People power in Paris

    Wednesday, 16 December 2015

    After spending two intense weeks at the climate negotiations in Paris I return to Brussels with my heart full of hope and inspiration. This is not due to the outcome of the UN summit, but to the people power I witnessed on the streets. Friends of the Earth International labelled the Paris deal unacceptable. While others have welcomed a historic deal, we chose to be honest about the failings of the agreement, and what it means for people around the world.

    In Paris many heads of state used the language we often use as climate campaigners. They noted the extreme urgency of the crisis, their responsibility to future generations, and the need for a just agreement.

    But as soon as their speeches were over, the hollowness of their words became clear. The negotiations showed the divide between developed and developing countries with historic polluters showing they can talk the climate justice talk, but not walk the walk.

    The leaders’ soaring rhetoric is not matched by the details of the deal which contains no obligation to increase climate action before 2020, even though we know short-term action is crucial. There is no obligation in the agreement to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, only to ‘pursue efforts’ to do so. In any case, 1.5 degrees without requiring rich countries to do their fair share only places the extra burden on the poor.

    Despite these fundamental failings, I am optimistic. Already, just days after the Paris deal was sealed, a letter about its implications from the coal industry’s European lobbying association, Euracoal, to their members has been leaked. In it their Secretary General counsels his members, “You might be relieved that the agreement is weak. Don’t be. The words and legal basis no longer matter.” I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with the boss of Euracoal. Yes the agreement is weak, but this is not what matters. As Euracoal has realised, the momentum is with the people demanding an end to the fossil fuel era.

    Indeed my hope comes from the strength of the climate justice movement that was unmissable throughout Paris in these last weeks. I take heart from its strength and determination.

    After the terrorist attacks in Paris in November, a state of emergency was declared and demonstrations were banned. It was a difficult moment for us; we in Friends of the Earth’s European network had been planning for many months to bring thousands of our supporters onto the streets of Paris. The protests that we and our allies had been looking forward to were no longer allowed. These were some hard days and difficult discussions.

    Within a few days our French group ’Les Amis de la Terre’ had come up with a creative solution. We would ‘demonstrate without demonstrating’. And so the brilliant idea to use geolocation technology to write a giant message across Paris was born.

    On the morning of Saturday 12th thousands of international activists met at locations all over the city for briefings. Then equipped with maps and smartphones we went to predetermined points and checked in. The result was a beautiful image online of a map of Paris with the words ’Climate Justice Peace’ written across it. Each dot on the image representing a participant in our message of hope.

    This day of ‘people power’ continued with a ‘red-lines’ protest. The message was that the agreement being made was crossing our red lines. Our allies from Southern and indigenous peoples’ movements were present in force. They are on the frontlines of climate change and are feeling the devastating impacts already. At almost the exact moment political leaders were praising themselves at the convention centre, people were in the streets declaring a climate emergency.

    We talk a lot about building a climate justice movement but on Saturday in Paris I knew one already exists. A movement so determined and creative that when the French authorities said we couldn’t demonstrate we found a way. The moment was too important for us not to have the last word.

    It is the same creativity and determination that I see in community energy initiatives. People all over the world are getting involved in running their own renewable energy projects. Community and co-operative energy is gaining strength and driving a revolution in how our energy system works. These communities are the real leaders. Our politicians are playing catch-up.

    Instead of embracing these grassroots alternatives, politicians have fallen under the spell of corporations pushing false solutions to climate change. We could be on our way to climate-safe societies by now if politicians were not holding back people’s solutions.

    The good news is that we can see real leadership and transformation taking place everywhere else. So as I look ahead to 2016 and to all the struggles against fossil fuels and for the people-owned renewables-based system we want, I am fired up for the fight. We are on the right side of history and I know we will win.

    Molly Walsh, climate justice and energy campaigner, Friends of the Earth Europe