Paris Climate Conference: red alert

Protesters march against Paris agreement to show there's a global movement "rising faster than the oceans" to take on climate change if governments won't


PARIS – In the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe on December 12, hours after the signing of what’s being described as a historic climate agreement, thousands gathered in a protest spearheaded by 350.org to demand more – and vow they would not “accept the unacceptable” when it comes to climate justice. The demonstration coincided with the release of the agreement’s final draft, which surprised critics by referencing national desires to keep warming within a 1.5° Celsius limit. Activists say it’s not strong enough without trade sanctions to punish countries that fail to meet greenhouse gas emissions targets.

Flanked on all sides by the Police Nationale, who contained the crowd by blocking street exits with riot shields and vans, demonstrators representing more than half a dozen eco groups rolled out a strip of cloth along the Avenue de la Grande Armée – a symbolic “red line” to show there is a global movement “rising faster than the oceans” to tackle climate change if governments won’t. Volunteers handed out red tulips in homage to casualties past and future of our warming planet. Organizers had originally estimated numbers in the tens of thousands, but the smaller turnout did little to blunt the energy of those present.

“The whole point of this is to tell negotiators, ‘You are not doing this in our name. We turn our backs on you you’ve failed us,'” said one coordinator giving a pep talk to young activists. “We’re doing this in order to build a movement of people that’s actually capable of shutting down fossil fuel production and taking over and democratically running our energy.”

As the crowd moved to join a second assembly at the Eiffel Tower, police stood aside to let demonstrators exit the area at intervals, keeping a close eye on mobilization efforts.

A number of groups helped plan the demonstration, which until early Saturday was considered an “un-permitted event” under the French government’s ban on mass gatherings in the wake of November 13’s terror attacks. Organizers had worked to brief participants on arrest procedures, but they received official approval just hours before the demo’s midday start.

The state of emergency declared in November has been widely criticized as a tool for muzzling activists. “They allowed football matches and Christmas markets,” said participant Natasha Ion as thousands more formed a human chain around the Champ de Mars, a park just south of the tower, after undergoing a weapons check and occasional carding by police at designated entry points.

A spokesperson for the “state of climate emergency” assembly noted activists’ defiance in holding the event. “Before the terror attacks, it wasn’t planned to have this protest under the Eiffel Tower,” he said. “We did it when we felt the public authority would block any other manifestation.”

The location was chosen as an act of both allegoric weight and civil disobedience, he said.

“It’s a symbol of COP21, it’s a symbol of the Industrial Revolution, and now it’s a symbol for justice.”

Author and activist Naomi Klein, who presented the Paris agreement document at the rally just after its release, condemned the pact’s failure to mention fossil fuels, oil or coal anywhere in its 31 pages. Boos went up.

James O’Nions of UK-based organization Global Justice Now noted that trade mega-pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trade in Services Agreement (both of the latter between the European Union and the U.S.) would undermine anything promised in Paris and effectively neutralize the entire COP21 document. “There’s nothing about trade agreements in there,” he says. “We knew that would happen. It’s going to be a disaster for the climate.”

Nick Dearden, Global Justice Now’s director, raised similar concerns, rebuking the largely positive narrative by media outlets covering the talks. He voiced frustration with negotiations at the conference, which he claims attempted to shift the burden of emissions reduction from wealthy to poor countries. 

He says the U.S.-led approach undermined concern for the welfare of the developing world. 

“The U.S. has introduced this language [in the agreement] that makes it look like they’re talking about equality,” he says. “But actually, that’s about them evading their historical responsibility. We’re trying to change that discourse.”

Malone Mullin is a philosophy undergraduate student at the University of Toronto currently on exchange in Edinburgh.

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