Brandon Wu is director of campaigns and policy at Action Aid USA and he has just been reunited with his jacket. He’s spent a few chilly hours outside the COP25 United Nations climate summit in Madrid after being ejected from the venue. Earlier he had been part of an organised but extra-official protest in which youth, trade union, Indigenous, women and gender delegation groups beat empty pans and unfurled banners. ‘Police linked arms,’ he told Geographical, ‘forcibly marching people out of the door.’
The protestors were predominantly from the global south, Wu explains. They came to make a noise about rich countries blocking climate finance to poorer countries at the conference, instead pushing hard for controversial carbon markets and backsliding on their gender action plans.
The pans, he adds, were a nod to Chile, the intended hosts of the conference, where working class and Indigenous groups beat empty pots this October asking for social reforms. In a dark echo of the human rights abuses that followed, delegates’ badges in Madrid were ripped off, banners were torn down and freedom of speech was locked behind a giant steel door that separated the global south protestors from the rich polluting nations left inside the building.
2019 has been the break-out-year for civil society’s involvement in climate action. As global emissions continue to rise, there is an increasing sense amongst delegates that decision makers are failing. ‘We need kids not just with passion,’ said Costa Rican minister for environment, Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, in reference to the explosive Fridays for Future (FFF) climate strike movement, ‘but with really crazy ideas to build a change from the bottom up.’ Latest estimates of emission reductions necessary require a revolutionary seven per cent year-on-year decadal decrease to limit global warming to a relatively safe 1.5˚C. ‘Your failure,’ the 17-year-old Irish FFF activist, Theo Collin Moose, admonished leaders on Monday, ‘is a failure of imagination.’
Making visible previously underrepresented voices on climate has been possible in 2019 due to the massive social media platforms created by some of its predominantly female youth activists such as Luisa Neubauer, Jaime Margolin and Greta Thunberg. With a combined outreach of more than 11 million followers across her Twitter and Instagram platforms (it was only 642,000 when Geographical ran its April cover story on the movement), Thunberg commanded massive press interest at her second COP appearance. ‘Luisa and I will not be speaking today,’ she began on Monday. ‘Our stories have been told many times. It is the people especially from the global south and Indigenous communities who need to tell theirs,’ she said relinquishing the microphone.
On Tuesday, Thunberg was declared Time magazine’s Person of the Year. She was back corralling media again, this time creating a platform for scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at an event named Unite behind the science. The IPCC’s published work details the grave threat posed by global business-as-usual. We need to be able to translate these numbers, 16-year-old Thunberg insisted of the general public’s dis-engagement with the crisis, adding that the politicians in charge today need better access to the information.
Sivan Kartha from the Stockholm Environmental Institute grasped the opportunity to be more explicit. ‘Anyone who decides on the behalf of others,’ he said in reference to rich nations currently leading us to a 5˚C warmer world, are ‘looking at an existential risk to humankind and deciding to take a gamble.’
Facts, just like the Indigenous representatives on Monday, were being demarginalised and empowered on Thunberg’s platform. ‘Thank you,’ said climate policy director, Dr Rachel Cleetus, to the teenager when she received the microphone, ‘for making space for science to have a voice.’
Poor and discriminated people are more affected by climate change, explained anthropologist Larissa Soto at the parallel Social Summit for Climate Action, an event that is still going ahead in Santiago, Chile. The venue is reached by local bus, down a hot, treeless highway in the deprived Cerrillos neighbourhood. Along the route, the skeletal remains of the official COP25 infrastructure are still visible in Cerrillos Bicentennial Park.
The Social Summit aims to amplify predominantly Latin American marginalised voices. It was deliberately located by the organising NGO, FIMA, in a nearby but separate venue to the official COP to separate its delegates from business and industry. When the 30,000 delegates were moved to Madrid due to security concerns for delegates, this peoples’ Social Summit nevertheless pushed on.
In both Madrid and Santiago, loss and damage are the big buzzwords this year. In the climate lexicon, they are what comes next when attempts at climate mitigation and adaptation break down. The fallout is felt largely in the global south from increased intensity and frequency of storms, forest fires, floods and droughts. Low polluting nations lack the capacity to effectively prevent or control these disasters precipitated by emissions in the global north. ‘When you don’t take people into account,’ Soto added, ‘climate action leads to conflict.’
Louis Reuben is an Indigenous Nez Perce from the town of Lapwai on the Snake River in Idaho and had travelled to the Social Summit to share first-hand experience of how national efforts to adapt to climate change are affecting vulnerable communities. ‘They didn’t take account of the environmental impact dams would have,’ he says of US government efforts to build renewable capacity. ‘Salmon is a sacred food for us… and have a tough time navigating.’
Indigenous people are also being adversely affected by tree-planting efforts, explained Michel Prieur at the Social Summit. The president of the International Centre for Comparative Environmental Law explained how people are being evicted from ancestral lands, in order that businesses can make a profit from climate change and carbon sequestration.
Over in Madrid, Rita Uwaka from Friends of the Earth called for solidarity and sustainable solutions that that put world forests in the hands of communities who have a proven track record, rather than ‘corporations with their aim of making profits for private pockets with produce to feed international markets.’
Civil society is fighting a battle against headline-grabbing global politics at COP25 that is distracting focus from the climate crisis. As the United Kingdom goes to the polls today for an election spurred by Brexit deadlock, the Conservative Party which called the initial referendum on leaving the EU, mentions climate change only once in the first 39 pages of its manifesto, dedicating only one full page to the existential threat. In the US, the billionaire businessman and current president has called the Paris Agreement a ‘bad deal’. Press attention paid at COP25 has at times turned to Trump’s impeachment for prioritising personal interest over public, rather than applying scrutiny to the pariah nation’s actions on climate. In Brazil, Bolsonaro is blaming environmentalists for starting forest fires, name-calling Thunberg a pirralha, or ‘brat’, after she drew attention to murdered Indigenous land defenders in the Amazon.
‘The only way to force governments to take action,’ according to Brazilian environmental lawyer, Rubens Harry Born, at the Santiago Social Summit, is ‘mobilisation of people.’ Youth in Madrid at a Monday event called simply We Dare, explained how their intense year of bilateral strike-actions since COP24 has meant border, cultural and religious differences between young activists have been broken down. ‘This connection,’ explained a visibly emotional 15-year-old activist from Norway, ‘has made us feel closer to one another than we do to our own governments.’ As the giant steel door separated the diverse and unsilenceable masses from the United Nations negotiations yesterday, unity is needed more now than ever.
ANGRY BUT CONSTRUCTIVE
There are lots of reasons for both civil society and scientists to be angry at COP25. Environmental land defender Rodrigo Mundaca explained at the Social Summit in Santiago that the nation had been rendered unable to hold the event because of its violations of human rights. Privileged fossil fuel lobbyists, Irish youth activist Collin Moose observed, are consequently receiving VIP treatment in Madrid, while unheard voices from the global south have been unable to travel.
The COP25 president, Carolina Schmidt, was distracted from the activist crackdown yesterday. Instead she was tweeting party-political support for her Chilean ex-cabinet colleague, Andrés Chadwick, found culpable by the senate for his oversight of police brutality this October and assassination of Indigenous Mapuche, Camilo Catrillanca, in 2018. Meanwhile, Schimdt inexplicably refuses to sign the South American and Caribbean Escazú Accord to protect environmental defenders, and has failed to submit an expected update to Chile’s commitments to the Paris Agreement while the nation hosts COP25 in Madrid.
Special interests, running counter to global well-being, have been exposed at the highest levels of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. ‘Children, I apologise from the bottom of my heart,’ David Boyd, special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said at COP25 on Monday, ‘we are failing you.’ Yet civil society and science has formed a powerful symbiotic relationship in Madrid. Marginalised Indigenous, women and gender representatives, as well as unemancipated children are sharing the black-and-white catastrophic science of IPCCC reports on platforms and in formats the general public can relate to.
Meanwhile the scientists and advisors are learning they must borrow from the Fridays for Future playbook to reach the decision makers. Ex-Irish president, Mary Robinson, seemed to suggest at one point, while chairing a panel discussion, that youth should storm fossil fuel lobbyist stands at COP25. Boyd, too, embraced the shift, leading a chant for climate justice in both English and Spanish at the end of the We Dare event on Monday. ‘What do we want? Climate Justice!’ shouted the special rapporteur. ‘When do we want it? Now!’ And despite the tie and the greying hair, he sounded like he meant it.
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