“We have people all across the world in the streets, showing up, demanding a cessation of what is killing us,” Ocasio-Cortez told a cheering crowd. “We have to send a message that some of us are going to be living on, on this planet 30, 40, 50 years from now. And we will not take no for an answer.”
This protest was far more focused on fossil fuels and the industry than previous marches. Sunday’s rally attracted a large chunk, 15 per cent, of first-time protesters and was overwhelmingly female, said American University sociologist Dana Fisher, who studies environmental movements and was surveying march participants.
Of the people Fisher talked to, 86 per cent had experienced extreme heat recently, 21 per cent floods and 18 per cent severe drought, she said. They mostly reported feeling sad and angry. Earth has just gone through the hottest summer on record.
Among the marchers was eight-year-old Athena Wilson from Boca Raton, Florida. She and her mother Maleah, flew from Florida for the protest.
“Because we care about our planet,” Athena said. “I really want the Earth to feel better.”
People in the US south, especially where the oil industry is, and the global south, “have not felt heard,” said 23-year-old Alexandria Gordon, originally from Houston. “It is frustrating.”
Protest organisers emphasised how let down they felt that Biden, whom many of them supported in 2020, has overseen increased drilling for oil and fossil fuels.
“President Biden, our lives depend on your actions today,” said Louisiana environmental activist Sharon Lavigne. “If you don’t stop fossil fuels our blood is on your hands.”
Nearly a third of the world’s planned drilling for oil and gas between now and 2050 is by US interests, environmental activists have calculated. Over the past 100 years, the US has put more heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than any other country, though China now emits more carbon pollution on an annual basis.
“You need to phase out fossil fuels to survive our planet,” said Jean Su, a march organiser and energy justice director for the Centre for Biological Diversity.
Marchers and speakers spoke of increasing urgency and fear of the future. The actress known as V, formerly Eve Ensler, premiered the anthem Panic from her new climate change-oriented musical scheduled for next year. The chorus goes: “We want you to panic. We want you to act. You stole our future and we want it back”.
Signs included “Even Santa Knows Coal is Bad” and “Fossil fuels are killing us” and “I want a fossil free future” and “Keep it in the ground”.
That’s because leaders prefer not to acknowledge “the elephant in the room”, said Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate. “The elephant is that fossil fuels are responsible for the crisis. We can’t eat coal. We can’t drink oil, and we can’t have any new fossil fuel investments.”
But oil and gas industry officials said their products were vital to the economy.
“We share the urgency of confronting climate change together without delay; yet doing so by eliminating America’s energy options is the wrong approach and would leave American families and businesses beholden to unstable foreign regions for higher cost and far less reliable energy,” said American Petroleum Institute senior vice president Megan Bloomgren.
Activists weren’t having any of that.
“The fossil fuel industry is choosing to rule and conquer and take and take and take without limit,” Rabbi Stephanie Kolin of Congregation Beth Elohim of Brooklyn said. “And so waters are rising and the skies are turning orange [from bushfire smoke] and the heat is taking lives. But you Mr President can choose the other path, to be a protector of this Earth.”