When’s the last time you saw people lining up on the street to watch a commercial? How about an hour-long commercial about climate change? That’s what happened Sunday night for the New York premiere of Disruption.
Billed as a documentary, the 52-minute film — now available for free online — is 350.org’s extended promotion for the upcoming People’s Climate March. The event, planned for Sept. 21 in Midtown Manhattan, is intended to be the biggest climate march ever, calling for immediate action on climate mitigation and justice. It’s timed to draw the attention of the world leaders who are coming to New York for the Sept. 23 U.N. Climate Summit.
A long line of eager would-be viewers stretched out the doors of a New School auditorium in Greenwich Village, hoping to get in to the 800-seat room. (Everyone did; total attendance was a little over 600.) The crowd was mostly young, which is impressive considering that going to a documentary — much less one that is all geared toward hyping an upcoming rally on climate change — isn’t usually the most fun thing you can do in Manhattan on a balmy late summer Sunday evening. Some were New School students, but not all, as the viewing was open to the public and New School events often draw a wide range interested New Yorkers.
There were also screening house parties in every state on Sunday, and in cities around the world. In Kathmandu, Nepal, for example, 100 people attended a screening. Kathmandu is one of dozens of cities in other countries where activists will stage solidarity marches on Sept. 21. The usual suspects like Paris, Berlin, and Rio de Janeiro will be hosting particularly big events.
It seemed as if everyone in the audience in Manhattan on Sunday was already planning on attending the march, and when they left many took with them a Whole Foods paper bag filled with posters and flyers to distribute in the weeks ahead. Sign-up sheets encouraged attendance at various pre-events, most of them on Sept. 12, to promote the march. They range from showing up at Times Square at 5:00 a.m. to wave signs on the background of the Today show to handing out fliers on the Staten Island ferry at rush hour. “We’re going to make sure people in New York City can’t go anywhere on Sept. 12 without hearing about [the march],” said one of the organizers.
The movie is, of course, a promotional video, not really a documentary. But it is well produced and it never gets slow or boring, perhaps in part because it eschews a narrator and instead lets the story of climate change unfold via comments from experts such as climate scientist James Hansen of Columbia University (previously of NASA) and science historian Naomi Oreskes of Harvard. It is also punched up by lively interviews with charismatic climate leaders such as Van Jones. It even got a big laugh when Jones observed, “I remember when the Weather Channel was a sleepy little channel; now it’s like a horror show.”
The most moving moment is when a representative of the Philippines testifies at the 2013 U.N. climate meeting after Typhoon Haiyan; his emotional words overlay video of the breathtaking devastation. The film puts heavy emphasis on the fact that the greatest sufferers under climate change, from the Philippines to New Orleans, are poor people who can least afford it. And the political problem is laid out by 350.org founder (and Grist board member) Bill McKibben, who observes, “The place climate change is hardest to notice is the suburban United States.” But, of course, the suburbs are where a majority of Americans live. If the U.S. government is going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it must win the support of suburbanites. And the U.S. government must reduce emissions since we are the world’s largest economy and the largest cumulative CO2 emitter. It’s a conundrum, but as the film notes with footage from the 1963 March on Washington, marches are one way that comfortable Americans have been motivated to support social change.
It wouldn’t have been a left-wing protest event on a college campus without a few zany sideshows, of course. There were a handful of graying volunteers from the Revolutionary Communist Party handing out flyers urging attendance at the march as a means of fighting capitalism and imperialism. At the panel discussion after the film, Jean Gardner, a cowboy hat–clad professor at Parsons, the design school at The New School, exhorted the crowd to “listen to the Earth.” “We’re all compliant” with climate change, said Gardner. “We’re in an air-conditioned room … We [should] own our complicity … I heard the Earth saying that.”
Organizers of the march are cognizant of the fact that vague awareness-raising will not swiftly lead to the needed global action to reduce emissions. The film itself opens with a quote from the abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” And so the other panelists were more directly and pragmatically focused on the march. Keya Chatterjee, the director of renewable energy and footprint outreach at the World Wildlife Fund, who is featured heavily in the film, explained that the march’s specific purpose is “to impress upon the global leaders [in New York for the Climate Summit] that their constituents care about climate change.”
The film itself does not actually summarize with such precision and clarity how the march will affect policy, although it does explain the significance of the U.N. Climate Summit. It is part of the beginning of the process of negotiating an emissions-reduction agreement at a U.N. meeting in Paris at the end of next year. And so, the film implies, building momentum for a strong and just agreement going into the summit is essential.
The film also addresses the history of mass protest. It notes, for example, that one million people gathered in Central Park in 1982 to call for a halt to the nuclear arms race. A veteran organizer from the anti-nuclear movement argues that the organizing of local activist groups around the country in preparation for the rally and growing out of it was the event’s greatest achievement. Perhaps so, since nuclear proliferation has continued. That is not an outcome we can afford when it comes to climate change.
That’s why some people are planning more radical protests. While the official march has a permit from the NYPD, a flyer going around on Sunday night, with the URL BeyondTheMarch.org at the bottom, promoted direct actions the week of Sept. 17-24, and in particular a sit-in on Wall Street at noon on Sept. 22. The event will be called Flood Wall Street and the protesters will wear blue to symbolize the threat of massive flooding in downtown Manhattan from sea-level rise. As Hurricane Sandy showed everyone, such flooding is no longer a distant threat. The question is whether we’re going to bring it on ourselves much more frequently, and who will suffer the most if we do.