Revised, September 23, 2014*
Over 2,800 rallies were held in 166 countries Sunday in a worldwide call for action to confront climate change, just days ahead of a U.N. summit expected to chart a path forward for global climate treaty negotiations in Paris in December 2015.
With an estimated 125,000–311,000* people gathering in New York City for a two-mile march through midtown and satellite events drawing 40,000 in London, 30,000 in Melbourne, 4,000 in Berlin, and thousands more elsewhere, the “People’s Climate March” easily lived up to its billing as “the largest climate change protest in global history.”
So largest climate protest in history? Sure. But how does the People’s Climate March stack up against some of America’s other most famous mass protests?
From the Vietnam and Iraq War protests to America’s largest civil rights rallies, the People’s Climate March actually stacks up quite well it turns out. Here’s the numbers…
Youth march in People’s Climate March in New York City, September 21, 2014. Image credit: Shadia Fayne Wood
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963: Also known as the “Great March on Washington,” this famous political rally drew 200,000-300,000 to the Mall in the nation’s capitol in an event organized by a group of civil rights, labor, and religious organization. Attendees heard Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his historic “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The march is credited with helping galvanize the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and motivating the Selma to Montgomery marches which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
- People’s Climate March vs March on Washington: the People’s Climate March was comparable in size to the Great March on Washington.
Vietnam War Protests, 1965-1975: Dozens of mass rallies were held to protest the ongoing Vietnam War. The largest included a pair of demonstrations for the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam which brought 200,000 to Washington DC on October 15, 1969 and 600,000 on November 15, 1969, and the 300,000 person-strong April 15, 1967 “Spring Mobilization” against the war in New York City.
- People’s Climate March vs Vietnam War Protests: the People’s Climate March was comparable in size to the largest anti-Vietnam War protests.
Nuclear Disarmament March, June 12, 1983: An estimated 1 million people demonstrated in Central Park in New York City demanding the disarmament of nuclear weapons and the end of the Cold War, making this protest the largest political demonstration in American history.
- People’s Climate March vs Nuclear Disarmament March: The Nuclear Disarmament March wins this matchup, and still reigns supreme as the largest demonstration in U.S. history.
Million Man March, 1995: Official estimates range from 400,000 (National Park Service estimate) to 837,000 (ABC/Boston University estimate) attendees at this historic gathering on the National Mall organized by the National African American Leadership Summit, National Assocation for the Advancement of People of Color (NAACP) and Nation of Islam to highlight urban and minority issues and the social and economic ills plaguing African Americans.
- People’s Climate March vs Million Man March: The People’s Climate March was likely about one-quarter to one-third the size of the Million Man March, with a wide range of estimated turnout reported for both events.
Million Woman March, 1997: This mass protest march along Benjamin Franklin Park Way in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania brought an estimated 300,000 to 1 million people to raise awareness about issues challenging African American women and families in the United States.
- People’s Climate March vs Million Woman March: The People’s Climate March was likely smaller than the Million Woman March, although potenitally comparable to the lower range of estimates for turnout at the Philadelphia rally.
Millennium March on Washington, April 30, 2000: A march from the Washington Monument to the front lawn of the Capitol brought an estimated 200,000 to 1 million people together to raise awareness and visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and call for equal rights for these LGBT Americans.
- People’s Climate March vs Millennium March: the People’s Climate March was roughly comparable in size to the Millennium March, although higher-end estimates for Millennium March attendance outstrip those for the Climate March.
Iraq War Protests, February 15, 2003: Officially listed as the largest-ever anti-war rally by the Guinness Book of World Records, a coordinated series of protests in 600 cities worldwide saw between 6 and 10 million people take part in protests against the invasion of Iraq by U.S., British, and allied forces. Protests in Rome involved around three million people, while roughly 1.5 million gathered in Madrid, 750,000 in London, and 300,000-400,000 in New York City.
- People’s Climate March vs Iraq War Protests: while the globally coordinated Iraq War Protests dwarfed the overall turnout at People’s Climate March rallies, the New York gathering of the People’s Climate March was roughly equal in size to the largest U.S. anti-Iraq war protest rally, also held in New York City.
National Equality March, October 11, 2009: This national political rally for equal rights or gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people was the largest since the 2000 Millenium March, bringing as many as 200,000 people to Washington DC.
- People’s Climate March vs National Equality March: The People’s Climate March was likely larger than this historic equal rights rally.
March for America, March 21, 2010: More than 200,000 joined this march to the Capitol in Washington, DC to call for comprehensive immigration reform.
- People’s Climate March vs March for America: the People’s Climate March likely wins this matchup against the March for America as well, with as many as half again as many participants.
Restoring Honor Rally, August 28, 2010: Attendance at this rally organized by conservative pundit Glenn Beck to “restore honor to America” is highly disputed. Estimates of the gathering on the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial range from a scientific estimate placed the crowd size around 87,000, while media reports varied dramatically from tens of thousands to 500,000.
- People’s Climate March vs Restoring Honor Rally: the People’s Climate March almost certainly saw more participation than the Restoring Honor Rally.
Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, October 30, 2010: About 215,000 attended this satirical rally hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to protest the polarization of American politics.
- People’s Climate March vs. Rally to Restore Sanity: the People’s Climate March was as much as half again as large as the Rally to Restore Sanity (thank goodness!), despite the lack of celebrity entertainment!
Occupy Wall Street Protests, 2011-2012: The largest gatherings of the Occupy movement included a 50,000-100,000 person march through Wall Street on May 1, 2012 and more than 15,000 marchers in Lower Manhattan October 5, 2011.
- People’s Climate March vs. Occupy Wall Street: the People’s Climate March was probably an order of magnitude larger than the most sizable Occupy protests.
In short, I think it’s safe to say that the People’s Climate Rally will go down in history as one of America’s largest mass protests.
*A note on estimating march attendance: Estimating turnout at large events is notoriously difficult. You’ll notice the wide range of estimates for some of the historical events above. As additional evidence emerged, this article was revised 9/23/14 to include a new lower-range estimate of People’s Climate March turnout from crowd-spotter Jimmy Higgins at Fire On The Mountain. Higgins and labor journalist Peter Hoggins sampled the rate at which the march passed their spotting location and arrived at an estimate of 125,000 people. They argue that the higher-range estimates are physically impossible. More here. Nevertheless, the New York Times reports that 311,000 participated in the march, citing estimates from the organizers based on data provided by 35 crowd spotters and analyzed by a mathematician from Carnegie Mellon University. The organizers later updated this figure to 400,000, a figure subsequently reported by TIME Magazine, but I have not seen any explanation for how this figure was derived, and in light of the Fire on the Mountain estimate, I have removed this figure, which originally appeared in this article. Comparisons to historical events have been revised based on the new range of estimated turnout for the People’s Climate March.
- What impact do you think the People’s Climate March will have on American or global climate politics and policy?
- Did you attend the People’s Climate March? If so, what brought you to the rally and what were your impressions?
- Where to next for the movement to confront climate change?
- Are mass protests sufficient to galvinize political action on climate change? If not, what is your theory of change?