NEW YORK — Tens of thousands of people, young and old, filled the streets of midtown Manhattan under blazing sunshine Sunday to demand that world leaders quickly pivot away from fossil fuels dangerously heating the Earth.
Their ire was sharply directed at President Biden, who is expected to arrive in New York on Sunday night for several fund-raisers this week and to speak before the United Nations General Assembly session that begins Tuesday.
“Biden, you should be scared of us,” Emma Buretta, 17, a New York City high school student and an organizer with the Fridays for Future movement, shouted at a rally ahead of the march. “If you want our vote, if you don’t want the blood of our generations to be on your hands, end fossil fuels.”
The Biden administration has shepherded through the United States’ most ambitious climate law and is working to transition the country to wind, solar, and other renewable energy. But it has also continued to approve permits for new oil and gas drilling.
That has enraged many of Biden’s traditional supporters, as well as politicians on the left flank of the Democratic Party, who want him to declare a climate emergency and block any new fossil fuel production.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, drew loud applause at the end of the march when she described climate action as “an electoral and a popular force that cannot be ignored. This is the biggest issue of our time.”
The turnout in New York surprised organizers and followed a weekend of climate protests in Germany, England, Senegal, South Korea, India, and elsewhere. They are the largest such protests since before the COVID-19 pandemic. And they come on the heels of the hottest summer on record, exacerbated by planetary warming, and amid record profits for oil and gas companies.
In New York, some protesters came in wheelchairs; others pushed strollers. They traveled to the city from around the country and the world. They were health care workers and antinuclear activists, monks and imams, labor leaders and actors, scientists and drummers. And students, so many students.
There was puppetry and song and thousands of homemade signs and banners. “I want a fossil-free president,” read one placard. One protester brought a small hand-painted Earth in flames. Another carried an elaborate cardboard sculpture of a fish skeleton. Several Jewish men blew a shofar, the ram’s horn used on Rosh Hashana. A group from Boston brought a banner that stretched across the width of a city block, with stripes representing the steady warming of the Earth’s atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial age. There was a dance club on the roof of a converted school bus.
“I’m here today because we need to stop the extraction of Mother Earth and the natural resources for greed and for billionaires and corporations across the world,” said Brenna Two Bears, 28, an Indigenous activist whose family in Arizona had felt the effects of wildfires exacerbated by drought and heat.
Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland who is now an outspoken climate campaigner, blasted the estimated $7 trillion in subsidies that the International Monetary Fund says governments worldwide spent last year on oil and gas drilling. “We are subsidizing what is destroying us,” she said.
The protests indicate a shift in message and tone from climate advocates, who have grown increasingly frustrated at the continued expansion of fossil fuel projects alongside promises by oil and gas companies to use emerging and often costly technologies to capture carbon dioxide from the air and bury it underground.
According to scientific models as well as projections by the International Energy Agency, nations must stop new oil, gas, and coal projects if the world is to stay within relatively safe levels of atmospheric warming.
A White House spokesperson cited last year’s landmark climate law as evidence of Biden’s commitment. “President Biden has treated climate change as an emergency — the existential threat of our time — since day one,” the spokesperson said.
Megan Bloomgren, a vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil and gas industry, said in an email: “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.”
While Sunday’s march was billed as a nonviolent demonstration, climate protests are becoming more confrontational. Activists have thrown pies at glass-covered paintings, disrupted a US Open tennis match, and glued themselves to oil company buildings.
Civil disobedience actions are planned for Monday in lower Manhattan.
Activists are especially angry that this year’s UN climate negotiations are set to take place in the United Arab Emirates, a leading oil-producing state, and will be overseen by Sultan al-Jaber, head of the Emirati state-owned oil giant, ADNOC.
Protest organizers used Sunday’s event to send a sharp message to Biden as he begins his push for reelection: Do more if you want our votes.
Rafael Chavez, 37, came from Newark, N.J., with a group called Nuevo Labor that represents immigrant workers, many from Mexico and Central America, who are especially vulnerable to climate effects. “Our people are collapsing, you know; they work in construction, in agriculture, and even those working in warehouses,” he said. “They all feel the heat.”
The president “is in a unique position to be a leader to end the fossil fuel movement globally,” said Daphne Frias, 25, a climate activist. “It’s time for the United States but particularly the Global North to really step up and say that we are taking responsibility to the way that we have harmed and polluted.”
Virginia Page Fortna, a political science professor at Columbia University, was gentle on Biden. “He’s done a huge amount, which is awesome,” she said. “But of course there’s always more to do. It’d be great if he would declare a climate emergency.”
Amid the anger, there was also a festive atmosphere among some protesters.
Michelle Joni, 38, of Brooklyn, brought what she called a “dance hub” for the march — a converted school bus decked out with Barbie heads, stickers, a couch, and a dance floor on the roof. “It’s like we bring joy, and we dance, and we create connection,” she said. “And that’s the fuel for ending fossil fuels.”