United States, the second-leading source of greenhouse gas emissions behind China, is a major obstacle to a treaty. The U.S. did not participate in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the last international climate treaty. And if the world embraced a new binding treaty, most Republicans and some Democrats in the Senate would surely oppose it. In the United States, treaties must be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate.
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and who joined the march in New York. Sanders, said Republicans limit what President Barack Obama can do.
"You have a major political party that is rejecting science and is impeding us on every step of the way," Sanders said. “The only way we make change is by doing exactly what we are doing today—taking to the streets.”
There's a growing likelihood that the agreement that comes out of Paris at the end of 2015 will be a collection of voluntary commitments to control emissions from individual countries and groups of countries.
"I think most people realize this will not add up to enough effort," said Connie Hedegaard, the European Union's climate action commissioner. "In my view we simply have to listen to science."
Proponents of a tough, mandatory treaty hope Sunday's global demonstrations will encourage the presidents and prime ministers gathering in New York to make the major transformations necessary to shift away from coal, petroleum, and other fossil fuels.
"It's good in showing that people care," said Ronny Jumeau, Seychelles' ambassador for climate change and a spokesman for a group of 43 small island nations. "It's good in showing that the leadership is out of sync with its own population."
"It's important that this groundswell of attention grows," he said. "That will push politicians. It will show it's not just an island message. It's the message of young Americans."