Should we COP out?

By Hana Keegan

Unlike in the halls of the COP21, there are no suits, placards or microphones in the undecorated room of the Climate Coalition 21 (CC21) meeting. Established in preparation for the climate conference, the CC21 is an international coalition of civil society organisations that each identify themselves as members of the climate justice movement. On Rue Voltaire, a quiet, grey street in central Paris, 140 of us are crammed together, seated on the floor and in a sprawling circle of chairs. As the youngest in the room, I sit on the floor at the back, listening intently, taking in what a coalition looks like in practice.

For the past year and a half, the CC21 has been working together via conference calls and emails. In this manner, they organised mass mobilisations and events for people who came to Paris to demand climate justice and take part in the building of the movement.  Mobilisations in Paris and countries around the world were planned in conjunction with the COP21. However, they were explicitly framed as symbols of the movement’s solidarity and preparation for its work after the political negotiations. COP21 was expected to be a failure. It was expected that the agreement would not legally bind developed countries to limiting their emissions enough to prevent global temperatures rising by less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. It was also expected that developed countries would not commit enough financial support to help developing countries, those least historically responsible and most vulnerable to climate change, adapt to and deal with its effects. Even though CC21 members had low expectations of the COP21, they flew from all over the world to be in Paris for it. If each and every year politicians let us down, should the climate justice movement COPt out?

COP21 was given a lot of attention because it is the first conference at which a legal binding agreement on climate change was hoped for. Nevertheless, a key question now facing the CC21 and other civil society organisations is whether or not to continue to attend and organise around the annual COPs. Those who attended the 5 hour long, CC21 meeting had mixed opinions of the value of the COPs and what the climate justice movement will look like in the future. My impulse would be that the movement should move away from the COP space in favour of grassroots initiatives. However, while sitting on the floor of the CC21 meeting, I realised that it may be more complicated than that.

For the past 21 years, the COPs have been two weeks a year that draw politicians, business leaders, NGOs, activists, and mostly importantly, media attention. The event holds significant meaning within the consistently developing narrative of how the human race  has and will attempt to address climate change. There are rules and expectations that define how activists and civil society organisations can engage with the COP space. For example, the rules and regulations around actions or political alliances. Moving away from the COPs would change what the movement would focus its energies on and what it would look like. In the CC21 meeting, one person suggested that during the COP22 civil society should mobilise in locations that are worst effected by the impacts of a changing climate instead of the the location of the COP. By travelling to the locations worst effected by the impacts of a changing climate, attention would be drawn to the faces of real people and landscapes affected as well as bring the economic benefits of visitors. It would mean visiting, witnessing and understanding the experience of frontline communities. Leaders of climate justice organisations would share initiatives and strategies. This would give the opportunity for knowledge sharing and build connections within the movement. There are multiple ways in which civil society could mobilise without travelling to the COP venue. The question is whether these mobilisation would be seen by the international community.

While working with climate justice organisations in Paris, I realised the vitality of gaining media attention. The best way to disseminate a political message or opinion is through the crowds of journalists that flock to follow the political negotiations. Would the climate just movement be able to attract the same kind of coverage away from the COP space?

Whether we like it or not, the COPs have been and are currently climaxes in the plot of our ever-evolving, climate change story. The event is a milestone, an excuse for organisations to unite and mobilise. One of the lead facilitators of the CC21 argued that the coalition would not have formed without this excuse. No one really knows what the climate justice movement will look like from now on. I am not sure whether we should COPt out and go search more effective ways to address the fact that our climate is already changing.

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