In June 1982, up to a million demonstrators gathered in Central Park calling for a nuclear freeze. They were protesting the Reagan-era nuclear arms buildup and other developments they saw, not unreasonably, as a threat to civilization and to life on Earth, including talk by some Reagan aides about fighting and winning a nuclear war.
Last Sunday — a generation later –hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took part in the People’s Climate March in Manhattan to protest international inaction on global warming, which they see, not unreasonably, as a threat to civilization and to life on Earth.
The front page of The New York Times on Monday brought the two events together, in an unintended though instructive way. The photographs were of the climate marchers. But the lead story was about the current aggressive efforts to rebuild the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
The fact that, 32 years after the Central Park gathering, progress on significant arms reductions is going into reverse is something the climate marchers should note. Because, intentionally or not, the climate change movement mirrors the nuclear freeze in many ways.
Both are rooted in the idea of a global planetary emergency. Both grew along with scientific evidence that challenges the status quo in politics and industry. Both are attempting to change and harness public opinion as a way to get policymakers to act.
Both gained popular momentum with the emergence of prominent leaders with Academy Award-winning documentaries: The nuclear freeze had Dr. Helen Caldicott and the anti-nuclear documentary “If You Love This Planet,” which featured Dr. Caldicott and won the Oscar in 1982 for Best Documentary Short Subject; the fight against global warming has Al Gore and the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” which featured Mr. Gore and won the Oscar in 2006 for Best Documentary Feature.
Both movements have produced Nobel Peace Prize winners: In 1985, for the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a group that Dr. Caldicott helped establish; in 2007, for Mr. Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Even some of the motivating images in each movement are similar. Models have suggested that nuclear war, if unleashed, threatens nuclear winter, with reduced sunlight and cold temperatures for a prolonged period. Global warming, unchecked, will lead to ever more extreme temperatures and violent weather.
And now both movements have involved mass demonstrations in New York with other rallies held and planned elsewhere around the world.
One of the lessons of the nuclear freeze movement is that it’s difficult to sustain a protest effort, especially one that is not focused on a specific target. The nuclear freeze was strongest when it was protesting the handling of a prominent geopolitical challenge (the U.S. vs. the U.S.S.R.) and specific weapons systems (cruise missiles in Europe.)
Similarly, global-warming activists may have more success by focusing on wildlife that is endangered (polar bears or butterflies) or specific areas (rain forests) or specific ways of life (coastal cities or island nations) rather than on broad existential threats.
That is not to say that the threat from global warming — and nuclear weapons — is not broad and existential. It is, so much so that it becomes part of daily existence, passively accepted or basically ignored, unless the danger somehow pierces the denial. That’s what People’s Climate Change march was about.
But what about a generation from now? Will the news in 2046 chronicle a resurgence in fossil fuel exploration?