Democracy Now! is in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where the COP27 U.N. climate conference has entered its second week amid protests against the host government’s repression and world leaders’ inaction on the climate crisis. We speak with Asad Rehman, executive director of War on Want and lead spokesperson for the Climate Justice Coalition, who risked arrest to participate in a climate justice protest along with hundreds of others in Egypt on Saturday. “You can’t have the very people burning the planet sitting here and pretending to be drafting the solutions to it, and that’s exactly what’s happening in these climate negotiations,” says Rehman. He says imprisoned Egyptian British activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah is “part and parcel of our struggle,” as calls to free El-Fattah continue after he sent proof of life in a letter for the first time since beginning a full hunger and water strike last week. We also speak with Nigerian environmentalist Nnimmo Bassey, who says the perception that this is an African COP is “a big misnomer,” as the African delegates feel largely excluded.
AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from the U.N. climate summit, COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
On Saturday, hundreds of protesters marched inside the conference venue, calling on wealthy nations to pay reparations for their role in causing the climate crisis. The United States is the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. On Friday, President Biden attended the climate talks in Egypt and pledged to spend $11 billion annually on international climate aid.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We’re racing forward to do our part to avert the “climate hell” that the U.N. secretary-general so passionately warned about earlier this week. We’re not ignoring harbingers that are already here. It’s true so many disasters — the climate crisis is hitting hardest those countries and communities that have the fewest resources to respond and to recover. That’s why last year I committed to work with our Congress to quadruple U.S. support to climate finance and provide $11 billion annually by 2024, including $3 billion for adaption.
AMY GOODMAN: President Biden was briefly disrupted by a group of youth and Indigenous activists from the United States who unfurled a large banner reading “People vs. Fossil Fuels.” Climate justice activists criticized the United States for not doing more and questioned whether Congress would approve even a fraction of Biden’s pledge.
Meanwhile, as the U.N. climate summit enters its second week here, pressure is growing on the Egyptian government to release political prisoners, including the imprisoned writer and technologist, activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah. Alaa’s sister, Sanaa Seif, led Saturday’s climate march, where many chanted “No climate justice without human rights.”
To talk about all of this and more, we’re joined by Asad Rehman, executive director of War on Want and lead spokesperson for the Climate Justice Coalition.
Asad, welcome back to Democracy Now!
ASAD REHMAN: Real pleasure. And a pleasure to see you in person.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to see you in person. This is our first major trip since the pandemic. Asad, this is a very different kind of summit, as what is laid on the table, not by the states but by civil society, is that human rights and climate justice must be considered as one. Can you talk about the joining of these two specifically when it comes to the demand for the release of the leading political prisoner in Egypt, not to mention thousands of others that are held, Alaa Abd El-Fattah?
ASAD REHMAN: Well, for the climate justice movement, human rights has been an inextricable part of it. I mean, ultimately, the fight around climate crisis is the most basic of right, the right to be able to live and survive and live with dignity. But we also know that, within our movement, that as we make demands, our movements face repression and criminalization. Two environmental defenders are murdered each and every week around the world. We know that criminalization is now taking place in the Global North with the right to protest being restricted, as well as in the Global South.
So we came here knowing that, of course, our fight for climate justice was a fight for human rights. And we have always listened to and responded to the call of our movements where the COP takes place as to the issues they want to raise up, how we can best support them, how we can amplify their voice. And, of course, the call to free Alaa has been one that has been very central to climate justice organizations coming to the COP and obviously raising our voices here.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, there have been a number of Egyptian activists that didn’t even make it to the COP before they were imprisoned in Egypt, where this COP is being held. The significance of this?
ASAD REHMAN: Well, let’s be realistic. The things we can do inside this COP venue, including the right to march, are denied to the majority of Egyptians. They’re denied the right to association, right to free speech, right to organize, right to protest. So, when we came here, we recognized that many of our movements would not be able to be here in person because of repression. The space itself is deliberately chosen to be quite distant from major population areas. There are huge restrictions, that are, of course, a huge security operation taking place all around the COP, both inside and outside. And many of the Egyptian human rights activists and environmental and climate justice activists, of course, are already in prison, 60,000 of them in prison. So —
AMY GOODMAN: More than the number of people attending this summit —
ASAD REHMAN: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: — which is tens of thousands of people.
ASAD REHMAN: Absolutely. So, it was an obligation onto us, those who can attend here, who can be here, that we raise the voices of those people who were denied the opportunity to be here. Civil society has always been the ears and eyes and voice of frontline communities. And there is no more frontline community than those people who are behind bars for demanding a better world, the one that we are here fighting for.
AMY GOODMAN: Just before we went to air, Asad, here at COP27, I spoke to the longtime Nigerian environmentalist Nnimmo Bassey, director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation, about the protests here, both for climate justice and for human rights.
AMY GOODMAN: You were at the protest on Saturday. Can you talk about the significance of that protest?
NNIMMO BASSEY: Well, this was a very peculiar kind of protest, because usually we march on the streets of cities, but here we were having a protest march within the confined perimeters of the official COP venue. It was very surreal, and we just moved over a short distance. But still, again, in a certain sense, it showed the resilience of the people, because we didn’t want to legitimize any kind of controlled march in the city or in the town. So this was very important.
And then, the demands were mostly just denouncing the COP itself as lost and damaged. The COP is lost and damaged. And we also made very clear that net zero is a hopeless idea, because just pushing the — because we’re, eventually, using mathematics to solve the problem and then pushing the burden on the young people to whom the future belongs. And then we asked for, instead of just talking about loss and damage, that what we should be discussing at this time, because of extreme degradation, is the payment of a climate debt, which takes care of historical responsibility as well as current responsibility.
AMY GOODMAN: You were standing in the frontline right near Sanaa Seif, who is the sister of Alaa Abd El-Fattah. Can you talk about the significance of him in a desert prison while this COP goes on, and what the demand was?
NNIMMO BASSEY: Well, I think the key short phrase to capture it all is that there can be no climate justice without human rights. That was the slogan, and that really captures the situation. And we’re very worried about the human rights situation in Egypt and the activists who are in detention, who are on hunger strike and who are just suffering out there. And here we are discussing as though nothing is going on, nothing is — as if everything is normal. So, the march having that demand for the release of political — of Earth defenders, environmental defenders, of Alaa himself, was very extremely significant, really much.
AMY GOODMAN: And there was going to be a human rights conference right after COP in Cairo. What happened?
NNIMMO BASSEY: That meeting in Cairo would have shown that there’s a space for conversation in the country. But just when activists were getting ready to go to Cairo, to book their flight, book their hotels, we just got information that the meeting would not take place because it’s no longer authorized.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, this is called the Africa COP, the African U.N. climate summit.
NNIMMO BASSEY: It’s a big misnomer. This is not an African COP. Africa is not here. The poor people who are suffering floods, droughts and all kinds of adverse situations, they are not here. They can’t afford to get here. They wouldn’t get accreditation. They can’t afford the accommodation in this city that is mostly for tourists. It is a totally exclusive COP. I mean, the other COPs were exclusive, but this is super exclusive. We are all cordoned into a peninsula, cut off from even the country in which we are supposed to be. This is not an African COP. We are [inaudible] COP, another failed COP.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Nigerian environmentalist Nnimmo Bassey, director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation, speaking about whether this is Africa’s COP, as Egypt and other countries are billing it, though not necessarily African countries. Asad Rehman, if you can talk more about what that means, and who is represented here?
ASAD REHMAN: Well, who is represented here, we’re told, is tens of thousands of people represented here. Some of them are, of course, civil society, but there has been huge barriers to people being able to attend, particularly from Egypt itself and from the region, of costs, etc. But the majority of this climate negotiation has become a trade fair. We see corporate lobbyists. We’re seeing hundreds of fossil fuel lobbyists, many of them on government delegations now. We see big business here, saying, “We are providing the solutions,” while, of course, ordinary people and the people on the frontlines, whether they’re in Pakistan, Nigeria or across the Horn of Africa, and their movements aren’t physically here, which is why human rights is such an important part of what we’ve raised, because — you know, the case of Alaa is not about an individual. It is about symbolizing the reality of repression and criminalization and our desire that — not just free Alaa, but free them all. And when we say the “free them all,” of course that means not just the Egyptian prisoners, but all of our political prisoners around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: And when it comes to, for example, Alaa, do you think the Sisi regime is responding in any way? I mean, do you think it is possible he will be freed, on a hunger strike for the last seven months, now just completing a complete hunger fast without water for the last week?
ASAD REHMAN: Look, the Egyptian presidency thought that this COP would be the one where they would, you know, be able to shake hands, sign deals, do all of these background deals, do trade deals, and would bask in the fact that, you know, they were the ones that could deliver finally something positive on loss and damage, for example.
And instead, they have been faced with the reality that we, as civil society, have said, “Hold on. We’re not allowing business as usual. Actually, we’re not allowing you to bury the voice of the family of Alaa. The call for ‘free Alaa’ is a part and parcel of our struggle. And we’ve made it.”
So, yes, President Macron, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, they all came here, but they all did nothing. They left — they didn’t leave with Alaa. They didn’t get consular access for Alaa. But we, as civil society, have been relentless here, not only in terms of press conferences [inaudible] —
AMY GOODMAN: And just to say, consular access because he is not only an Egyptian citizen, but a British citizen, as well.
ASAD REHMAN: Yes, he’s a dual national. And until this morning, we didn’t even have proof of life. We didn’t — his family didn’t know whether he was alive or dead, whether he was being force-fed, whether he’s — etc.
And I think the pressure we’ve been putting here — the march, the press conference or the constant letter, the fact that we didn’t allow political leaders to come here and ignore the case of Alaa — has made a difference. We’re now saying it’s week two; the end goal is that Alaa leaves before this COP ends.
AMY GOODMAN: So, next year’s COP is in the United Arab Emirates, the country with the largest number of delegates here. I think there are about a thousand delegates from the United Arab Emirates. A number of them have links to fossil fuel industry. I mean, Global Witness has found that there is a — that the number of delegates with links to fossil fuels has increased 25% overall from the summit in Glasgow. But with the UAE, it also has one of the highest carbon emissions per capita in the world, not to mention its shameful human rights record, when you look at the workers and what has happened to them, the number of deaths of workers in the UAE. How do you interpret the decision of the COP to hold next year in UAE, following this year in Egypt?
ASAD REHMAN: I think, quite rightly, people would be absolutely shocked. Look, civil society have always said, you know, there should be some criteria. There should be criteria about where the COP is held. But there should also be criteria about who’s invited into this COP. That’s why civil society have asked for a conflict of interest, to be able to say, “Who are these delegates? What are their interests? What links do they have with the fossil fuel industry?” You can’t have the very people burning the planet sitting here and pretending to be drafting the solutions to it. And that’s exactly what’s happening in these climate negotiations.
I think what we are seeing now, increasingly civil society is saying these spaces need to be judged on their outcomes and their action and how they respond to the fact that we’re in an interconnected crisis of which human rights is a central part of it. So we’ll be taking that message forward. We’ll be saying, wherever the COP is held, we will be raising the voice about human rights. As civil society, that’s our commitment. And it won’t just be during the COP; it will be up to, during and after the COP, because this is the movement that we are creating, and this is the world that we want to create, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned loss and damage. Interestingly, Nnimmo Bassey said this U.N. climate summit is lost and damaged. But that is U.N. speak. Explain what that actually means on the ground in so many countries around the world.
ASAD REHMAN: So, when we look at the climate crisis, I would say there are three things that need to be done. There is the stop doing harm, i.e. stop emitting more pollution in the atmosphere. And there, we’ve seen rich countries refusing to do their fair share. And we’re heading, of course, towards a warming that could be close to 3 degrees.
Repair the harm, which is, in U.N. terms, adaptation. So, how do we live with the fact that we live in a warming planet? And that’s adaptation. That’s not just building seawalls. It’s how do we protect our food production, how do we guarantee people’s social protection, living wages. These are all the resilience that people need.
But the third element is you have to pay compensation for the damage you’ve caused, right? And that’s both economic damages, but of course there are damages which are beyond putting a cost on it — the cultures of people, people’s lands being lost. And loss and damage is the third element of that. And increasingly, the less we do of the first, the more we need to do of the third.
And so, the call here is that we must have a fund on loss and damage. And I hope by the end of the week, and I hope when ministers arrive today and we get into the political negotiations, that we can bridge that gap.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about Biden’s promise of $11 billion, and where Biden is right now, in Bali, Indonesia, with Chinese President Xi Jinping, what we have to understand about the U.S., the historically, by far, largest greenhouse gas emitter, and currently China, the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world?
ASAD REHMAN: So, this — I mean, from the United States’ perspective, you know, their line within these climate negotiations has always been very, very simple: “Yes, we recognize we have the largest historical responsibility. We don’t want to be liable for the damages we’ve caused. We don’t want to even talk about the fact that we’re the most. We should start the clock again right from now. And everybody should do the same action, and everybody should be responsible.” And, of course, what they mean also is, “You, China and India, you must also do what we are being expected to do.”
And, of course, from China and India’s perspective, it’s “Hold on. Eighty-three percent of this emissions is you. Why are you telling us? We’ve only just been — recently begun to pollute. Yes, we have to reduce our emissions, but you reduce them first. You put the money on the table to help the poorer countries. You live up to your liabilities, your responsibilities, your obligations. And then we’ll talk about ours.”
So, there is a challenge going on in terms of here between, of course, the richest countries. It’s often said, you know, when the United States sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. But when the United States refuses to take action, the rest of the world burns. And that’s the reality of what we’ve seen, that the United States has to live up to its responsibility of cutting emissions.
Now, President Biden came here last week, and he made a speech about climate change. And, of course, back home, we’re also — the United States, just like the United Kingdom and the European Union, is expanding oil and gas. And that’s exactly why the United Arab Emirates feels so able to have a thousand delegates here, in fossil fuels, because what they’re saying is, “Well, oil and gas can be the fuels of the future.” I mean, it’s impossible. How mad is that? But that’s because what we’ve seen here is a new part of a conversation which is largely about how do we remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and it’s all about carbon capture and storage, basically faulty, unproven technologies to allow the fossil fuel industry to continue as business as usual.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you for being with us, Asad, and we hope to come back to you this week or next, as the U.N. climate summit wraps up at the end of the week. We’ll be here throughout. Asad Rehman is executive director of War on Want, lead spokesperson for the Climate Justice Coalition.
Yes, coming up, President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping have just held their first in-person meeting since Biden became president. We’ll get a response. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Free Leonard Peltier” by Joe Troop in conjunction with the American Indian Movement, which organized Leonard Peltier’s Walk to Justice, a 1,100-mile march over two-and-a-half months from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Washington, D.C., that concluded Sunday. Marchers were calling for the release of Peltier, a Native American activist who’s been in prison since 1977.
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