Climate Activism, Small but Focused

A collage of activists attending protests throughout the fall. Photos by Tony Lipka


The climate may be changing, but on November 29th, it’s still cold. At thirty-three degrees outside, you can see your own breath. A crowd, peppered with puffer jackets and corner store coffee cups; a mix of activists, politicians, and passerbys stand in front of City Hall to vouch for the Climate Change Superfund Act, a bill that would require companies that have contributed to climate change to pay for the costs of infrastructure upgrades and repair.

Rewind to October 18th and a similar scene is occurring in front of Kathy Hochul’s office. Even further back, demonstrators marched next to the UN headquarters.

Outsiders may question the effectiveness of the forms of activism taking place at smaller rallies and protests, but for those in attendance, the purpose is clear. Each of them is there to represent thousands who weren’t able to attend but share the same laser-focused goals. Compared to massive, and often widely televised marches, like the March to End Fossil Fuels in September that drew more than 75,000, smaller and more focussed forms of activism have comparable strengths.

Gearing up for the dawn of the new year, activists aim to push legislation over the finish line. There’s often more coverage of demonstrations that attract thousands and close down streets. But for those in the loop, smaller events around the city begin to show themselves. At all of them, dedicated advocates, young and old, take precious time out of their days to attend.

The question is, why?

“This is a crisis, I mean I can’t emphasize enough, that this isn’t hypothetical,” said Senator Liz Kruger, a central proponent of the Superfund Act and climate advocate with decades of experience.

Further, she emphasized the importance of the youth and real-world activism. “The youth groups in the environment are the most active. And the most innovative. And I was so impressed and proud of our young people for getting more involved,” she continued. “Guess what? I’m gonna be gone, and they’re gonna inherit this problem. So they need to get involved. They have to, and I think they understand that.”

But not everyone at these events are senators or politicians. A majority are regular people: students, teachers, organizers, and retirees.

For decades, Sara Gronim taught college students the environmental history of the United States. In 2016 she retired and joined 350 Brooklyn, a volunteer-driven organization that focuses on taking local action to address the effects of climate change in the city.

“It just got sadder and sadder and sadder to teach,” she said. Standing in front of City Hall, she emphasized that small rallies like this, “hearten the legislators, because they know there’s people positively on their side who admire them and who are grateful to them for the work they’re doing; I think it affirms that.”

As a retiree, she sees activism as an effective way to spend her free time. “I have another career, which I will do all through my 70’s and 80’s,” she said.

There is a difference between rallies like the March to End Fossil Fuels in September, and that that took place outside of City Hall on the 29th. With at most 50 people in attendance, the numbers do not matter. In order to get bills in front of legislators, these movements need coverage. For them, the media is their strongest ally.

“It’s to spread the word,” said senior organizer of New York’s Food and Water Watch, Eric Weltman. “A couple of outlets are here today so people learn about what’s happening and you know, can get involved.”

Policymakers pay attention when the media pays attention. When the media pays attention, the public pays attention. Many activists say all three are needed to effectively make a change. And while some think it is impossible to make a difference in a city so overwhelmingly large, for local activists, patience is key.