Is this climate unity really for everyone?

Over the last couple of days the Climate Activist Centre ZAC here in Paris has seen massive mobilisation, with thousands of people going through nonviolent civil disobedience trainings, briefings, workshops, and listening to updates from the negotiations in Le Bourget. Some fantastically devoted people have been doing the hard long days in the conference centre and then traipsing back to provide summaries that are more readily accessible for us lay people. As the negotiations run overtime, there are many different stories circulating about what exactly is happening, and I can’t help but feel that these stories teach us more about the people telling the story than what is actually going on.

One of the strongest messages coming from the reporters from Le Bourget is that they do not recognise stories being published in conventional media about the talks. With the contentious points remaining sticky and hard to work through to the very end of these talks, there seem to be different accounts as to where action and initiative is coming from.

This is the story we are hearing on the ground in Paris:

 With the formation of the “high ambition coalition”, which notably didn’t include Brazil (they have since joined), Russia, India, China, or Saudi Arabia, even more difference and distinction has been created between the negotiating parties. Announcing that such a coalition exists further seems to imply that all parties of that group speak with a unified voice. What we are hearing though is that this “high ambition” group is very loosely formed, has not managed to meet formally many times since it was formed, and is practically governed by a core group of 20 countries, including, of course, the US and the EU. So here we have a scenario where the most powerful negotiating teams suddenly can claim to be representing even more countries. These powerful countries, such as the US, are in fact pushing for phrasings that aren’t all that great, such as:

  • A net emissions approach, meaning that through a carbon market it would be possible to offset carbon emissions through investment in other countries. In other words, it wouldn’t be necessary to change carbon emission in say, the US, as long as the emissions were offset somewhere else.
  • Loss and damage may be recognised, as long as it is not legally binding.
  • A paragraph concerning the option to share intellectual property rights to new low carbon technology with countries in the global South has been dropped completely. Instead, the technology will be, as everything else, part of the global trade, which is increasingly regulated by free trade agreements. These trade agreements, e.g. TPP, TTIP, CETA etc., through some uncanny coincidence (called lobbying) tend to favour the fossil fuel industry.

 But what is tricky is that since these views are represented as coming from the “high ambition coalition” countries that oppose them are suddenly easily portrayed as the ones slowing down the process and complicating the negotiations, being against the “high ambition.”

But then again, we are also hearing this sort of message from many directions, emphasising respect and unity at the same time as pointing fingers and blaming certain actors as the causes for climate change and the source of all evil (almost). So there you go, there is a mix of calls for solidarity and unity, and the exact opposite of that, and it is all pretty confusing.

2015-12-10 18.30.51

Last night, the briefing was followed by a roundtable discussion with Naomi Klein and other people with experience of trade agreement campaigning in the US, Germany, and the Philippines whose names I just can’t remember right now. They talked about the relationship between such trade agreements, climate change, and the climate movement.

Naomi Klein called the climate movement an “epic case of bad timing,” where its development has been simultaneous to the expansion of a neoliberal ideology pushing for free trade agreements, where “trade trumps climate.” She gave examples such as Toronto’s response to the 2008 financial crisis, in which they decided to invest in local renewable energy and simultaneously created tens of thousands of new jobs. But this initiative was deemed illegal under NAFTA and closed down as it did not give multi-national corporations equal access to the energy market. “Trade trumps climate.”

She went on to explain how the US went into the Paris negotiations with the point of view that this cannot be a legally binding agreement, as it would not pass the American congress, in which fossil fuel lobbyists have a lot of influence. Conversely, the trade agreements are all legally binding, meaning that say, the Swedish company Vattenfall have a legal right for compensation for Loss and Damage e.g. for decreased income because of environmental regulation on their German coal mines… Legally binding loss and damage rights that developing countries in the climate negotiations could only dream of.

These are facts at the most simplified level, but Naomi Klein still presented a convincing case for the common interests of the climate movement and the campaign against trade deal. The panel went on to discuss why we have historically struggled to unite our causes. Perhaps to some extent it’s habit? People on the left campaigning against the trade agreements have traditionally considered climate change a luxury issue, something to worry about once we have food on our plates and clothes on our backs. But what we are seeing now is a recognition that the most credible way for putting that food and those clothes in place is through tackling climate change, and so the silo treatment is no longer logical.

2015-12-10 14.04.18
Activists’ kitchen

So there is a strong message of unity and collaboration coming out of Paris at the moment. But then there is also a lot of blaming and shaming, finger pointing, and calling out the evil people in the corporations who cause climate change, with statements like “we know their names and we know where they live” being thrown around, portraying “them” as enemies that need to be hunted down.

I am just not convinced that we can completely and honestly participate in the paradigm shift we are attempting to create in this movement if we don’t also realise the necessity to treat everyone and everything  with respect as fellow (human) beings on this planet. When battle cries followed by cheers and applause are sounded in the ZAC, I wonder if this climate movement will manage to work beyond conventional framings of struggle and opposition.

Today I also bumped into a woman from Equador who told me about a (semi-serious?) suggestion from her delegation at the COP to invite corporate leaders to attend ceremonies led by their indigenous healers, in order to purify and heal the obviously broken and anguishing souls that are driving the logic of the neoliberal economic takeover of our lives. What a thought!

But to end on a positive note, I am seeing a lot of energy to continue experimenting with having a global climate movement, enabling communication and cooperation between all its diverse factions, beyond Paris. And such a coalition takes a very holistic approach to climate change, recognising how it relates to the economic system, wars, refugee crises, etc. The Coalition Climat 21 are looking to continue. Next gathering will be in Berlin February 13th-14th – put it in your diary!

Just the size and potential of this coalition will hopefully be demonstrated tomorrow, with people taking to the streets here in Paris either to “have the last word” and “show our leaders that we don’t accept this deal” or simply to show that we exist, we care and we “show solidarity for everyone already suffering from climate change” – depending on which part of the coalition you belong to. And the latest news is that the police have authorised the planned actions tomorrow, so maybe we won’t even have that many arrests!


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