On Thursday morning — as Pope Francis prepared to make history by addressing Congress — hundreds of activists gathered on the National Mall. Holding signs, petitioning for signatures, and offering spirited remarks to an expectant crowd, the activists represented a spectrum of causes and religious denominations, from young evangelicals to Black Lives Matter leaders.
And they all came together for a common purpose: to demand action on climate change.
“We realize that climate change is the upstream issue, and that downstream, it affects all of us. It is a global an issue as you’ll ever want to encounter. If you’re concerned about immigration, then you realize climate change creates so many climate refugees. If you’re a person who is interested in protecting animals, then you realize that if we didn’t eat animals, we’d be reducing our carbon emissions by almost as much as the entire transportation sector,” Lise Van Susteren, head of Moral Action on Climate Justice, the organization responsible for the rally, told ThinkProgress. “Each group recognizes that we have so much common ground, and that if we put our energies together, that we can see some real differences.”
The rally — held in the shadow of the Capitol — began at 7:30 in the morning on Thursday, two and a half hours before the pope was scheduled to address Congress. And as attendees awaited the pope’s remarks — and his subsequent appearance in front of the Capitol — they were treated to a mix of speeches and performances by activists, scientists, politicians, and artists representing a diverse range of political and social causes.
One such performer was Moby, a Grammy-winning musical artist and environmental activist. A noted vegan, Moby donned a t-shirt with “#VEGAN” emblazoned across the front. But while he didn’t shy away from using the stage as a platform to speak about his vegan lifestyle — ending his performance by telling the crowd that “22 to 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from animal agriculture” — he acknowledged that climate change is a wide-reaching problem that impacts an array of social causes.
“Any other issue that’s important to anyone, be they progressive or conservative, pales in comparison to climate change. Nothing else that we care about can exist if the climate changes. If there’s no food and there are hurricanes with 250 mph winds, and if half the world’s population is displaced, and if political systems start to fail, everything else we care about just falls by the wayside,” he told ThinkProgress. “It’s almost like we have to fix climate change and then get back to all the other issues that we care about.”
As speakers and performers took the stage, representatives from a wide array of organizations milled throughout the crowd, using the gathering as an opportunity to connect their own issues to social justice. Activists championing D.C. statehood spoke to ThinkProgress about how the issue of D.C. statehood and climate are interconnected, as statehood would allow D.C. to allocate more resources to green energy.
Representatives from Oxfam’s D.C., Maryland, and Virginia Action Corps were also at the rally petitioning for signatures to support their lobbying efforts for a green climate fund that would help developing nations build greater climate resilience.
“Oxfam works with the nexus of poverty, the environment, and climate. Really what they’re learning is that climate change most affects the people who are worst off in society — the poorest, the food producers,” Arzoo Malhotra, one of the Oxfam petitioners, told ThinkProgress. “These are the people that are getting hurt worst by climate change, and that’s a huge problem.”
As the rally wore on, more and more attendees crowded the space in front of the stage, mixing with activists brandishing banners with quotes from Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on climate change. The Parker family from Arlington, Virginia made the trek into D.C. not only to witness the pope’s speech, but to show their support for climate action — both Elizabeth, 19, and her 15-year-old brothers Matthew and Jonathan skipped school to attend the event.
CREDIT: Jess Colarossi/ThinkProgress
“I wanted the opportunity to see Pope Francis. The address is historic, and it’s a very cool atmosphere,” Elizabeth told ThinkProgress. “People aren’t single-issue climate change voters. It’s something important that we all need to support to get anything done, because there’s not a lot of money in it, it’s not a super hot topic, but it’s really important.”
Her younger brother Matthew agreed, saying that he worries that political inaction now will saddle his generation with the worst of climate change’s consequences.
“If nobody does anything now, they’re going to realize it’s too late — and that will be when we’re old,” he said.
Their mother Susan expressed pride at her children’s interest in climate change issues.
“I’m excited by it. I was glad they wanted to come, and glad we were able to do it,” she said.
But as various groups used the rally as a platform to speak about their own causes, the moral implications of climate change — the theme of Francis’ encyclical — ran throughout the event. Jay Winter Nightwolf, a member of the Echota Cherokee Nation of Alabama, spoke of a Native American tradition of “seven generations” — thinking of how decisions made today will impact future generations as far down the line as seven generations hence. The decisions made today, he said, will have an outsized impact on future generations of Native American and indigenous people, who tend to live in poverty and may be unable to escape the consequences of dramatic shifts in climate.
“Native Americans and indigenous people throughout the world are among the first to be severely impacted by climate change. Many live in poverty and are vulnerable, and the poverty I speak of is abject poverty,” he told ThinkProgress. “It’s the greed of a few that has put us into this tumultuous atmosphere of non-survival.”
Still, even as the specter of climate change hung over the event, the pope’s willingness to use his considerable influence to address the issue seemed to imbue the proceedings with a sense of hope.
“It’s just amazing to have him as our spokesperson, and we’ll claim that,” Van Susteren said. “If ever there was a forceful person that had an outstanding reputation for goodness, and objectivity, he’s got to be one of them.