A Brief History of Climate Change Protests in the U.S.

Demonstrators wear gas masks protect themselves from tear gas during street clashes with riot police in downtown Seattle, Washington on the opening day of the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting November 30, 1999. Credit: Mike Nelson / AFP / Getty Images

On September 21 in New York City, more than 100,000 people are expected to take to the streets for the People's Climate March – likely the biggest climate change protest in history. The event, which will include representatives from 1,400 businesses, schools, unions, faiths, environmental groups, and social justice organizations, will have much of what you'd expect in a massive social gathering: Banners and parade-style floats (to be towed manually or by electric cars), musicians and celebrities like Peter Gabriel, and Woody Harrelson, as well as the political pressure that comes with a massive gathering of people — aimed squarely at the leaders gathering two days later at the United Nations Climate Summit. 


What the protest does not have is a clear precedent. Solidarity is part of the march's theme, and it's apt given the varied success of climate protests in the past, many that have lead to clashes with police, some violence, but rarely the kind of social or political change you might have seen come out of, say, the anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s (when, it should be noted, scientists were already warning about climate change). Here's a look at key moments in the pivotal past 15 years for the climate change movement.


1. November 30, 1999: World Trade Organization (WTO) Protest, Seattle, WA
The “Battle of Seattle” brought more than 40,000 activists to the streets, the largest protest against a world event held on U.S. soil — The Annual WTO Ministerial Conference — in history. Demonstrators ranged from opponents of WTO policies (especially those concerning free trade) to environmentalists, to the AFL–CIO. The coalition held rallies, led marches, and essentially shut down the city around the Convention Center by staging lock-downs at key intersections. The Seattle Police Department resorted to pepper spray, tear gas, stun grenades, and even rubber bullets.

The Gist: By the late 90s, many individuals felt the WTO, a global organization formed in 1995 to supervise fair trade between participating countries, had become unfair — putting profit and power over people, particularly those in the developing world. 

The Outcome: The opening ceremony of the conference was officially canceled, and the National Guard called in. The crowds were eventually dispersed, but the media coverage resulted in a new level of public awareness about the negative effects of globalization on the world's poorest nations.

2. September 27, 2007: Kyoto Protocol Inaction Demonstration, Washington D.C.
Four environmental organizations including Greenpeace, Oil Change International, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and the U.S. Climate Emergency Council, staged a protest against climate change inaction and the Bush Administration's refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Demonstrators gathered outside the State Department, where Bush was (ironically) holding an international meeting on climate change. Nearly 50 activists, including Greenpeace Executive Director John Passacantando, were arrested on civil disobedience charges, i.e. refusal to disperse.

The Gist: The U.S. is one of the world's biggest polluters, and yet refused to join the rest of the developed world in ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty designed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

The Outcome: The U.S. continues to refuse to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. But international scorn has since shifted to Canada, who flip-flopped in 2011 and withdrew from the treaty.

3. June 23, 2009: Mountaintop Removal Mining Protest, Raleigh County, WV
A small, but vehement group staged a protest at the Goals Coal plant owned by Massey Energy against a type of mining called mountaintop removal. At least 30 demonstrators, including actress Darryl Hannah and James Hansen, then the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, were arrested for trespassing and other misdemeanor offenses like impeding traffic. 

The Gist: Mountaintop removal literally blasts off the top of a hill or mountain to access buried coal seams. Issues include potential violation of worker health and safety laws, devastation of land and forests, and contamination of nearby watersheds.

The Outcome: On April 5, 2010, an explosion at another Massey Energy facility in Raleigh County killed 29 out of the 31 miners onsite, the worst mining accident in the U.S. since 1970. An investigation found Massey Energy's negligent safety practices directly responsible. Meanwhile, mountaintop removal continues across Appalachia, despite continued small-scale protests and public awareness efforts like Robert Kennedy, Jr.'s 2011 documentary, The Last Mountain.

4. November 6, 2011: Keystone XL Pipeline Protest, Washington D.C.
More than 10,000 people descended on the White House to demonstrate opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline project, designed to transport oil from the Alberta tar sands fields in Canada to refineries in Texas.

The Gist: The pipeline could devastate ecosystems, pollute water sources, and jeopardize public health.

The Outcome: Phase III of the Keystone XL Pipeline project continued unabated, expanding the pipeline to the Gulf Coast through Texas. It began pumping oil in January 2014.

5. February 17, 2013: Keystone XL Pipeline March, Washington D.C.
Following Nebraska's approval of the route for Phase IV of the Keystone XL Pipeline in January, about 50,000 people gathered at the Washington Monument and marched to the White House. Demonstrators demanded President Obama block the Keystone XL Pipeline and take action against climate change. Four-dozen protestors, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Darryl Hannah, James Hansen, Sierra Club Founder Adam Werbach, and environmental activist Bill McKibben, were arrested at the gates of the White House for civil disobedience.

The Gist: Similar to the gist of the November 6, 2011 protest, but worse: The Phase IV route crosses the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, which not only supports billions of dollars in agriculture, but provides drinking water for two million people. Contamination would be catastrophic. 

The Outcome: As of April, the Obama Administration has indefinitely postponed making a decision on whether or not to move forward with Phase IV. Meanwhile, environmentalists are still protesting, with the most recent demonstration happening in Washington D.C. on April 26, 2014.