Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Protesters sound the climate alarm in global marches

Tens of thousands take part in noisy march through New York City to call for CO2 emission cuts ahead of UN summit

Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets of New York City on Sunday in a noisy march that organizers said was meant to sound the climate alarm, with participants blowing trumpets and beating drums as church bells pealed and synagogue shofar horns echoed across Manhattan on a day of massive worldwide protests demanding action to stop global warming.

Protests had been planned in more than 100 cities around the world ahead of a United Nations climate summit set to take place in New York on Tuesday, probably the last chance world leaders will have to pledge carbon cuts or other action aimed at stemming the worst effects of global warming before the negotiation of an international climate agreement next year in Paris. 

March participants Geoff Leonard and Courtney Lee, both 24, pictured on Sunday at the People's Climate March in midtown Manhattan, New York City.
Wilson Dizard/Al Jazeera America

For many, the People's Climate March in New York was also about income inequality and other pitfalls they ascribed to unregulated capitalism — and linked to the climate change issue.

"The elite haven't even decided if they're going to do anything yet. We can't wait for them," New York marcher Geoff Leonard, a 29-year-old law student at Georgetown University, told Al Jazeera. "This affects New Orleans, New York, places I care about. The poorest will face the worst effects of climate change, but they bear the least responsibility for it."

Don Pratt, a 70-year-old from Lexington, Kentucky, said luxurious "toys" were distracting wealthy owners of environment-abusing corporations from what is really important to life on Earth. 

"What is essential is water, air and land, and they're in trouble," Pratt said, holding up a sign decrying mountaintop removal mining in his part of Appalachia. "The wealthy will suffer, but they don't see the future."

A police officer on route estimated that 60,000 attended the New York protest, which stretched for blocks and encompassed a wide array of causes. However, one of the event's organizers, environmental group Avaaz, put the figure at "nearly 400,000." The group also said that 580,000 people particpated in demonstrations worldwide, including New York. 

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and renowned primatologist Jane Goodall and other celebrities and activists marched with arms locked together during a moment of silence for lives lost to deadly weather, believed by many to have been brought on by humans spewing carbon into the atmosphere.

Many of the marchers were New Yorkers who endured the calamity of deadly Superstorm Sandy, which destroyed homes and infrastructure across the region in 2012. 

One couple at the event said they saw the Hudson River swell and flood their home in Newburgh, New York, during both Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Sandy a year later. They said they came to the march because they see climate change as a reality they cannot ignore.

"Lots of other bad things are happening in the world, but this is the most important," said Lisa Cline, 58.

Michael Tikili, 28, marches in New York City on Sunday in support of climate action.
Wilson Dizard/Al Jazeera America

AIDS activist Michael Tikili, 28, one of dozens of marchers who wore Robin Hood-style hats, said a tax on financial industry transactions could generate billions of dollars needed to shore up cities and to take other steps to adapt to the challenge of climate change.

"We just need the political will to do it," Tikili said. 

Also at the New York march were members of organized labor including the United Auto Workers. Although restrictions on fossil fuel-burning cars might sound like a burden on automotive workers, members of the union, which includes some non-manufacturing professions, said there was no conflict. 

"We're not representing cars, we're representing workers," said Derrick Miller, 24, a UAW member from New York.

The New York march was one of many global protests Sunday, with events planned in 161 countries including Afghanistan, Italy, and Bulgaria. Protesters in Berlin organized a silent climate parade, in which participants planned to sync their MP3 players to the same song and dance through the capital. 

In Australia, the largest rally was in Melbourne, where an estimated 10,000 people took to the streets with banners and placards.  Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was a particular target of the protesters. Abbott's center-right coalition has removed a carbon tax and has restricted funding for climate change bodies since coming to power last year.

The People's Climate March in New York came two days before the city hosts a U.N. summit, at which heads of state and other leaders are expected to announce their pledges to tackle global warming. The summit falls just ahead of this week's U.N. General Assembly.

The New York protest Sunday included international leaders such as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and celebrities such as musician Sting, as well as labor groups, scientists, marching bands, and floats powered by biodiesel, said Jamie Henn, spokesman for international climate activist organization 350.org, which organized the march along with a dozen other environmental and social justice groups.

As a goal, 350.org aims to reduce the amount of carbon in the Earth's atmosphere from 400 parts per million to 350 ppm — which scientists have said is the maximum level needed to preserve a livable planet.

Many scientists believe that maintaining a 350 ppm level would lead to a roughly 2-degree Celsius average world temperature increase above pre-Industrial levels. If the average global temperature rises more than that, scientists have said it could lead to abrupt climate disruptions.

World leaders have warned that climate change is no longer just a problem of the future, saying its effects can already be seen in more frequent and intense extreme weather, protracted droughts such as those seen recently in California, and rising sea levels. 

An 'everybody issue'

In a video address to the world last week, Marshall Islands President Christopher Loeak stood in front of a sea wall — which blocks the Pacific Ocean from pouring through his house — as he called for a carbon-free vision by the middle of the century.

“Without it, no sea wall will be high enough to save my country,” Loeak said, warning that the effects of climate change plaguing his small Pacific island state are just a preview of what would likely occur around the world if leaders fail to address global warming in a meaningful way. 

Representatives also came from the island nation of Kiribati, where residents say they face an imminent threat from swelling seas of the Pacific Ocean.

"I am here because of this, to tell the people of New York it is important to do something, right now so that Kiribati will be saved, so my country will be saved,” said Pelenise Alofa, national coordinator of the Kiribati Climate Action Network, told AJ+.

The government of Kiribati has purchased land in the Republic of Fiji, an island nation more than a thousand miles away, so its 100,000 people can make a migration "with dignity" to higher ground. 

Organizers of the New York march hope it will help transform global warming "from an environmental concern to an 'everybody issue,'" said Henn of 350.org.

Speaking to diplomats and journalists on Thursday in New York ahead of Tuesday's U.N. climate conference, Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum said he was optimistic that the world's biggest polluters would pledge significant actions on Tuesday. 

Though he said it was disappointing that India and China had elected not to send their heads of state, he added that this was not necessarily an indication that they were less serious about climate change. 

Citing previous conversations with officials from both countries, de Brum said both have ambitious climate goals and "recognize the importance of ... such commitments."

The minister said some have asked why he and other Marshall Islands leaders — who last year developed the Majuro Declaration, a framework presented to the U.N. in an effort to get what he called the “big guys” such as the United States and China to pledge climate actions — have become so “emotional” about the issue.

"If you came home and found your house awash in salt water ... you'd be emotional too," de Brum said.

With wire services. 

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