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How Does the People's Climate March Stack Up Against the Largest Protest Rallies in U.S. History?

Revised, September 23, 2014*

Over 2,800 rallies were held in 166 countries Sunday in a worldwide call for action to confront climate change, just days ahead of a U.N. summit expected to chart a path forward for global climate treaty negotiations in Paris in December 2015.

With an estimated 125,000311,000* people gathering in New York City for a two-mile march through midtown and satellite events drawing 40,000 in London, 30,000 in Melbourne, 4,000 in Berlin, and thousands more elsewhere, the “People’s Climate March” easily lived up to its billing as “the largest climate change protest in global history.”

So largest climate protest in history? Sure. But how does the People’s Climate March stack up against some of America’s other most famous mass protests?

From the Vietnam and Iraq War protests to America’s largest civil rights rallies, the People’s Climate March actually stacks up quite well it turns out. Here’s the numbers…

People's Climate March
Youth march in People’s Climate March in New York City, September 21, 2014. Image credit: Shadia Fayne Wood

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963: Also known as the “Great March on Washington,” this famous political rally drew 200,000-300,000 to the Mall in the nation’s capitol in an event organized by a group of civil rights, labor, and religious organization. Attendees heard Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his historic “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The march is credited with helping galvanize the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and motivating the Selma to Montgomery marches which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

  • People’s Climate March vs March on Washington: the People’s Climate March was comparable in size to the Great March on Washington.

Vietnam War Protests, 1965-1975: Dozens of mass rallies were held to protest the ongoing Vietnam War. The largest included a pair of demonstrations for the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam which brought 200,000 to Washington DC on October 15, 1969 and 600,000 on November 15, 1969, and the 300,000 person-strong April 15, 1967 “Spring Mobilization” against the war in New York City. 

  • People’s Climate March vs Vietnam War Protests: the People’s Climate March was comparable in size to the largest anti-Vietnam War protests.

Nuclear Disarmament March, June 12, 1983: An estimated 1 million people demonstrated in Central Park in New York City demanding the disarmament of nuclear weapons and the end of the Cold War, making this protest the largest political demonstration in American history. 

  • People’s Climate March vs Nuclear Disarmament March: The Nuclear Disarmament March wins this matchup, and still reigns supreme as the largest demonstration in U.S. history.

Million Man March1995: Official estimates range from 400,000 (National Park Service estimate) to 837,000 (ABC/Boston University estimate) attendees at this historic gathering on the National Mall organized by the National African American Leadership Summit, National Assocation for the Advancement of People of Color (NAACP) and Nation of Islam to highlight urban and minority issues and the social and economic ills plaguing African Americans. 

  • People’s Climate March vs Million Man March: The People’s Climate March was likely about one-quarter to one-third the size of the Million Man March, with a wide range of estimated turnout reported for both events.

Million Woman March, 1997: This mass protest march along Benjamin Franklin Park Way in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania brought an estimated 300,000 to 1 million people to raise awareness about issues challenging African American women and families in the United States. 

  • People’s Climate March vs Million Woman March: The People’s Climate March was likely smaller than the Million Woman March, although potenitally comparable to the lower range of estimates for turnout at the Philadelphia rally.

Millennium March on Washington, April 30, 2000: A march from the Washington Monument to the front lawn of the Capitol brought an estimated 200,000 to 1 million people together to raise awareness and visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and call for equal rights for these LGBT Americans. 

  • People’s Climate March vs Millennium March: the People’s Climate March was roughly comparable in size to the Millennium March, although higher-end estimates for Millennium March attendance outstrip those for the Climate March.

Iraq War Protests, February 15, 2003: Officially listed as the largest-ever anti-war rally by the Guinness Book of World Records, a coordinated series of protests in 600 cities worldwide saw between 6 and 10 million people take part in protests against the invasion of Iraq by U.S., British, and allied forces. Protests in Rome involved around three million people, while roughly 1.5 million gathered in Madrid, 750,000 in London, and 300,000-400,000 in New York City. 

  • People’s Climate March vs Iraq War Protests: while the globally coordinated Iraq War Protests dwarfed the overall turnout at People’s Climate March rallies, the New York gathering of the People’s Climate March was roughly equal in size to the largest U.S. anti-Iraq war protest rally, also held in New York City.

National Equality March, October 11, 2009: This national political rally for equal rights or gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people was the largest since the 2000 Millenium March, bringing as many as 200,000 people to Washington DC.

  • People’s Climate March vs National Equality March: The People’s Climate March was likely larger than this historic equal rights rally.

March for America, March 21, 2010: More than 200,000 joined this march to the Capitol in Washington, DC to call for comprehensive immigration reform.

  • People’s Climate March vs March for America: the People’s Climate March likely wins this matchup against the March for America as well, with as many as half again as many participants.

Restoring Honor Rally, August 28, 2010: Attendance at this rally organized by conservative pundit Glenn Beck to “restore honor to America” is highly disputed. Estimates of the gathering on the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial range from a scientific estimate placed the crowd size around 87,000, while media reports varied dramatically from tens of thousands to 500,000. 

  • People’s Climate March vs Restoring Honor Rally: the People’s Climate March almost certainly saw more participation than the Restoring Honor Rally.

Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, October 30, 2010: About 215,000 attended this satirical rally hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to protest the polarization of American politics.

  • People’s Climate March vs. Rally to Restore Sanity: the People’s Climate March was as much as half again as large as the Rally to Restore Sanity (thank goodness!), despite the lack of celebrity entertainment!

Occupy Wall Street Protests, 2011-2012: The largest gatherings of the Occupy movement included a 50,000-100,000 person march through Wall Street on May 1, 2012 and more than 15,000 marchers in Lower Manhattan October 5, 2011.  

  • People’s Climate March vs. Occupy Wall Street: the People’s Climate March was probably an order of magnitude larger than the most sizable Occupy protests.


In short, I think it’s safe to say that the People’s Climate Rally will go down in history as one of America’s largest mass protests.

*A note on estimating march attendance: Estimating turnout at large events is notoriously difficult. You’ll notice the wide range of estimates for some of the historical events above. As additional evidence emerged, this article was revised 9/23/14 to include a new lower-range estimate of People’s Climate March turnout from crowd-spotter Jimmy Higgins at Fire On The MountainHiggins and labor journalist Peter Hoggins sampled the rate at which the march passed their spotting location and arrived at an estimate of 125,000 people. They argue that the higher-range estimates are physically impossible. More here. Nevertheless, the New York Times reports that 311,000 participated in the march, citing estimates from the organizers based on data provided by 35 crowd spotters and analyzed by a mathematician from Carnegie Mellon University. The organizers later updated this figure to 400,000, a figure subsequently reported by TIME Magazine, but I have not seen any explanation for how this figure was derived, and in light of the Fire on the Mountain estimate, I have removed this figure, which originally appeared in this article. Comparisons to historical events have been revised based on the new range of estimated turnout for the People’s Climate March.


Conversation starters: 

  • What impact do you think the People’s Climate March will have on American or global climate politics and policy? 
  • Did you attend the People’s Climate March? If so, what brought you to the rally and what were your impressions?
  • Where to next for the movement to confront climate change?
  • Are mass protests sufficient to galvinize political action on climate change? If not, what is your theory of change?

Content Discussion

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on September 22, 2014
  • What impact do you think the People’s Climate March will have on American or global climate politics and policy?

None.

  •  Where to next for the movement to confront climate change?

The climate movement will continue with these sort of irrelevant activities and will not achieve much outside of the current model where big business and big government is pushing alternative energy, insulation and increased efficiency. for example did the Shard exercise do anything in the UK, no.

  • Are mass protests sufficient to galvinize political action on climate change? If not, what is your theory of change?

No as the main problem is that they politicize the issue and blame the big corporate players. Furthermore they oversimplify the issue and remove the need for personal change from the equation. If only big bad companies did not exist they say.

The problem is that most people still want to drive and take cross continental holidays and do not want to see that significantly reduced unless they have no choice. Thus we get the ludicrous image of me for example being the only person turning up to a local environmental meetings by bicycle/public transport.

I keep rabbiting on about this but this was neatly illustrated for the UK in the UKERC study (Transforming the UK Energy System: Public Values, Attitudes and Acceptability). This evaluated (‘0000) people’s perceptions of energy with respect to climate change and put a false positive spin on the results.

What is mentioned in the report is that people place the burden of change on governments and not on personal actions. Because the feel that they themselves cannot do much (Page14), thus they do not have to (P19). This is also highlighted in the waste section (P19) where these initiatives are focused more on supply from the government rather than demand.

Yet when asked about driving less (transport is 41% of our energy use) and using less air flights, deep resistance was met (P15). Personal responsibility in giving up leisure flights was resisted but business flights were the ones to be reduced. So even though the report says that 81% of respondents want to reduce their energy use, it is clear that very few actually will. This sentiment is repeated throughout the report.

Further with regard to electrification of cars and heating, generally only half the respondents would use these services and this only increases if the ability of these services to be cheaper than gas (heating P14), and increase performance against petrol (P15). In other words as is commented many times in excerpts from the people, compromise seems to be very short on the ground. Etc.

The problem with many of these reports and rallies is they highlight perception rather than action. In short people are against addressing climate change as when asked if they would do things to help, the pushed responsibility elsewhere. 

We need to start honestly describing the problem that we are up against and the personal sacrifices that are required. However I hold little hope. In the book The Gods Themselves by Asimov, we see that even though there is a possibility that the new found energy source could end up destroying the world, the people who have to power to allow investigations that could result in the power source being turned off, reject critism out of hand. Because they are not measuring the issue and not allowing the problem to be defined correctly, they miss a potentially devestating flaw. Because of the way the environmental issue has been phrased (it is all big business fault but big business will solve it), we are on the same trajectory.

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on September 22, 2014

Well stated comment by Donough.

What is notable about the various demonstrations Jesse lists is how little impact they had.

Not mentioned by Jesse is that big turnouts tend to be correlated with favorable weather. Rarely are such events organized during winter months.

A notable exception is the annual March for Life, an anti-abortion rally which takes place in Washington in January on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade SCOTUS decision. Wikipedia reports: “The march has previously drawn around 250,000 people annually since 2003,[2] though estimates put both the 2011 and 2012 attendances at 400,000 each.[3] The 2013 March for Life drew an estimated 650,000 people.[4]

 

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on September 23, 2014

Furthermore they oversimplify the issue and remove the need for personal change from the equation.”

There is no need for personal change. Energy use and population growth has clearly peaked in developed countries. What needs to be done is nurture the development of all countries to that final state, so that the energy usage and population growth of each country peaks in turn. This will allow a workable Steady State Economy and a permanent end to global population growth and energy consumption growth. This will make environmental problems manageable and solvable. Nothing else can.

The energy needed to maintain a global steady state must be polution-free and cheaper than coal. It must be in the form of both electricity and liquid fuels. All this can exclusively be realised by using nuclear power technology, because nuclear fuel is denser, cheaper and more abundant than fossil fuel.

Hence, the conclusion is that the Climate Marchers need to carry banners which say things like:

“Stop the fearmongering about nuclear power now!”

“Nuclear energy is cheaper, cleaner and safer than everything else!”

“Nuclear energy puts an end to energy imports dependence and resource wars!”

“Nuclear energy puts an end to air and water pollution!”

“Nuclear energy is the only solution to greenhouse gas emissions and energy poverty!”

“Nuclear energy for sustainable development!”

Etc.

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on September 24, 2014

I disagree on the personal need part. If the second and third world countries want to drive like the first world for example, this will mean an agressive expansion of our petroleum use to fill that need. Electricity use is another such example.

I could give many more examples like this but lets just take the UK. A study in 2006* suggested that direct action from individuals account for above 40% of all carbon emissions. We could run these numbers again and get very similar results for the modern day. Further much of the ‘everything else’ is the emissions associated with the things being used by people i.e. infastructure, the emissions inherent in the car, food. Saying that non of this has to change is not correct even when using the lower number.

*http://labspace.open.ac.uk/mod/resource/view.php?id=444948

Roger Brown's picture
Roger Brown on September 24, 2014

Energy use and population growth has clearly peaked in developed countries.” 

Population growth yes, but I doubt very much that energy use per capita will peak while the OECD countries remain committed to growth based financial capitalism as the primary organizational principle of society. The great recession has put a crimp in our energy consumption patterns, but we have a huge debt we need to grow out to prevent the collapse of financial markets. The potential of robotics for increasing the labor efficiency of manufacturing has by no means been exhausted. With plentiful supplies of reasonably priced energy and other resources there is every reason to believe that per capita energy use will rise for a long time into the future in a culture which regularly employs metaphors of disease and death to describe ecconomic growth rates that are below a couple of percent per year.

By the way let me point out that I am not suggesting the under developed parts of the world should be frozen into their current patterns of consumption. I mention this fact in passing because an accusation of such a desire generally follows any attempt to question the long term stability of financial capitalism

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on September 24, 2014

I happen to agree with you. But all the problems you note are all far easier to deal with if energy is cheap. For example if you want to improve energy efficiency, just put more tax on energy use. Don’t overdo it of course, because efficiency is *not* an inexhaustible resource. Its a technical matter. Energy tax policy should be decided by experts who have a good idea of the limits which can be economically achieved. The mantra that “efficiency is the cheapest way to reduce emissions” is mostly just propaganda intended to distract away from the nuclear option. This is wasting time and stimulating fossil fuel hegemony.

Cheap energy does not automatically mean more energy will be wasted, while expensive energy strains all human activities, including things like recycling and the building of energy efficient goods, which tend to have more upfront energy costs.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on September 24, 2014

We can stimulate people to use energy more efficiently by raising energy taxes. And we do. But if we allow energy to become a luxury good by not making sure it’s cost stays low, then we are simply increasing inequality and putting a strain on human affairs, including bona fide affairs.

Expensive energy isn’t good for anybody except people who like to see other people struggle.

Roger Brown's picture
Roger Brown on September 25, 2014

Cheap energy would make solving our ecological problems easier if the social will to use that energy intelligently existed. Unfortunately, while a substantial amount of good will with respect to living within ecological limits exists, it is incompatible with the even stronger will to keep the flow of dollars/euros/yen etc. increasing forever. Developing and maintaining reasonable standards of consumption requires a major reformation in our system of creating and maintaining industrial infrastructure and in our methods of acquiring personal long term economic security. Without such a reformation, no energy source, no matter how cheap, is going to solve our ecological problems.

 

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on September 25, 2014

Fair enough, but the point is that fossil energy use clearly presents the largest challenge in ecological protection, primarily via the mechanism of greenhouse gas emissions and hence extraordinarily rapid climate change.

By implementing energy cheaper than fossils – which can only credibly be done using nuclear energy technology – not only is this great challenge of fossil fuel addiction solved permanently and globally, but energy cost are kept so low that peoples can advance as quickly as possible to a standard of living which is naturally conducive to the achievement of concern for the environment.

Economic growth is not indefinite, because people will not strive for very much more than they can consume. Developed countries gradual economic stagnation proves this to be true. Economic growth begets environmentalism. It’s a matter of pushing through the period of destructive growth quickly in order to arrive at the end phase of stagnation and stewardship. Cheap clean energy speeds up this proces and mitigates much of the damage of the destructive phase, imo.

Roger Brown's picture
Roger Brown on September 25, 2014

I think you are a lot better off apealing to the rise of environmental sentiment than you are appealing to natural consumption limits. I think that Adam Smith’s comments on this issue are still largely applicable:

 

 

The rich man consumes no more food than his poor neighbour. In quality it may be very different, and to select and prepare it may require more labour and art; but in quantity it is very nearly the same. But compare the spacious palace and great wardrobe of the one, with the hovel and the few rags of the other, and you will be sensible that the difference between their cloathing, lodging, and houshold furniture, is almost as great in quantity as it is in quality. The desire of food is limited in every man by the narrow capacity of the human stomach; but the desire of the conveniencies and ornaments of building, dress, equipage, and houshold furniture, seems to have no limit or certain boundary.

 

The only things that will prevent everyone from owning mansions, vacation homes, stables of sport cars, etc. will be deliberate restraint or cold hard limits of resources and productivity. I doubt that sentiment alone will bring about the necessary restraint. In the revolutionary era in France, anti-monarchical sentiment, and slogans about liberty, equality and fraternity, were not sufficient to bring about stable democratic government. A long hard process of institution building was required. I think that the same necessity lies before us with regard to creating an ecological sound system of governance.

 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on September 25, 2014

“...this can exclusively be realised by using nuclear power technology, because nuclear fuel is denser, cheaper and more abundant than fossil fuel.”

As noted in this paper, for a given annual energy output, nuclear plants use half the concrete and steel compared to coal-fired plants, whereas wind uses  roughly 5 times more concrete and steel than coal (wind also has a 3x shorter plant lifetime).

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on September 26, 2014

These are good points, in my opinion.

But I believe an ‘ecological sound system of governance’ does not exist. Rather, there can be sound systems of governance which have ecological awareness and protection as a byproduct. What I mean is that if we have a reasonable affluent society, with solid institutions for science, education, culture, healthcare and political discussion and negotiation, then adequate environmental awareness and protection will result from this combination of bona fide institutions. People who are used to enjoying the benefits of such institutions, and who are free from disease, hunger or fear of socio-economic exclusion will be naturally drawn to activities which have a low environmental impact, in my opinion. Hence my claim that economic growth itself is a prerequisite and ultimate cause of environmental protection.

Besides this, I stick with my point that we can use the energy tax lever to limit the propensity of people to use energy for pursuits that have poor environmental cost/social benefit performance. I live in Europe where the energy (for consumers) is typically taxed quite significantly for this very reason, so we know people can be controlled in this way to cause them to curb their desire for ‘more’ without ruining their quality of life. Moreover, allowing energy to become a luxury good by failing to install cheap energy generation will affect quality of life rather quickly and therefore fail to achieve anything except chagrin and inequality.

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on September 29, 2014

Yes we do and we can do it very successfully. The European model as compared to the USA shows how it can be done without impoverishing the population.

However I do see what you are saying and in Europe, it is likely that more taxes will be resisted. No party would get re elected in the UK if they increased fuel taxes even further as a party line. There is a fine balance there.

However this still does not take away from my point. The people on the march want to help the environment and the easiest, quickest and most cost effective way of doing this is by reducing the energy they use. Some of it would not even cost money i.e. walking more, smaller T.V., not wearing shorts in the winter etc. SO these people should be comfortable to take this action. Yet I doubt that many of these people even know what a carbon footprint is and how it is calculated.