COP21: Chorus of popular dissent rises on streets of Paris

‘We have the last word, these thousands of us in the streets - we’ll continue to fight for climate justice’


Just as French foreign minister Laurent Fabius was explaining the agreement reached at the COP21 climate conference on Saturday, thousands of protesters from around the world formed a “red line” on the Avenue de la Grande Armée. They wore red hats and scarves and held up red flowers and umbrellas amid a cacophony of foghorns, drums, laughter and chanted slogans.

Public demonstrations are in theory banned under the state of emergency that was declared on the night of November 13th, when jihadists killed 130 people in Paris.

A similar gathering at the beginning of COP21 had turned violent.

But organisers from groups including 350. com, Attac, Confédération Paysanne and Réseau Sortir du Nucléaire negotiated with police to allow the show of people power. They had spent much of the previous week training demonstrators in non-violent tactics.

Some 40 Irish people from the Stop Climate Chaos coalition, aged 20 to 72, were almost turned back at Cherbourg on Thursday night. French authorities described them as “a threat to public order” and said they would be returned to Rosslare. Then, without explanation, they were allowed to continue to Paris.

I recognised the Irish group from the large tricolour draped over the shoulders of Nicola Winters (32). “We won’t have our voices silenced,” she said.

Alluding to the speeches made at the conference, Ciara Kirrane (31), said “We have the last word, these thousands of us in the streets today. Regardless of what they do in Le Bourget, we’ll continue to fight for climate justice.”

Little faith

No one expressed faith in the newly minted Paris accord. “We know the math doesn’t add up,” said Sydney Weinberg (28).

Although the goal of the agreement is to limit global warming to less than 1.5 degrees, pledges made by the world’s governments would hold the temperature increase to 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, at best.

“It is very frustrating to see the apathy in Ireland, ” Mr Weinberg continued. “Being here you can feed off the energy and learn how to bring it back to Ireland. We have the fourth largest per capita carbon footprint in Europe. ”

The Irish group criticised the Taoiseach as much as COP21 itself. “Enda Kenny said climate is not a priority, that the economy was more important,” said Meaghan Carmody (24).

“He talked about our debts as if we needed help to fight climate change, like the poor countries…”

As we talk, a 100 metre-long red banner flows like a ribbon above our head, held high by demonstrators marching down the avenue and chanting: “We are unstoppable. Another world is possible.”

The Irish take up the chant.

“We’re coming into the centenary of the Rising,” says Donna Cooney (40). “I’m the great grand-niece of nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, who carried the surrender flag out of the GPO. I know she would have been here with me.”

‘Look at the suits’

Mary Sweeney (54), from Gorta Self Help Africa, noted the gender imbalance at COP21. “Women and children suffer most from climate change,” she said. “And it’s men making the decisions. Look at the suits in COP.”

There is a direct relationship between flooding and climate change, said Claire Lyons (35). “Enda Kenny says he wants to continue and expand farming practices. That means more cattle, more climate change and more flooding.”

The fliers announcing a follow-on “massive, peaceful and resolute gathering” borrowed the Eiffel Tower-in-a- water-drop logo of COP21, but the drop was yellow, orange and red instead of green, and Paris’s most famous landmark was transformed into an oil derrick.

By chance, I also met Irish sisters Anna-Mieke Bishop and Charlotte Bishop, aged 25 and 29, who organised Pedal to Paris COP21.

They didn’t want to increase carbon emissions by flying to Paris.

“We left on the 4th, the night of the crazy storm,” Anna-Mieke said. “Ours was the only boat that sailed.”

It took a week to cycle from Dublin to Paris. “We’ve been using warm showers and couch-surfing and I’ve met the most amazing, incredible, generous people. It’s about sharing for us.”

Charlotte is active in the refugee solidarity group. “It’s just people coming together to help migrants in Calais, because we realised the Government didn’t have much to say and wasn’t going to do much.”

The Bishop sisters attribute their activism to “a Greenpeace book that hung around our house in the 1980s” and their parents, who “like change, like to think outside the box, challenge things…”

Charlotte says climate “empassions” her. “For me, it’s always the base, always the root. If you protect your environment, if you put environment at the centre, then everything else seems to fit into place. It’s about justice, about solving issues of poverty and inequality, about respecting what’s outside your own skin.”

‘Industrial farming chaos’

A young couple with glitter make-up and a hula hoop held a large cardboard sign pleading for farm animals and excoriating “industrial farming chaos”.

Laurie King (24), is a masters student at the University of Edinburgh. “It’s really important to be part of this movement, the most important movement of our time,” he said.

“The global environmental movement unites everyone across the globe, because the climate has no borders.”

Would the Paris accord change anything? I asked the couple. “No!” they shouted in unison. “It’s just bullshit,” said Sabina Wantoch (21), from Sheffield. “It’s just a way for leaders to pretend they’re doing something.”

“We need to move away from the idea that humans have the right to dominate and control,” King continued. “We have no right to farm animals the way we do. It’s a moral issue.”

A group marched by chanting: “We will win the future. You have nuked the past.” The crowd was cheerful, playful, sometimes angry.

Their placards and T-shirts conveyed the demands of this inchoate “global environmental movement”, with slogans and statements such as: Leave it in the ground; System change not climate change; Climate justice for peace; No war - no warming; Save the Artic! No oil! Grandparents Climate Campaign.

Onur Ucbas (28), from Istanbul, carried the red flag with a black fist of the Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party. “We came to tell the world we will not let the official COP21 summit represent us,” Ucbas said. “It represents heads of state and big business. They say they want to stop climate change, but in order to do that, they have to stop profit.”

Ucbas complained that 20 previous COP gatherings (Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) achieved anything concrete. “We need a binding agreement to reduce carbon, and we have to do it now - not in 2020,” he said.

Two grey-haired women watched the march go by. They had travelled alone from west Wales because “I can’t think of anything more important than trying to save the planet,” said Hillary Summers (62). “And to make people aware,” her partner, Heather Ramsden, also 62, chimed in.

‘Stop and think’

“We have to make the politicians stop and think. They need to go further. They need to keep the oil in the ground.”

Both women wore red clown noses. They held a homemade fog horn, the instrument chosen by organisers to mourn past and future victims of climate change.

“I trained as a clown,” Ramsden explained. “Clowns and fools resist authority and the system with humour.”

As I neared the metro station, I encountered 10 Danish people in polar bear costumes.

Because the French had banned public demonstrations, the Danes devised colourful ways of expressing their concern about global warming. They took a Statue of Liberty to the eco-village in the Paris suburb of Montreuil, then staged small “polar bear army” events around Paris.

“It’s not really about polar bears,” said the sculptor Jens Galschiot (61), whose life-size bronze sculpture of a polar bear impaled on a gauge of rising temperatures will remain in front of Paris’s Cité Universitaire until January 6th.

“It’s about the millions and millions of people who will have to move because of global warming.”

Galschiot was the only person I found who thought COP21 was “a good thing”, but he doubted it would help much. The problem, Galschiot noted, is us.

“We have freedom to consume and pollute, and we want to continue.

“Until we change that, we can’t change the environment. In a way, it’s easier for the Chinese authorities, because they’re dictators.

“It’s very hard to change people in a democracy.”