This past Sunday, nearly 40,000 people stood together on the National Mall in the Forward on Climate Rally and challenged President Barack Obama to live up to his inaugural promise to combat climate change. Led by environmentalist groups 350.org and the Sierra Club, the rally was the largest environmental demonstration in history, with speakers ranging from 350.org founder Bill McKibben to actress Rosario Dawson.
The Sierra Club’s website writes, “President Obama must move America forward on climate in 2013 with decisive action to reduce dangerous carbon pollution. His legacy . . . rests on his leadership in the face of an unstable and uncertain climate future.” The rally aimed to convince Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, which many fear will doom the planet to the catastrophic effects of climate change if approved. Proponents argue it would provide thousands of American jobs and increase the country’s energy security.
Former GUSA Secretary of Sustainability and a founding member of Georgetown Energy, Jessica Robbins (SFS ’12), emphasized the diversity of the rally, specifically mentioning Tom Steyer, both a venture capitalist and environmentalist. “[He spoke] about the importance of looking to business to solve these problems as well,” Robbins said. “It’s not just about the government legislating change, it’s about Americans and citizens across the world getting creative about how we can find a way to live sustainably in this new economy—that was a very powerful thing.”
As for the scope of supporters at the rally, Robbins said, “There was a contingent of Canadians speaking from their side of the border, which was really interesting and showed a lot of international and cross-country collaboration on these issues.”
Elaine Colligan (COL ’15) also spoke about the magnitude of the event. “I think it shows that environmentalism is becoming more of a mainstream issue that the people identify with,’” she said. “They’re seeing it now as a societal and an American issue, not as a niche issue for ‘environmental people.’”
Colligan called the rally a well-organized party, with great music and chants such as “Hey! Obama! We don’t want no climate drama!” However, she believes more speakers could have been featured, including Jill Stein. “I thought they could have also gotten university students to speak. I didn’t see any university representation,” Colligan said.
As for McKibben’s speech blaming oil companies, Colligan had mixed feelings. “There hasn’t been a way to put an environmental bottom line together with a financial bottom line…I wish he would have mentioned that,” she said. “But as far as getting the crowd rallied and speaking to everybody’s hearts, he was great.”
McKibben’s speech was moving for Vice Chair of Georgetown Eco-Action Daniel Dylewsky (COL ’15). “[McKibben] made the comment that 20 years ago . . . he wanted nothing more than to see a movement spring up around that cause, and now he was standing in front of 40,000 people engaged in just such a movement,” Dylewsky said. “I think a lot of the activist rhetoric on climate change takes on a somewhat negative tone, and it’s empowering and important that we acknowledge how far we’ve come, even in the face of still greater obstacles ahead of us.”
Despite the size of the protest, Obama has yet to acknowledge or address the demands from the rally. Some attendees hope that this presents an opportunity for Georgetown to be an active environmental leader.
“President [John] DeGioia just announced a $20 million environmental sustainability initiative,” Colligan said. “So I actually think the administration is much more active than they ever have been; that’s probably due largely on the part of the students, and I’m really grateful that students have done that.”
Robbins also stressed the importance of the rally for Georgetown. “I think at Georgetown … we focus on participating in the political process, working within the system, effecting change by writing policy and engaging with business, and that’s how we can effect change,” she said. “But I think that it’s really exciting to see such a large contingent of Georgetown students out there participating in the rally, because it’s events like this that I think really mark the progress of the movement.”
The Forward on Climate Rally was a historical moment for the environmental movement. Robbins said, “Overall I believe, and hope, that it signals broad-based constituent support for President Obama and his administration to continue moving forward on key issues like rejecting Keystone XL, passing climate legislation, and generally bringing climate change into the national discourse and onto the agenda.”