Five high-impact voices heard in the corridors of COP21

Here are some of the unofficial actors who made their voices heard on the sidewalks of the Champs-Élysées and all around Paris during the climate conference.

By: /
December 17, 2015
Canadian Youth Delegation members hold placards with messages calling for the Canadian government for better engagement with young people concerning climate issues during the COP21 in Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 3, 2015. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

As former COP negotiator for the Philippines turned climate justice activist Yeb Saño will attest, real climate action doesn’t come from the negotiating space but from the outside movements holding world leaders accountable. Disillusioned by the pace of United Nations action on climate during his time as negotiator in Warsaw’s COP19, Saño spearheaded the Fast for the Climate, now thousands of fasters strong, alongside a highly-publicized 1500 kilometre climate pilgrimmage from Rome to Paris for COP21. 

Change starts from the bottom up, and the strongest, most legally binding climate actions will come from within state borders. In Paris this year, from the River Seine to the base of the Eiffel Tower, the following voices trumpeted throughout the climate summit, and will continue to ensure the commitment agreed upon this year won’t be strong in name only. 

1) Canadian Youth

Up from seven delegates at last year’s COP in Lima to a robust 18 this year in Paris, the Canadian Youth Delegation (CYD) was a force to be reckoned with. These high-achieving youth knew the ins and outs of the climate negotiations far better than most Canadian adults. Holding to their commitment to keep young people back in Canada connected to the complex negotiations happening in the French capital, the CYD worked late into the night tweeting and filing daily-summary emails.

According to Brenna Owen, a youth delegate from Toronto, highlights of the COP21 experience included sitting down with Minister for the Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna and establishing an unprecedented working relationship with other negotiators like Canada's Ambassador for Climate Change Dan McDougall. Holding leaders to their words and commitments, Vancouver Island-based campaigner Torrance Coste addressed British Columbia’s less-than-green climate plan. The CYD staged a 500-person sit-in right outside the main negotiating room on December 9.

Media attention on the actions of the CYD was significant, according to Owen. As for outcomes? "We now have a 1.5 degree target to hold government accountable to,” she said. Ensuring the Liberal government curtails further expansion of Alberta’s oil sands and the Energy East pipeline, necessary to achieve the goal of 1.5 degrees, is next on the determined group’s list.

2) Global Indigenous Groups

Indigenous groups from seven regions across the world emerged as a united force this COP. Their pavilion at the Climate Generations space adjacent to the UN Blue Zone was highly visible and one of the most attended. Direct actions as a united group included a mixing of waters ceremony at the Eiffel Tower on December 11 to signify a renewed strength to uphold the collective work of indigenous peoples. A flotilla headed by indigenous leaders from “the Arctic to the Amazon” floated down the Seine on December 6.

Tirelessly pressing for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to be acknowledged in the operating Paris Agreement text, indigenous peoples’ voices were loud and clear. Though their rights were annexed to the less-binding preamble, there is no doubt their tenacity signals more action to come. 

3) International Tribunal on the Rights of Nature

On December 4 and 5, the third International Tribunal on the Rights of Nature was held in Paris to demonstrate how international law could remedy the climate crisis. More than 600 people came to see the mock trial – made up of 80 international judges, prosecutors and witnesses – rule against various environmental offences like REDD+, nuclear energy and international trade agreements. “Systemic problems require systemic responses,” said Cormac Cullinan, president of the Paris Tribunal.  

As Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein warned, we must be wary of an international logic that allows, for example, state-owned energy companies like Sweden’s Vattenfal to sue Germany for US $5.8 billion for its phasing out of nuclear power post-Fukushima. This amounts to states “knocking down each others’ windmills.”

4) Global Labour

Labour groups such as Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, which itself comprises 47 unions and organizations worldwide, put forward a strong argument at COP21. As 151 nations of the world are forced to rapidly transition their economies away from fossil fuels and towards clean sources of energy to meet a 1.5-2 degree target, Canada and the world have an opportunity to secure equitable, long-term employment. The labour model for organizing people power has a long history of proven success, unions collaborating for energy democracy argue. Why not let workers be the anchors for an energy-democracy overhaul? 

Clean, mass-transport including high-speed rail, building retrofits and clean energy will take huge, cross-sector investments. Far from hurting the economy, the labour movement says, it's about creating a new economy.

If labour groups don’t make an effort to organize and have their voices heard, they risk being left out of the new green-energy economy. Naomi Klein told a large crowd at one of her many COP21 events that without substantive organizing, “We know what we will get.” The world risks more of the same neo-liberalized distortion of benefits for a few at the expense of the rest, Klein maintains.

5) Humanity

For the tens of thousands that organized for months to raise money and travel to an already prohibitively expensive city, it was a hard blow to have actions and protests geared towards raising awareness restricted post-November 13 terrorist attacks. But deterred they were not, as the restrictions spawned even more creativity.

The actions were many: shoes and the hashtag #march4me, human chains, demonstrating in pairs rather than prohibited crowds, fake bus stop climate “brandalisms,” umbrellas at the Louvre, and a canoe flotilla down the Seine.

Actions like these confirmed that the movement for climate action, though incredibly diverse, is at its heart a peaceful movement, despite the conflation with radical terrorists.

As UN Blue Zone negotiators formalized interests, the wider conversation of civil-society was fierce. Multiple nodes across Paris like the Zone Action Climat were hosts to all kinds of lively discussions and debates on reimagining futures. Actions culminated on December 12, the day the Paris Agreement was approved, as parents, children and elders walked from the Arc de Triomphe to the Eiffel Tower.

Denouncing the emissions gap predicted by current national commitments, climate activists from around the world chanted their closing phrase: "1, 2, 3 degrees, it's a crime against humanity."