The Cops of COP21: Arrests at the Paris Climate Talks

The 2015 United Nations climate talks, known by the acronym COP21, started in Paris on November 30 and are scheduled to continue until December 11. Opening a mere two weeks after 130 people were killed by armed gunmen at various social venues in central Paris, France’s prime minister Manuel Valls had already called for heightened security around the international event. But it has become clear that the specialized armed guards and police, and the measures being taken, are intended to protect only heads of state and corporate representatives, and not the victims of either so-called terrorism or climate change.

This 21st edition of the yearly climate summit is exceptionally important as 2015 has already been declared the hottest year ever recorded. According to the COP21 website, this latest meeting is expected to be marked by a ground-breaking international commitment to hold global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius. But many, including already vulnerable Small Island Developing States (SIDS), Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and environmental groups, claim that even an earlier agreement allowing for a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase might not be sufficient to mitigate the devastating effects of climate change. An independent analysis of COP commitments estimates that even if current pledges are abided by, they could only slow global warming to a 2.7 degrees increase, with disastrous results.

COP21 saw the arrival of an unprecedented 147 heads of state to the French capital, ostensibly gathering to discuss how to combat climate change. All roads leading into and out of Charles de Gaulle airport, located next to the Conference’s site at Le Bourget, a private airport, were blocked on November 29 and December 1 to allow unfettered transportation for the various leaders and their delegations attending the conference’s opening ceremonies. Meanwhile, already frightened citizens and visitors crowded onto public transportation, which they were incongruously also advised by the government to avoid due to increased terrorism risks.

COP21 was quickly reorganized to exclude the presence of civil society in the name of security. The Conference was to be divided into three sections: The Blue Zone, for leaders, negotiators and heads of state; The Gallery of Solutions, devoted to climate-oriented businesses; and the “Climate Generations” space, where NGO’s and other associations were to be located. According to an article in French newspaper “Le Monde”, “Since its participation is by invitation only, the Gallery will be able to have its activities maintained. The configuration of Climate Generations is still under discussion.”

November 29 was marked by 289 arrests at a climate justice demonstration in the heart of Paris in front of the spontaneous memorial created at the Place de la République in honour of those killed and injured earlier that month on November 13. In a presumed miscalculation by authorities, a cancelled parade left many climate activists, some coming from all over the world, without their carefully prepared route that was at least two years in the making. Led by Attac-France and Alternatiba, 10,000 people formed a human chain along the barricades blocking the route in a remarkable display of spontaneous cohesion and peaceful disobedience. Later, various climate supporters were met by heavily armed, black-clad soldiers, ultimately leading to tense confrontations and the use of pepper spray, tear gas and force.

On Friday, December 4, members of civil society were quickly removed from an exhibit purportedly open to the public. Even those sporting lanyards around their necks indicating their vetted and credentialed status were forcefully removed from Solutions COP21 at Paris’ Grand Palais. As they were beginning to lead discussions of “greenwashing” and corporate culpability for climate change amongst the kiosks and displays of such multinationals as Chevron (formerly Texaco, object of a decades’ long lawsuit for polluting Huaorani territory in the Amazon), Engie (formerly GDF-Suez, denounced, together with Suez Environnement, in a December 3 report by Corporate Accountability International) and voracious water consumer Coca-Cola, both uniformed and undercover guards surrounded and, in some cases, carried the speakers off. In one case, Hélène Charrier of Attac-France was making remarks to Democracy Now and suddenly pulled out of the hall as the cameras rolled.

In other happenings, members of Attac, Friends of the Earth, Bizi, and other organizations demonstrated in front of bank BNP-Paribas‘ Paris headquarters on Thursday, carrying inflatable crocodiles, or caimans. The amphibians were a reference to offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands and other “fiscal paradises,” as they are called in French, where protesters claim there is enough money to finance a transition to renewable energy.