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Twelve Days That Cooked the World: Combating the Climate Counterrevolution in Paris

UN climate negotiators’ failure to mandate adequate emissions reductions provides the moral justification for radical local action.

Sam Castro with Climate Guardian Angels blocks the entryway to Engie's headquarters in the La Défense business district in Paris, France, on December 10, 2015. Castro is from Australia, where Engie is responsible for a mine fire in Victoria that burned for 45 days and killed 11 people.

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Paris, France—Negotiators at the 21st U.N. Conference of the Parties (COP) in Paris are rapidly moving toward a global climate agreement that promises death and destruction — especially for certain small island and African nations.

If negotiators finalize the deal, it will lock each and every one of us into a world that promises nearly 3 degrees Celsius of planetary warming above preindustrial levels and operates within a framework that fails to recognize the reality that capitalism is inherently unsustainable as a system that demands infinite growth on a planet with finite resources.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process details how international treaties may be negotiated to set limits on greenhouse gases. Ironically, the Paris talks and the accord that party countries may produce reveal the purpose of this process to be the maintenance and protection of the global economic system driving extreme climate chaos, despite putting forward an agreement that will likely be hailed as the COP’s most ambitious yet.

This year’s talks contrast significantly with the COP’s last major summit in Copenhagen in 2009, which closed amid an atmosphere of severe discord, and was ultimately branded a failure by much of the media. Despite tense negotiations over key sticking points, the Paris talks have moved forward amid an air of optimism, making progress toward possibly the largest and most consequential global response to climate change in history — even though the deal may ultimately ensure the destabilization of natural systems under increasing pressure from climate disruption.

However, in spite of the bureaucratic rigmarole taking place inside Le Bourget, the actions of defiance taking place outside of it — in the face of a reactionary crackdown — suggests something just shy of hope. Activists here have remained resilient and adaptive, continuing to mobilize despite French authorities’ extended ban on marches, rallies and “outdoor activities” in the wake of the ISIS attacks on Paris in November.

An impressive array of actions is unfolding. The weekend before the talks began, people hit the streets in record-setting global protests. In Paris, activists formed a 10,000-person-long human chain and hundreds were arrested after clashing with French police. Indigenous-led actions have included disruptions of events hosted by COP21’s corporate sponsors and banner drops protesting the omission of Indigenous rights from the potential COP agreement.

In a reinvigorated climate of fear and jingoism reminiscent of the period following 9/11, authorities have tightened security measures at the summit as part of an ongoing state of emergency that will continue for another two months. Armed officers, some mounted on horses, surround the Le Bourget site and linger around train stations, descending on anyone who walks away from their baggage for even a second. Even when entering a civil society space outside Le Bourget, bags are searched by authorities.

French police guard the headquarters of the electric utility Engie in the La Défense business district in Paris, France, on December 10, 2015. The photographer was detained and searched by police shortly after capturing this image.

In a preemptive action before the talks opened, French authorities put at least 24 activists under house arrest and raided several activists’ apartments and squats in Paris and across France, issuing warrants under state-of-emergency laws and seizing computers and personal items.

But even as France hosts world leaders to address climate change, the government’s blessing in allowing league soccer games and the Christmas market on the Champs Élysées to move forward reminds us, as it did after 9/11, why we must look beyond Western state actors for answers to global problems: because the highest civic duties in so-called “developed” nations are consumption and the protection of the capitalist markets that are fueling the climate crisis.

“What puts us into [a] state of shock … is the gap between event and narrative, and that is why it is so dangerous for us to stay apart in these moments because it is only when we come together that we can tell stories to make sense of the world,” author and environmental activist Naomi Klein told a crowd during an event in Montreuil, France. “So when we are told by our politicians that we should be afraid, that we have to stay in our homes and if we must go out, it is only to shop, that makes the shock worse.”

Author and journalist Naomi Klein speaks during the People’s Climate Summit event in the Montreuil suburb of Paris, France, on December 6, 2015.

Climate justice activists in Paris know this, and that’s why they’re continuing to mobilize for a mass action in the streets as the talks close on December 12, despite the suspension of many basic civil rights in France. These activists are taking great risks to oppose Western world leaders’ celebration of a potential deal, which, after more than a decade of negotiations, may prove too little, too late.

Plunging Ahead: Combating Counterrevolution

As climate justice advocates organize demonstrations and hold discussions, panels and forums within an international convergence space at the myriad civil society events hosted alongside the official COP21 summit, they are also holding trainings to mobilize for December 12, when thousands are expected to take to the streets. Activists plan to physically embody the movement’s “red lines” — the minimal conditions for a climate accord that would provide for a more just and habitable planet and which activists here predict will be crossed in the final text of the deal.

A view from the inside of the Climate Action Zone, a civil society convergence space in Paris, France, on December 9, 2015.

The energy that powers these parallel resistance events is a kinetic one, changing day to day in kaleidoscopic shifts of colorful people coming together in seemingly infinite combinations around preplanned and spontaneous actions. It’s hard to keep up with the dizzying amount of activity, and each day brings with it the wish that one could be at two places (or four or five) at once.

But the energy here is also potential, as those willing to take risks in the harsh atmosphere of crackdown and corporate capture seem to be holding their breaths for a final showdown.

“The plan for the 12th, from the very beginning, was that we wanted to have the last word; we wanted the last word to be ours,” Coalition Climate 21 coordinator Juliette Rousseau told Truthout. “The gatherings that are banned are political ones, so I’m not sure it’s about safety…. [The French government] has made it impossible to be on the street and not be disobedient.”

A climate justice activist paints a banner on December 8, 2015, in anticipation of demonstrations in Paris, France, on December 12, 2015.

The “Climate Games” is an online tool that supports creative disobedience in which teams of activists register anonymously and download targets for direct action. As of this writing, there have been more than 80 such actions — with more on the way. In preparation for December 12, the organizers behind the Climate Games have played a key role in leading direct action trainings. In light of the state of emergency, a strategy of decentralization has worked well for the small bands of climate justice activists participating in the Games.

“We thought [the Climate Games] was a really interesting format to make people find their own creativity, form teams, organize, have a decentralized format that therefore is very aligned with what we think is the approach to the solution to the climate crisis — that is, people finding their own power,” Isa Fremeaux, who is helping facilitate the Climate Games in Paris, told Truthout. “In the context of a state of emergency, where pretty much all the voices are being silenced, all the big gatherings are being forbidden … the creativity, the flexibility that these kinds of forums offer is exactly what is needed.”

Direct actions here have focused on disrupting the unprecedented corporate sponsorship of the COP. For example, they have targeted a business conference, “Solutions COP21,” whose partners include Engie (formerly GDF Suez), Renault-Nissan, Suez Environnement and L’Oréal. Activists say these corporations are peddling false climate solutions that promote privatization. Scores of protesters were dragged out from the Grand Palais on December 4 by private security after holding a “toxic tour,” speaking about how the business of the COP21’s sponsors impacts their communities.

“There is a great space given to corporations, I mean especially in [this] COP as the French government has, from the very beginning, asked for the help of big corporations to fund … the COP. So the sponsors of the COP, are … big corporations, and most of them have a big impact on climate change,” Rousseau told Truthout. “I think it’s a bit ironic, and definitely we need spaces where we can have more critical voices and where we can demonstrate, what, for us, the real solutions are.”

Two of Solutions COP21’s partners, Engie and Suez Environnement, are also major sponsors of the UNFCCC summit, and are the subject of a report out this month from Corporate Accountability International detailing the track record of four major corporations sponsoring the talks. The report, “Fueling the Fire,” examines how Engie, Suez Environnement, the global banking giant BNP Paribas and French utility Électricité de France have papered over their corporate abuses, including covering up their lobbying to undermine environmental policy with a greenwashing PR strategy.

Actions here have also been strongly led by people of color working to center environmental justice issues and calling out environmental racism, especially Indigenous peoples protesting the omission of Indigenous rights from the accord.

“A lot of the most pristine, biodiverse places that exist now are because Indigenous people live there; they protect those areas,” said Jihan Gearon, who is Diné, from the Navajo Nation in Arizona. She is the executive director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, a part of the Indigenous Environmental Network. “And if the U.N. doesn’t protect us, then those places are just going to go away.”

Gearon has attended COP summits since 2004, and told Truthout that the presence of people of color has steadily grown since she first starting attending. She praised the civil society aspect of this year’s COP in particular for its inclusion and centering of delegations of color representing issues such as gentrification and environmental racism.

Grassroots groups united under the banner of the It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm delegation rallied at the Paris Peace Wall on Human Rights Day on December 10, 2015, to denounce the role of the U.S. delegation for a legacy of environmental racism.

Gearon’s reservation in Arizona is impacted by seven coal-fired power plants, as well as coal mines, oil and gas extraction, and a history of uranium mining. “[Indigenous people] have the most ability to really impact climate change and really create solutions for climate change because we are at the source of a lot of extraction,” she said. “When the world leaders here are trying to remove Indigenous peoples’ rights … from this text, … it really shows how much they’re afraid of us and know that we can stop false solutions like carbon trading and the carbon market.”

The Coming Storm: Climate Chaos

The goals of the conference itself are clear — on the surface. Delegations from nearly 200 countries as well as nearly 150 world leaders convened in Paris ostensibly to come to consensus, possibly today, on a universal accord that would commit negotiating governments to limiting greenhouse gas emissions to within the 2-degree-Celsius mark above preindustrial levels that they’ve deemed “allowable.”

As the talks enter their final day, a final point of contention remains: whether to maintain a goal of keeping a planetary temperature “below” or “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, or to aim instead for a target of 1.5 degrees — a limit vital to the survival of many island nations.

But as Truthout’s Dahr Jamail points out in his latest climate dispatch, climate scientists, including James Hansen, have demonstrated that even an increase of 1 degree Celsius is enough to spur the flooding of coastal cities due to sea level rise, extreme weather events and positive feedbacks loops that speed the process of planetary warming. We have already surpassed a global temperature average of 1 degree Celsius this year.

Months before delegations gathered here for negotiations, the U.N. announced that even if negotiating countries carry out the pledges they make to curb emissions, we will still see a long-term planetary temperature increase between 2.7 and 3.5 degrees Celsius, accounting for the greenhouse gases already released into the atmosphere. So, despite the grandiose and self-congratulatory promises made at this year’s summit, the 2-degree mark is deceptive.

Party countries, dominated by wealthy Western nations, are promising a limit of at least 2.7 degrees Celsius even as scientists warn that the Zachariae Isstrom glacier’s rapid retreat in Greenland is opening up a second major “floodgate” of ice melt that, together with its neighboring glacier, would result in a potential total of more than 1.1 meters of sea level rise. Meanwhile, 2015 remains on track to become the hottest year ever recorded with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels exceeding 400 parts per million.

But as the Paris conference comes to a close, its departure from the atmosphere of the 2009 Copenhagen talks certainly does seem to represent progress in a UNFCCC process that has been playing out since the original Rio Earth Summit was held in 1992 — during which time global carbon emissions have risen 48 percent.

However, it may be less important how this year’s talks compare to Copenhagen and more important how they both compare and contrast with the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. While the Kyoto Protocol was fully legally binding under the foundation treaty of the UNFCCC and remains international law, it became practically useless after Congress failed to ratify it. Now, the United States has deemed a similar Paris treaty with legally binding emissions cuts a political impossibility — a political tide climate justice activists continue to swim against.

“This is not a deal that can keep us safe,” Klein said in Montreuil, referring to the deal being discussed at the Paris talks. “This is a deal that will lead to 3 to 4 degrees warming, … and even this dangerous, dangerous road is not going to be legally binding. We were told in the beginning that legally binding was off the table, and now they’re telling us that legally binding means they’re legally bound to negotiate forever.”

U.S. negotiators favor a hybrid approach in which only some parts of the Paris text would be binding, partly due to Republican opposition to any deal. Congressional Republicans backed by the oil and gas industry have voted to block federal rules cutting emissions from power plants, a key component of the Obama administration’s climate plan, which those lawmakers have threatened the next president could undo.

Yet the disproportionate focus on the eventual legal framework of the Paris accord obscures other important considerations. Even if the accord were binding, that would not actually ensure party countries would meet their emissions reduction obligation absent an international enforcement mechanism. What is more important than a binding framework in ensuring the goals laid out in Paris are met is follow-up procedures, including monitoring, reporting and verification mechanisms.

During a press conference in advance of the Paris summit, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern told reporters that “there’s a lot of progress that still needs to be made” in regard to transparency measures, saying, “Some countries do good inventories [of emissions], and many don’t yet.”

The U.S. has joined the so-called “high-ambition” coalition pushing countries to ratchet up their emissions reduction pledges every five years and introduce a standard system for the reporting and monitoring of nations’ emissions to include both rich and poor countries. Under this veneer of pushing for a more aggressive deal, the U.S. is trying to reorient an idea central to the UNFCCC process: that rich nations are more responsible for mitigating climate change because they have emitted the most greenhouse gases so that this burden is seen as the universal responsibility of every party country.

Stern and other envoys representing wealthy nations are able to wield a disproportionate influence over the talks. They come to the table with nearly unlimited resources and engage in a negotiating tactic that excludes poorer nations, organizing informal side meetings behind closed doors with other countries likely to agree to their terms. Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden regarding the 2009 Copenhagen talks also revealed a U.S. strategy of spying on other delegations.

This climate hegemony of rich nations is why all signs currently point to negotiators reaching an agreement that won’t include binding emissions targets or financial commitments to poor nations.

During the 2009 talks, rich nations pledged $100 billion per year to the U.N. Green Climate Fund that disperses money to poorer nations most impacted by climate change to fund transitions to renewable energy. But those pledges only run to 2020, so a key component of the Paris talks is determining what replaces them.

The U.S. pledged this week to double the budget to $861 million by 2020 for adaptation projects that would help poorer nations prepare for the impacts of climate change, in a final effort to seal a deal. The funds come in addition to $3 billion the U.S. already pledged to the Climate Fund, but congressional Republicans have vowed to block the funds in a final budget deal to derail a Paris accord.

However, the Climate Fund was set up as a pool of both public and private sector cash. With energy companies vying for funds dedicated to helping poor countries transition and adapt to climate change, much of this money gets funneled through the financial sector. Some nations, most prominently the U.K., have pushed for the creation of a private-sector facility as part of the Climate Fund to dole the money out through big banks to large-scale corporate projects. The World Bank has also played a major role as an intermediary for funding.

With billionaires, the World Bank and the financial sector all prominent players in meting out funding, the Climate Fund is increasingly shaped around the logic of capital, not climate justice.

Rich nations’ refusal to agree to adequately compensate for the “loss and damages” poor countries incur after extreme weather events demonstrates the central framework of austerity in which the talks operate. The U.S. has agreed to draft language using the words “loss and damage,” yet it is pushing poor countries to forgo all rights to compensation and liability in the future.

The poorest half of the global population is only responsible for 10 percent of planetary emissions and lives mainly in the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, while the richest 10 percent of people in the world are responsible for close to 50 percent of all global emissions, according to Oxfam.

Thus, while many in the mainstream media and civil society applaud what may actually be the most ambitious agreement to ever come out of a COP summit, the solutions offered by dominating party nations — from implementing emissions cuts through market-driven cap and trade to a neocolonial funding apparatus that reinforces the priorities of private interests in poor nations — the UNFCCC process is based, ultimately, on putting a price tag on nature — and on lives.

Just as previous ambitious agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol didn’t stop the climate chaos currently fueling today’s refugee crisis in Europe, potentially the U.N.’s best climate accord yet won’t prevent the coming storm of previously locked-in emissions. The current flood of Syrian refugees is just a small taste of what’s still to come — as it was sparked, in part, by an extreme drought that a March 2015 study found was exacerbated by climate change.

A street art piece at the Global Village of Alternatives event in the Montreuil suburb of Paris, France, links the refugee crisis to climate change on December 6, 2015.

A New Conquest of Power: Local Politics

We know that any deal produced at the COP21 summit won’t be enough to keep us safe. So, where could we possibly start to bridge the emissions gap?

The abysmal failure and corporate capture of the UNFCCC process at this juncture in history represents arguably the highest level of governmental and institutional failure. But this failure at the international level also provides the penultimate moral justification for localized action — including traditional organizing and disobedient direct action — to bridge the emissions gap.

Some local leaders of major cities, including New York, London and Tokyo, are already moving on this front. More than 1,000 mayors also met in Paris at the Climate Summit for Local Leaders, the largest global gathering of local officials focused on climate change, and issued a declaration to commit to 100 percent renewable energy in their respective cities.

The cities are part of the U.N.’s Compact of Mayors, a global network of cities that represents more than 550 million people and a quarter of the global economy. According to the Guardian, “more than 450 cities with a combined population of nearly 1 [billion] people have now pledged to reduce emissions by more than 50 [percent] in around 15 years by encouraging walking and cycling, reducing emissions from landfills, switching to renewables, and making people change the way they travel.”

Each city has proposed a different plan to move toward 100 percent renewables, but in many cases the promises being made by leaders at the local level dwarf the pledges made by party nations at the COP.

Still, these pledges on their own aren’t enough, and lack solid binding frameworks as well as accountability measures that would ensure the cities meet their emissions reduction targets.

That’s why, as the COP21 talks close, it’s more important now than ever for privileged activists in the global North to turn our focus inward — to our own cities, towns and municipalities — to demand local leaders provide transition plans that not only scale up renewable energy but also focus on making our communities more resilient to the impacts of climate disruption.

Climate justice activists may even be able to hold more sway closer to home, because, if any shred of democracy exists, its pieces can be found at the local level. That’s especially true in the U.S., where now, even an elite academic study out of Princeton University confirms the nation operates effectively as an oligarchy, not a democracy.

This oligarchic rule has also become the norm for state-level politics, and this was on display too, in Paris. In one of the first interruptions to take place within Le Bourget’s green zone, where not even targeted banners are allowed, a group of activists disrupted a panel featuring state representatives billed as “local climate leaders.”

The panel included Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Matt Rodriquez and Chris Davis, a senior adviser to Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee. The activists, constituents of the politicians, called out the politicians’ support for natural gas fracking projects and the greenwashing of their records.

Activists call out Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin’s support for a fracked gas pipeline despite claiming to be a local climate leader during a panel held by Georgetown University inside Le Bourget’s Climate Generations Area on December 9, 2015, in Paris, France.

At the city level, however, it’s still politically possible to use tools like recall elections and flooding city council meetings to demand climate action that is just and resilient. Of course, even at home, climate advocates face an uphill battle against corporate influence of local officials, and the threat of state preemption of local authority.

Activists are increasingly turning to nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action after finding every institutional avenue of reform through the traditional democratic system exhausted, from the local level up to the international level. For many, the only moral higher ground left is to take back their own power and no longer rely on a defunct authority for representation. In this U.N. failure, they gain the highest ethical justification for shutting down extreme extraction operations, which threaten our health, homes and planet.

“Even if we had the best agreement coming out of the COP, which we know isn’t the case, it’s still … in the air,” Coalition Climate 21’s Rousseau told Truthout. “What we need is actual acts at the domestic level, at the local level and for this we definitely need to push the local communities and the towns and need to put pressure on our own government.”

Moving toward the post-Paris work of turning inward should not just be about the particulars of our local politics. It should also be about finding strength, resilience and even hope within ourselves.

“Hope is not about what you think you can achieve,” Rousseau said. “Hope is about your deep belief that it could be otherwise, that the world could be different. And the moment you’re convinced that the world could be different, [it] makes the present you live in unacceptable, and it’s what’s at the beginning, what’s at the origin, of you taking action.”

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