Sunday, 3 January 2016

Paris and beyond

I have been meaning to write this post for a while, since returning from Paris where we went to join the action towards the end of the COP21 climate summit, but the busy-ness of the end of term, and then Christmas got in the way!

The media have long since moved on from what might have been discussed or decided at COP21 so this post is distinctly less topical than it might have been. However, in retrospect, perhaps that is no bad thing.... because if climate change is one of the biggest threats facing our future, then the fact that we have stopped talking about it a month after the supposedly historic climate deal is perhaps somewhat worrying. Unless it has escaped my attention, we haven't even started to make the radical changes we might need to, so writing about it now is no less relevant than before Christmas.

Enough has probably been written about the deal itself: the politicians and much of the mainstream media heralding a historic deal; most aid agencies and campaign groups dismissing it as empty words which even if they were legally binding, which they are not, do not go anywhere near far enough to keep us away from the dangerous tipping points of climate chaos. In reality George Monbiot's assessment "By comparison to what it could have been it's a miracle; by comparison to what it should have been, it's a disaster" probably hits the mark.

We arrived in Paris the middle of week two of the talks, and apart from eating good food, drinking good wine and catching up with good friends, we spent much of our time in the "climate action zone" a centre set up for activists and others to come together to listen, learn, discuss, plan, and take action. We arrived to be told it was already clear that the climate deal, if it were reached, would be completely ineffective in facing the challenges ahead.

Such an introduction, you might think, could have made for a very depressing beginning to our few days. Well, actually, no. With that fact accepted as an inevitable reality, the climate action zone, and most of those we met, were focused on creating spaces for real politics and real change. Being in Paris wasn't really about influencing the politicians and diplomats holed up in a private airport, it was about inspiring and enthusing ourselves: the groups and the individuals, the incredibly committed and the vaguely concerned, the very knowledgeable and the slightly confused. It was a space to reflect on the effectiveness of non-violent direct action, to share tips for lifestyle choices, to discuss how to make divestment from fossil fuels a reality, to challenge prevalent economic models, the list could go on ...

And then, to coincide with the ending of the summit, there would be people on the streets saying we too want to be those who have the last word. It is perhaps worthy of mention that the long-planned protests at the summit were, as it turned out, taking place in a particularly difficult context. The state of emergency declared after the Paris terrorist attacks was being used to close down all public protest gatherings: meaning speaking out on the last day of the summit was going to require both creativity and commitment.

Creativity was much in evidence at the day's first protest, where the need for a large gathering was avoided by sending out lots and lots of small groups across the city to take photos and "geolocalise" on a website in order to spell out the message "Climate Justice Peace". Minor technical hitches aside (!) it was a safe, easy way for lots of people to get involved, and even accessible to the reluctant protester.

Warnings about how to handle tear gas and police batons featured heavily in the training for the principle protest of the day, with which organisers intended to press ahead despite its being banned. (although by the time it took place was in the ambiguous position of being "neither forbidden nor permitted"). Escalation, from both protesters and police, is after all very well documented in French protest history! My initial response to the training was, I admit, apprehension: but surrounded by the energy and enthusiasm of others, it soon felt like it would still be the right place to be. And it was. Of all the gatherings that day, this "red lines" protest was the one that felt the most vibrant and alive, while still remaining peaceful and controlled. Coming together to form the "red lines" which cannot be crossed to avoid climate chaos, there was deep symbolism that it is us ourselves, by where we place our own bodies, who can ultimately decide what happens next: but symbolic doesn't have to mean staid, and it was a space full of colour and laughter and hope and joy. Oh and free vegan food and giant inflatable cobble stones, also good additions to the proceedings!

News was received the day before that the final gathering and rally under the Eiffel tower was going to be allowed by the police. Whether it was because of this, or the incredibly thorough security checks on the way in, or just because it was later in the day and you can only sustain that kind of energy for so long, this felt like it lacked some of the vitality of the earlier gathering. That said, I am very glad there was a safe space where everyone who wanted to felt able to participate in making their voices about climate change heard, and I am glad to have stood up to be counted as part of that crowd. For me, perhaps what stood out most about this final gathering was that even before the crowds drifted away, volunteer littler pickers started the clear-up. I was struck by it because it summed up much of what the few days had been about: it is, in the end, what we choose to DO that matters most.

Being in Paris was about knowing we are not alone. It was about believing that there are other possibilities. It was about knowing there is still hope.

That, ultimately, is why I am very glad I was there.

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