October 9, 2019

Making climate history

Last month, millions of people flooded the streets in cities and towns globally, including New York City, demanding climate action. A teenager took the mic at the New York U.N. headquarters and said what the climate justice movement has been demanding for decades: World leaders must act. And while the climate denial machine funded by Big Polluters revved up attacks and misinformation, people from around the world united around a clear demand: Make Big Polluters pay.

Make Big Polluters pay projected on the Gramercy Park Hotel during UN climate week in New York City

Shining the spotlight on the call to Make Big Polluters pay: Projection on the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan during an invite-only cocktail party hosted by fossil fuel CEOs. Photo credit: Brandon Wu, ActionAid U.S.


We know that change doesn’t happen in linear progression. There are victories that take us two steps forward and defeats that bring us one step back. There are moments when things feel stagnant, stalled. And then there are important moments when we reach a tipping point, change happens all at once, and it’s almost impossible to remember what it felt like before. These last few weeks felt like they were moving us quickly toward such a tipping point for the climate crisis.

Now, it’s not the tipping point that U.N. Secretary General António Guterres promised when he convened the Climate Action Summit. He paid lip service to “climate ambition”: he said he wanted countries to come with ambitious proposals that would help them achieve the commitments cemented in the Paris Agreement of the U.N. climate treaty. But he, and most of the world leaders who showed up at the summit, refused to challenge the entities that are at the root of, and that fuel, the climate crisis: Big Polluters. Without that piece, actually reaching the Paris Agreement commitments is little more than a fantasy.

So going into “climate week” it was clear we weren’t going to see meaningful policy proposals from this summit. But it was a vital moment for the climate movement. People from around the world were gathering in New York City to bring their demands to heads of state. We knew that this would be an important moment to shift the public climate and shape the narrative around climate change: who is responsible, who has the answers, and what needs to happen next.

And that is exactly what happened.

On the streets, on social media, and in news outlets from The New York Times to the Guardian, the narrative became clearer and clearer: The climate crisis is being fueled by Big Polluters. And a growing, global, grassroots movement is demanding that they must pay for the damage they’ve done.

Make them pay

One event in particular, focused the spotlight, quite literally, on this narrative.

On Sunday, September 22, the CEOs of oil and gas giants like Chevron, BP, and Shell hosted an exclusive, invite-only cocktail party at the swanky Gramercy Park Hotel. It was the kick-off event for a forum organized by the industry group, Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI). They wined and dined government officials and environmental groups in an attempt to position themselves as legitimate players in climate policy.

But the people weren’t buying it. A large action took place outside the hotel, organized by the coalition Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice, the youth-led climate justice group SustainUs, and Corporate Accountability. As news cameras filmed, reporters took notes, and a growing crowd listened, leaders from the frontlines of the climate crisis shared their stories. They called out the industry for its greenwashing and its impacts on their communities and the planet. And they had a clear call to action. The words “Make Polluters Pay, Make Big Oil Pay” flashed brightly onto the front of the hotel for the world to see.


The next day, we and our allies were back again at the OCGI forum, unfurling a block-long banner that read “ExxonKnew: Make Them Pay.”

As these and other actions illuminated Big Polluters’ role in fueling the climate crisis, a coalition of organizations from around the world released a call to government officials to make Big Polluters pay for the damage they’ve caused. To date, more than 63,000 people from 35 countries across six continents have joined this call: The demand to hold Big Polluters liable is gaining steam. (If you haven’t joined, you can do it right now).

Moving the dial at the U.N. climate treaty

All of this will help shift the dynamics at the next U.N. climate treaty negotiations this December. These meetings are, after all, where international climate policy is actually set. This is where governments have the greatest ability to collectively advance people-first, justice-based climate solutions that can limit global warming to as close to the 1.5 degree benchmark as possible. But for that to happen, governments advancing real and just climate solutions need to understand that they have the force of the people’s will behind them.

That’s exactly what millions of people have demonstrated last month.

The amount of attention to Big Polluters’ role in the climate crisis and demand that they must pay is completely unprecedented. But it hasn’t come out of the blue. The groundwork for this moment was being laid for decades. Leaders of the climate justice movement from the Global South have been campaigning for more than twenty years. The U.S. environmental justice movement has been resisting the poisoning of the air and water in communities of color and indigenous communities for decades.

And thousands of Corporate Accountability members have been exposing and challenging corporations and their abuses since the 1970s, and organizing to kick Big Polluters out of climate policy since 2015.

Now, we’re in the thick of it all, and we can’t know exactly what the long-term outcomes of the attention and pressure we’ve all generated will be. But it just may be a moment in climate history that moves the dial irreversibly toward climate justice.

You can help make climate history. Join the call to make Big Polluters pay and support this work.

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