Climate is about justice: Diary of a scholar in Paris

Journalist and researcher Lauren Kaljur reports from COP21 where communities are making themselves heard, despite a backdrop of security concerns.

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December 3, 2015
The Eiffel Tower is lit with blue lights as part of the events in Paris to mark the World Climate Change Conference 2015, December 2, 2015. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Thousands of delegates, citizens, scientists and activists have descended onto a city in a state of stifled turbulence. Still managing to pull together the logistics of COP21, the largest conference of its kind, Paris continues to stabilize from the aftershocks of crisis.

The attacks on Nov. 13 not only killed 130 but set a tense stage for the climate talks, now well underway. Life goes on throughout shops and metro stations, however 120,000 additional police, gendarmes, and military personnel are stationed across France as the nation oscillates between its former self — once highly critical of U.S. reactivity post-9/11 — and a nation grappling with how to cope with home-grown terrorism. Mandatory military service has re-entered the political debate. There is talk of extending the state of emergency.

Day Zero: Sunday

Despite increased security, the weekend saw civil action for climate allies and non-governmental groups. Early Sunday morning, thousands of empty shoes were placed around la Place de la Republique to symbolize the many who were not permitted to march, after French authorities cancelled public demonstrations. A few hours later, thousands of people gathered, holding hands to form a chaine-humaine, another peaceful action offering a compromise in response to the ban.

Both actions were sanctioned by the police force in Paris, and, as protestors dressed in costume and sang songs, the energy was family friendly, positive, and fun. It was a gesture of respect between two conflicting realities: the cancellation of organized marches in a climate of insecurity, and the recognition that the voices of the people must be heard.

As was widely covered, a very small group of extremists left the agreed-upon zone of the sidewalk and aggressively confronted police. These actions were not sanctioned, as was made clear by organizers of the peaceful direct action.

 With civil-action and protest central to the French identity, the question of how these non-state actors will proceed throughout the week with their planned demonstrations is a question of major concern. However, Jennifer Allan, a researcher on social movements and climate change at the University of British Columbia who is in Paris this week, said no restriction of crowds can dispel the feelings of frustration and unrest that come from over 20 years of climate inaction.

 Civil-society groups, a broad range of environment, human rights, and other non-profit organizations are key to pressure for both transparency and accountability during the closed-door UN negotiations. Stronger presence and access for these groups through observer status of civil-society was a reason COP21 had been described as a celebrated break from past climate change discussions. The summit in Copenhagen in 2009, COP15, was deemed to have failed because it locked many voices out of the negotiating room.

Monday

Day one of COP21 confirmed the breadth of the transnational to-do list. The speeches of leaders echoed up the diversity of voices and needs. With the Paris attacks as the solemn backdrop, themes of affinity between climate and peace were repeated. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stressed the need for peace and a two-state solution. President Idriss Déby Itno of Chad and President Paul Biya of Cameroon called on the world to address deforestation and desertification around a dying Lake Chad, noting that climate instability leads to political instability.

Indigenous groups, although many have been denied official access, pressed for the inclusion of Indigenous rights within the body of the COP21 text, still under negotiation.

The 39-member Alliance of Small Island States, alongside other extremely vulnerable nations such as Bangladesh and Afghanistan, reaffirmed pressure for a 1.5-degree cap on warming. According to the Vulnerable 20, a collective of states to which these nations belong, their collective population of 200 million people has contributed less than two per cent of global emissions. At the same time, they will suffer 50 percent of climate impacts, they emphasized. 

Tuesday

Meanwhile, Canadian justice-pioneer Maude Barlow, acting as intervener at the concurrent Water, Megacities and Global Changes conference held at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris on Tuesday, expressed the continuation of the status quo — the OECD and World Bank’s control over climate debates. She explained to a crowd at the Leap Manifesto presentation in Paris that she sees a continued ‘financialization’ of nature that got the world into such a dire spot in the first place. That’s why, she said, she and other Canadian leaders are working to build alternative solutions.

Wednesday

The Philippines’ former climate commissioner, Yeb Saño, and his Fast for the Climate movement made headlines Wednesday. After witnessing Typhoon Haiyan devastate the Philippines in 2013, while climate commitments were scaled back, his movement highlights how hungry people are for change, echoing the concerns of the group of island states who fear their communities will bear the brunt of climate consequences. Another important voice among the many here this week. 

So, what’s next?

What to make of these staggering demands? The many voices of COP21 are so far consistent in this: climate is about justice. The two can no longer be separated. Whether it be poor nations suffering consequences of dirty development for the benefit of the few, or the social and economic injustice that continues to divide communities, COP21 must work towards a rebalancing of power. The activists have made one message increasingly clear: COP21 must address the economic problem of unevenly distributed resources and goods. It must address how these resources have been fuelled with energy predicated on planetary violence.

While Canada and Europe may withstand two to three degrees of warming, the peoples of island nations, certain areas of Africa and the Arctic will not. There is no greater injustice, as many here this week are saying. 

As global governance and sustainability expert Michael K. Dorsey explained to me on Wednesday, with such an outlandish reality, nothing short of outlandish is required to solve it.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has pressured leaders to make current ambitions the floor rather than the ceiling of efforts. COP21 is a starting point, not a panacea. Yet we do not have time to fool with voluntary, market-based optics. Some say solutions exists within the current framework, some say they don’t.

What we can be sure of is that serious dialogue has begun. A wider range of interests are here more than ever before. Clean and carbon-free economies exist as alternatives. We have only to agree on the nature of the solutions.