Outside In: COP21, Paris

Shoe demonstration at Place de la Republique on Sunday November 29th. Photo Credit: Sébastien Longuet.

By Brynna Golden

A gust of wind jolted the airplane and smushed my sleeping face into the cool oval window to my left. The cold tremor woke me quickly from my short travel nap. I stretched and pressed my groggy cheek back to the glass. In the dim light I could barely make out some massive swaths of white and dark, patch-worked over the earth below me. I couldn’t tell if the divide was between land and sea or the snow and rock of a mountain range. From the slowly lightening sky I guessed we were far from the United States and close to reaching my layover in Iceland, the halfway point of my journey. On route to my first COP (Conference of the Parties) under the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), I would then fly from Iceland to Paris for the 2015 Climate Negotiations.

As I peered from the little window in the sky I began to see small pockets of light emerging in the landscape below. I pressed my nose up closer and watched. The lights began as tiny far interspersed dots and clusters but as we flew on they popped up closer and closer together. More of them concentrated in one place until we were flying thousands of miles above some unknown city. I have flown many times and during takeoffs I have watched, the normal sized streetlights, buildings, and people, transform into a world of miniature dollhouse replicas. I have seen the maps showing the spread of light pollution across the U.S. over recent decades. Together these images represent the massive expanse of human society and the increasing impact we have on the world. Somehow these images have always seemed removed from actuality in some way, they represent a growing problem, a problem I had yet to feel personally. But as I peered down on this glowing sea made up of millions of little lights, on my way to the climate negotiations in Paris, it hit me how truly great a systematic change is needed to get our planet off the dangerous path we continue to follow. Though electricity for lighting is in no way the largest contributor to climate change, it was not the electricity these lights used that evoked such a strong feeling, but what these many lights represented. For each light there is at least one person that uses fuel to drive, take trains, or fly. They create waste, consume technology, resources, energy, space, and yes, use electricity. Sometimes, I must admit I fear the world we have created may already be too great and we may already be too entrenched our ways to effectively address climate change on a large scale.

At some point these doubts and fears have probably crossed every climate activists mind. But succumbing to the ennui these worries can cause is also a dangerous path to follow. Although there is a vast amount that needs to be addressed in this year’s agreement in Paris, and the outcome is till uncertain, this is the worst time to be bogged down by what ifs and doubts. There is too much to be done to let yourself get stuck on negativity.

This is my first experience with any international climate negotiations. Now that I am here in Paris, I am heartened by the overwhelming passion and involvement I am surrounded by here every day. As climate activist Naomi Klein reminded me in a speech she gave last night, the science says that we can make changes in time to prevent large scale irreversible warming to the planet. But this time of opportunity is short. This means that now is the crucial time for all of us in Paris to do anything we can to put pressure on the negotiations and I am lucky to be here to do just that.

Because it is a time of great opportunity it can be overwhelming for those of us not inside the COP to decide where to focus our energy outside. At first when our delegation learned that only 8 of us (now 9 by a stroke of luck) out of 17, would be able to get accreditation to enter the COP, we were worried that we would not be as useful outside of the negotiations. But here in Paris I have observed, not exactly the opposite, but something very different than the scenario I originally imagined. I have talked with members of my delegation on the inside and I can see how difficult and disheartening it can be to face the  impressive ineptitude exhibited by our governments every day. It is a tremendous opportunity to be inside the COP and to be able to experience a complete immersion in international climate negotiations. But it takes so much time and energy to do this that delegates on the inside have no time for anything else. This is where we come in. Those of us outside have much more freedom to participate in climate justice actions, go to workshops, coordinate with other organizations and bring this knowledge back to those who cannot attend these events.

It turns out that the place where there is the greatest possibility to influence the negotiations could be from the outside. This doesn’t mean that actions are likely to directly change negotiators positions, as state actors are usually already set in their ways going into the climate talks. But if the messages communicated in our outside actions are strong enough, they may be able to impact the greater global dialogue on climate change. If movements and actions bring the media spotlight needed to important climate issues, they may be able to influence the negotiations in the longer term. If we as outside civil society groups can shift the narrative to focus on the issues that are not being addressed by our leaders in the negotiations, then there is a greater chance that those inside may listen, if not now at least in the future.

The French have tightened security at the COP to a suffocating degree. Just today a group of activists who were accredited with observer badges were detained for wearing a ring of makeup around one eye when entering the COP. Even our faces are under police control. Some actions can be authorized at the COP but these are rare. For those inside, participation in any unauthorized action can result in the loss of accreditation badges, banning of their organization in the future and expulsion from the negotiations. This means that the safest and most accessible space for these important actions to happen is outside. Even though France is in a state of emergency, and therefore no gatherings of more then two people with the same political message are allowed, there is still the possibility of organizing outside action in creative ways. Our delegation has been working to coordinate with other activist groups like YOUNGO (a coalition of Youth NGOs) and DCJ (Demand Climate Justice) to create an even stronger, united climate movement in the coming week. Peaceful actions have already made international news like the Human Chain action, and the silent shoe demonstration at Place de la République. These were actions that happened in place of the climate march that was cancelled by the French police. The Human Chain extended along the route originally planned for the climate march and the 11,000 shoes were left to represent those who would have marched that day. Both events took place last Sunday without incident. The later clashes with police were not related to these actions. The success of the Human Chain and the shoe demonstration bodes well for future peaceful actions planned in Paris. Because the police tolerated these actions, as neither were considered civil disobedience, it is likely that similar future events will not incite confrontations with law enforcement. Our ability to organize and mobilize is restricted, but as civil society we have found creative and peaceful ways to get around these barriers and we will continue to do so.


One thought on “Outside In: COP21, Paris

  1. Brynna,
    What a thoughtful and great post that I will definitely share. It is fascinating to get your view of the inside/outside of the negotiation. How paranoid the Paris police are being; “no gatherings of more than two people with the same political message.” Really?? We can’t let terrorism, or fear of another attack, curb our civil liberties to that degree. Otherwise, they’ve won.
    As it regards the very urgent issue in Paris now, to get a meaningful global climate treaty, please hold out hope, I know my generation (I am 55, mom of Sara Velander) hasn’t left your generation a legacy we are proud of. We should have done much more, much earlier–but I do appreciate that you are out there with the rest of the delegation trying to make positive change and influence the course of history. We can do this! Keep it up!
    All the best,

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