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A View from the COP21 Sidelines

By: Raychel Santo

Last week, I attended the United Nations Conference of the Parties Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris with my colleague Roni Neff. Roni wrote about our experiences getting out the word about the meat consumption to climate change, and she also wrote about how COP21 addressed public health issues. After Roni left Paris, I stuck around to participate in more COP21-related activities and protests, and these are my impressions from that week.

I have ambiguous feelings about the civil society area at Le Bourget (a converted airport in the suburbs of Paris, where the conference was held) and other official COP21-related spaces scattered throughout Paris. The French government seemed to embrace its role as host and invested time and effort spreading the word to the general public. This was the first COP conference to have a section open to the public, and the planners made it very easy to find and attend for those interested (e.g., metro cars had tickets pointing out which stop to go to, continuous free shuttles were running between the metro station and Le Bourget site, staff were omnipresent to answer questions and make the experience as seamless as possible). Unfortunately, however, it appeared that the attendees were still mostly representatives from environmental NGOs, activists, journalists and occasionally representatives from delegations; it did not seem like many members of the general public made the trek out to participate. Moreover, I’m still undecided about whether the civil society space was more of an area set aside to give the illusion of public input in the COP21 process, or whether it actually provided a meaningful forum for new ideas and debates that cross-pollinated with the actual negotiations as delegations traveled back and forth.

Similar concerns about the extent and methods of public engagement came to mind as I witnessed other official COP-21 side events and spaces. Walking around central Paris, I came across a number of museum and outdoor exhibits and posters discussing different aspects of global environmental change (from preserving biodiversity to solar-powered “tree” benches with charging stations). Even the Eiffel Tower lit up at night with different messages about the climate negotiations. While it was great that thousands of non-COP21 affiliated tourists and general public members who happened to walk by may have begun to learn about the severity of many of the issues, most of these efforts felt like tokenistic reflections of what we can or will do to achieve a more sustainable future.

Notable absences from the messages displayed in these spaces (although I guess it’s not surprising) included: the need to restructure our social and economic systems if we want to achieve the drastic cuts required to keep mean temperature rise below the aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees C (which will be incredibly difficult, no matter how you cut it), the inequities in who will be experiencing the worst impacts of climate change, the necessity of radically reducing consumption levels among those with the highest ecological footprints (i.e., the U.S. and other nations of the Global North), the impact of free trade policies and militaristic actions on exacerbating many of these issues, and the role of animal agriculture (they talked about diet in terms of agrobiodiversity, pollination and bee die-offs, and carbon sequestration by pasture-based grazing systems, but never once did I see them mention the actual role of dietary composition in meeting goals). Others have documented how air travel and international shipping were also not discussed.

If our world leaders think we will solve all of the problems we are already – and will increasingly be – experiencing as a result of climate change with simple public education or eco-tree benches, they’re delusional. Our economic and political systems are structured in ways that encourage the extraction of fossil fuels, high resource consumption levels, and massive global inequalities we currently are experiencing. The New Economy Coalition has some innovative ideas for leading us in the right direction.

A number of activists expressed similar feelings, and throughout the conference (both within the public society space and at side events throughout the city) they hosted creative demonstrations, artistic displays, and marches protesting various aspects of COP21 that they found troubling. Some created a map of corporate-sponsored COP21 events, drawing attention to attempts to greenwash images of a post-carbon future. Indigenous activists from island nations to food sovereignty representatives from Via Campesina played an important role in reminding (again and again) all of us NGO reps and others in the civil society spaces of who exactly will be impacted the most by the issues we were discussing, and who is not being adequately represented at the negotiating table. The Climate Games coordinated a network of online and in-person direct actions demonstrating “Nature Defending Itself.”

The agreement reached on Saturday, December 12, confirmed my and many activists’ initial reservations about the process. I recognize the numerous political challenges delegates faced in even reaching a global agreement at all, especially in light of previous failures (most notably in Copenhagen and Kyoto). It’s hard to be critical of something that represents the most progress ever made on global climate change accords. However, as experts have pointed out since the final text was released, the deal has fallen short of guaranteeing anything substantial will be achieved beyond rhetoric at this point. The voluntary non-binding commitments that world leaders agreed to limit global mean temperature rise to ~2.7 degrees C, far above the 1.5 they hold as aspirational. The agreement does not take effect until 2020, at which point attempts to stay below 1.5 degrees goal will be nearly impossible. Others have highlighted the “crumbs” being offered to countries in the Global South to assist in climate change adaptation and mitigation ($100 billion a year compared to trillions spent on war, and significantly lower than the estimated needs).

At the end of the conference, at least 15,000 convened in the streets of Paris to protest the inadequacy of the final commitment in keeping us from crossing the “red lines” if we want to achieve “safe, just, and livable planet.” A moment of silence was observed and red flowers were placed on the red lines to honor the lives of those who have been – and will be – harmed by climate change. I think the march’s message would’ve been strengthened by including a more diverse representation of participants who will be impacted by the decisions being made (the NYC march in September 2014 did a much better job at this, in my opinion. They focused on putting activists from indigenous communities and communities of color, labor unions, etc. front and center in the organizing efforts, as well as the physical spaces occupied by protesters. Perhaps this was also the case in the December 12 demonstrations, though it appeared to me to be a predominantly white – albeit of all ages – crowd). It was inspiring, nevertheless, to see the thousands of people willing to take peaceful but defiant actions for the cause – especially considering the fact that up to the night before, protestors were anticipating potential arrest because French authorities had banned demonstrations following the terrorist attacks last month. If anything, it demonstrated that the public recognizes the importance of – and is ready to pressure their governments to – significantly scaling up the initial commitments made at COP21 if we want a chance of safeguarding our collective futures.

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