Witnessing – and making — history in Paris

Note: This is an article I published about my experiences at the Paris climate conference in the newsletter for the Sierra Club Central Ohio Group (pdf). 

In December I traveled to Paris as part of the Sierra Club delegation to the COP 21 climate conference.  The conference marked a turning point for humanity, resulting in an agreement by almost 200 countries signaling that the age of fossil fuels is over.

Although I did not have a badge for the actual climate negotiations – the United Nations issued many fewer badges than usual this year – Sierra Club members got daily reports from Fred Heutte, lead volunteer for the Federal and International Climate Campaign.

That left most of us free to attend civil society events and actions – and there were a lot. Throughout the two weeks, the Sierra Club had a booth at Climate Generations, the space next to the negotiations where hundreds of organizations had displays, and as many as eight speakers and panels on climate were going on simultaneously.

There were also dozens of meetings, festivals, actions, and other events occurring daily throughout Paris – sometimes it was hard just hearing about them all. There was no way to attend everything – you had to choose.  But no matter what you picked, it would be good.

The hostel where I stayed, called Place to B, had daily programs featuring speakers such as James Hansen, Vandana Shiva, and Amy Goodman.  There were also numerous side conferences such as UNESCO’s Earth to Paris, featuring an all-star lineup of scientists and activists and an interview with Secretary of State John Kerry; and the Climate Summit for Local Leaders, at which 1,000 mayors pledged to take their cities 100 percent renewable by 2050.

Here are some highlights from my time in Paris:

1.5 degrees. Although most observers expected participating countries to agree to limit warming to 2°C, almost no one anticipated the momentum to lower that limit to 1.5°C.  It started with a call from climate vulnerable countries led by the Marshall Islands. Then France and Germany joined, then Canada and Australia, then the United States and China.

In the end, all countries pledged to limit warming to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”

Indigenous peoples. Indigenous people from around the world were key players in many events such as an anti-fracking summit and a conference on women at the frontlines of climate change.

They also led the Indigenous Flotilla, featuring the Canoe of Life which traveled from the Amazon.  Dozens of indigenous people canoed and kayaked into Bassin de la Villette to present world governments with their “Living Forest” proposal drawing from indigenous experience to live in harmony with nature.

Rights of nature. A two-day International Rights of Nature Tribunal explored the rights of nature as a legal concept and how they might be defended in a series of cases against violators of those rights.  Cases included:

  • Climate crimes against nature such as fossil fuels, deforestation, and water use;
  • Financialization of nature, including carbon trading and REDD;
  • Agribusiness and GMOs;
  • Criminalization of environmental activism and murders of activists;
  • Shale fracking operations, which speakers argued was akin to rape of the earth;
  • Megadams in Brazil that destroy ecosystems and displace indigenous people;
  • Ecocide through oil operations in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park.

Trade and climate. Throughout the two weeks were events on trade, unions, jobs, and climate, emphasizing that while addressing climate change through renewable energy creates jobs, bad trade deals destroy both jobs and climate. The culmination was a general assembly at the Climate Action Zone on “Capitalism and Climate” featuring Naomi Klein.

While climate agreements are not legally binding, Klein said, trade deals such as NAFTA and the TPP are not only binding but would allow corporations to sue to overturn laws protecting the climate that hurt their profits.  The trade and climate movements should work together to defeat this, she said.

Exxon trials. There were two mock trials of Exxon similar to the successful RICO case against tobacco corporations by the Justice Department. A recent investigation by Inside Climate News shows that Exxon was conducting some of the foremost climate science in the 1970s and 80s, but in the 1990s chose to bury this information and instead fund climate denial campaigns.

In the first trial, held at the People’s Climate Summit, Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein called a series of witnesses affected by climate change to show the damage that Exxon’s denial campaigns have done. The second event featured Matt Pawa, an environmental attorney who has won cases against Exxon and AEP, building a RICO case based on recently released documents.

On and off police actions. Before COP 21 started, French authorities banned large climate marches due to the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. The attacks were still fresh when I arrived. Massive numbers of flowers, candles, photos, and other mementos were placed around the statue of Marianne at Place de la Republique as well as in front of and across several blocks near the Bataclan club, where most of the victims lost their lives.

I was taking photos at Place de la Republique on November 29 when police cracked down on a few hundred demonstrators, and I was nearly swept up. By December 12, thousands of activists were flooding the streets, and French authorities finally relented and gave them a permit.  The result was a beautiful Red Lines demonstration organized by 350.org.

The climate conference in Paris was historic, not only for the agreement it produced, but for the breadth, depth, and global nature of events and actions surrounding it. I feel privileged to have participated in these events and witnessed history being made.

Friday, December 4 – Rights of nature, terrorist memorials and a Paris swim

This morning was yet another headache, but gradually they were getting better, so hopefully they will go away completely soon.  Part of the problem is that I never got over the long and difficult plane ride here, especially the overnight flight when I couldn’t easily get up to walk around due to a large sleeping person in the aisle seat.   If I were traveling in the United States, I would look for a YMCA to swim at — I’m a member in Columbus, and you can swim at Ys all over the country.  But I tried googling it in Paris, and the only two facilities seemed to be shelters for homeless men, not workout facilities.  So I tried asking the hostel staff at the front desk.  They recommended a pool that had lap swimming hours all the way until midnight.  That was a new one on me – I’ve never heard of a pool staying open past 10 p.m.  But I got the information and figured I’d give it a try.

Tweet from the United Nations about the Climate Summit for Local Leaders

Tweet from the United Nations about the Climate Summit for Local Leaders

Today saw two major events and some good news.  One, the Climate Summit for Local Leaders, was only open to mayors, city leaders, and their staff, so I could not go.  But this meeting would bring some excellent news: After a rousing speech by Leonardo DiCaprio in he told them “Do not wait another day” to move to renewable energy,  1000 mayors from around the world signed a pledge to take their cities to 100 percent renewable by 2050.  This is hugely important because cities are responsible for an estimated 75 percent of global carbon emissions, with transport and buildings being among the largest contributors.  Climate action truly starts on the local level.

Another piece of good news also broke: Germany and France became the first developed nations to join the new Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of mostly island and African nations highly vulnerable to climate change, in calling on COP 21 to lower the target for warming from 2 degrees C to 1.5 degrees C.  (Canada, the United States, China, and the European Union would later join them.) Half a degree does not sound like much, but on a global scale it is a lot.  It is the difference between whether the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets completely melt, and whether island nations such as the Marshall Islands continue to exist.

The other major event today was the International Rights of Nature Tribunal, a two-day simulated court hearing that explored the rights of nature as a legal concept and how they might be defended in a series of cases in which various violators of those rights were prosecuted.  The first day was today, but the event was one in a series of events in the history of the movement for the rights of nature.  The movement was first galvanized in 1972 with the publication of Should Trees Have Standing? by Christopher Stone, which I learned about this semester in my environmental law class.

For a long time the concept was discussed only in academic circles, but in 2008 Ecuador adopted a new constitution that granted rights to nature.  According to Article 71,  “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.”  Then, in the wake of the failed Copenhagen climate conference of 2009, President Evo Morales of Bolivia hosted the People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, which crafted and endorsed the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.  Designed to complement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this declaration was meant to drive home the point that without a habitable environment including clean air, water, and land, human rights cannot exist.

International Rights of Nature TribunalThe two-day proceeding this year featured several themes, explained by Cormac Cullinan, author of Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice and Osprey Orielle Lake, founder of Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network.  First, in current legal frameworks across the world, everything other than humans and corporations is considered property, including all rivers, trees, mountains, and animals, Cullinan said.  When something is property, it has no voice, and cannot defend itself; it will necessarily be exploited. Current law is based not on the concept that humans are part of nature, but that we can dominate and exploit nature with no consideration for other members of the earth community.  However, with climate change and a host of other environmental disasters looming, it has become clear that in operating under this paradigm, we are destroying our own habitat.  To address this, Cullinan argues, we must shift away from an anthropocentric point of view to seeing our role not as dominators but caretakers of the earth.

To do this, Lake argued, Western cultures should look to how indigenous peoples live in harmony with nature.  Currently 80 percent of biodiversity on earth is in the care of indigenous peoples, and we should understand how they maintain it.  We must stop the financialization and commodification of nature and reconnect with the earth as a solution to the current climate and environmental crisis.  Lake also condemned market mechanisms such as cap and trade for carbon emissions and the United Nation’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program as simply giving out permits to pollute, which causes the problem in the first place.

The tribunal consisted of eight presentations before a panel of judges:

  • Climate crimes against nature, including fossil fuels, deforestation, water and climate, market mechanisms, climate smart agriculture, land use, carbon capture and storage, free trade agreements, geoengineering and nuclear energy.
  • Financialization of nature, including compensation mechanisms linked to biodiversity conservation, EU biodiversity offsets, REDD+, and economic valuation of nature in general.
  • Agro-food industry and GMOs
  • Defenders of Mother Earth, referring to the criminalization of environmental activism and the sharp increase in murders of environmental activists, especially in the Global South.
  • Shale fracking operations, which speakers argued was akin to rape of the earth, resulting in earthquakes and entailing man camps that raised crime and violence.
  • Megadams in Brazil, which destroy ecosystems and displace tens of thousands of indigenous people.
  • Recognizing ecocide as a crime at the International Criminal Court through two cases: oil exploration and removal in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, and oil spills and toxic and hazardous waste left behind by Texaco/Chevron.

You can find an agenda for the tribunal here, a press release describing it here, a full overview and report here, and  news coverage from the Guardian, National Catholic Reporter, and Indigenous Rising.  You can also see the tribunal’s press conference in the Blue Zone here.

That evening at Place to B, many of the presenters, witnesses, and judges from the tribunal appeared at the two-hour Place to Brief.  In the video above, most of the French and Spanish speakers were not translated, but you can hear speakers in English including Natalia Greene, who was instrumental in getting the new constitution passed in Ecuador; Cormac Cullinan, who gave an overview of the tribunal; Shannon Biggs, founder of Movement Rights who led the panel on norms; Osprey Orielle Lake, who talked about the rights of nature; and Roger Cox, lead attorney for a citizens group that won a landmark ruling ordering the Dutch government to lower carbon emissions 25 percent in five years to protect its citizens.  Vandana Shiva gave closing remarks in a separate video.  I did not attend this, so I am very happy that Place to B posted the recording.

Paris memorials 1

I spent the late afternoon and early evening visiting memorials for the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks three weeks ago. The memorials are still quite fresh. I got more detailed photos at Place de la Republique, then went to the Bataclan club where the worst occurred and took a number of photos there. The club is still closed, but the entire sidewalk in front and to the side is filled with flowers, messages, candles, and the like. Across the street up and down for several blocks are more memorials. I took a ton of photos in an attempt to capture the scale of the items left, as well as what some items, especially those paying tribute to specific victims, looked like.  My Paris Memorials album is posted on Flickr. Page through at whatever pace you like, but you might want to have some some tissues handy.

After that I found some dinner with the idea of getting in a a late swim at Piscine Pontoise, the pool the staff at the hostel had told me about.  Dinner in France is never a hurried affair, and it was after 9 p.m. before I got done and after 10 p.m. before I made it to the pool.  The journey was worth it.  The pool was about half-again as long as the standard 25-meter pool used for lap swimming in the United States, so even with three people in the lane I could still get in a good workout.  But best was the ambience.  The whole place was flooded with low blue lights and jazzy music.  You had to take your shoes off to get to the dressing rooms, but you got your own room that was kept locked by the attendant.  I managed to get in a mile, which was sorely needed and helped change my outlook for the upcoming week.

Thursday, December 3 – Vandana Shiva, Climate Generations, Sierra Club

Today I woke up with another headache, but this one not as debilitating as yesterday’s.  Still it was off to another slow start.  Fortunately I did not have to be anywhere immediately, as my first event was at 1 p.m. at Place to B – a press conference about Monsanto with environmental and agricultural activist Vandana Shiva.  I am falling into a routine of catching up on news and social media posts in the morning before actually going out to do things in the afternoon.  That’s okay until I have to be somewhere early.

Vandana Shiva speaks to the media at Place to B.

Vandana Shiva speaks to the media at Place to B.

Before the event Vandana Shiva held her own press conference, and at 1 p.m. she took part in a press conference with several others on an International Tribunal Against Monsanto for Crimes Against Humanity, an activist event planned at the Hague in October 2016.  Both events were packed, and I could barely get a spot.  While GMOs are a fact of life in the United States – almost all of our corn and soy are genetically modified — they are effectively banned in France.  The audience at Place to B was very receptive to the message of this press conference, and many Europeans seem genuinely concerned about the safety of their food and biodiversity in their farming.

Monsanto tribunal press conference at Place to B.

Monsanto tribunal press conference at Place to B.

Taking part in the press conference were:

  • Marie-Monique Robin,  film director and writer, author of the movie and book Le monde selon Monsanto (The World According to Monsanto), sponsor of the tribunal  (introduction)
  • André Leu (Australia), president of  IFOAM – International Foundation for Organic Agriculture – (about the consequences of Monsanto on health and biodiversity)
  • Dr. Vandana Shiva (India), general director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (the consequences of Monsanto on farmers and food sovereignty)
  • Dr. Hans Rudolf Herren (United States), president of the Millenium Institute of Washington (the consequences of Monsanto on climate change)
  • Ronnie Cummins (United States), international director of Organic Consumers (about the impact on the political and regulatory institutions)
  • Dr. Olivier de Schutter (Belgium), former Rapporteur on UN Right to Food, professor of international law at Université catholique de Louvain (legal tools of the Tribunal)
  • Valérie Cabanes (France), spokeswoman of End Ecocide on Earth (towards the recognition of ecocide as a felony).

About half the speakers spoke in French, half in English.  This was a gathering that you would not likely see in the United States.  Although the event they are planning for the Hague will not be an official trial, the speakers said it is more than symbolic, as their goal is to establish ecocide as a crime and show that Monsanto is guilty.  Among other things, they argued that Monsanto promotes an industrial model of agriculture responsible for 1/3 of greenhouse gas emissions and the depletion of soil and water resources, and that its highly toxic pesticides have damaged the environment, harmed species, and sickened or killed millions of people.  Shiva pointed to the rash of suicides among Indian farmers who went into debt buying seeds and pesticides for GMO cotton.  Cummins discussed Monsanto’s influence on regulations in the United States and abroad.

You can watch the entire press conference posted by Place to B (French speakers not translated), read anti-Monsanto stories here, here and here; neutral stories here and here; and a pro-Monsanto story here.

After the Monsanto press conference let out, I headed to Le Bourget for more time in the Climate Generations space.  Again it took almost an hour to get there from Place to B, so I didn’t arrive until after 3 p.m.  I spent some time hanging out at the Sierra Club booth, then doing a more thorough walk-through of the booths in the C section.  I had wanted to get to the A and B sections too, but didn’t make it there, as I had promised to record a presentation on “Plastification of the ocean” starting at 5 p.m.

CG entrance

Unfortunately it turned out that every speaker on the plastics panel spoke in French.  Those in the room could wear headphones to get the translation, but there would be no translation for my video, so I did not keep it.  However, I did learn some interesting things.  Most of the speakers were people who had led or taken part in various ocean voyages to study and document the amount and types of plastics in the ocean.  There is now so much that they have a word for it: the plastosphere.  Most people now know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is a whirlpool of plastic pollution twice the size of Texas in the Pacific.  However, there are five such whirlpools across the planet, and there is plastic everywhere.  One mission was simply to study it in the Mediterranean.  Most of it is not large pieces but microplastics broken down into tiny bits.

Anne-Cécile Turner (second from right), director of Race for Water Foundation, speaks on a panel about plastics in the ocean at COP 21.

Anne-Cécile Turner (second from right), director of Race for Water Foundation, speaks on a panel about plastics in the ocean at COP 21.

One thing the speakers emphasized was preventing plastic from getting to the ocean in the first place through laws like plastic bag bans.  But they did not seem all that enthusiastic about projects to clean what is there up, such as this invention by a teenager from Holland.  That surprised and disappointed me.  Perhaps they don’t think the amount of plastic now in the ocean can be cleaned up.  Or maybe they think if people believe it can be cleaned up easily, they will keep on discarding it.  Either way, I don’t see how we can not try to clean up the amount of plastics we currently have in the ocean.  It is causing untold suffering to billions of sea creatures, and it’s not ethical to allow this.  Of course we need to pass laws to prevent it from happening in the first place, but in my opinion we also need to figure out how to clean up what we have put there.

The presentation was in the last time slot of the day, and when it let out everyone in Climate Generations made a beeline for the shuttles to head back to Gare du Nord.  My next stop was a meeting of the Sierra Club delegation.  There besides going through events of the day and getting an update on negotiations from Fred Heutte, we heard from Sena Alouka, director of Youth Volunteers for the Environment, in Togo, and his colleague, Mavis Mensah.  Their organization provides education about climate and environment to schoolchildren.

A group from the Sierra Club catches dinner at a pizzeria in Paris. Clockwise from the lower left are Mavis Mensah, Youth Volunteers for the Environment, Togo; Fred Heutte, Federal and International Climate Campaign; Glen Besa, Virginia Chapter; Sena Alouka, Youth Volunteers for the Environment, Togo; Tyla Matteson, Virginia Chapter; Nicole Ghio, International Campaign; Cathy Becker, Ohio Chapter; and Steven Sondheim,Tennessee chapter.  Photo by Katherine Muller.

A group from the Sierra Club catches dinner at a pizzeria in Paris. Clockwise from the lower left are Mavis Mensah, Youth Volunteers for the Environment, Togo; Fred Heutte, Federal and International Climate Campaign; Glen Besa, Virginia Chapter; Sena Alouka, Youth Volunteers for the Environment, Togo; Tyla Matteson, Virginia Chapter; Nicole Ghio, International Campaign; Cathy Cowan Becker, Ohio Chapter; and Steven Sondheim,Tennessee chapter. Photo by Katherine Muller.

Afterward several of us walked to a pizzeria that Fred knew, where I got a great dinner and enjoyed even better company. Besides the two guests from Togo, we had Glen Besa and Tyla Matteson of the Virginia chapter, Fred Heutte of the Federal & International Climate Campaign, Nicole Ghio of the International Campaign, Steven Sondheim of the Tennessee chapter, and a new person, Katherine Muller from South Carolina.  Steven told me she knew how to work a room, and he was right.  She talked to every single person there, got their stories, and told us hers.  I ended up there late looking at all the photos on her phone and finding out what she did that day.  Turns out she had visited the sites of the terrorist attacks, and the photos were so amazing that I decided I to go myself the next day.  By the end of the night I felt as if I had encountered a long lost friend.

Tuesday, December 1 – Green Zone opens

Now that the Opening Ceremonies and Leaders Event for COP 21 are over, the facility has opened for the rest of us.  There are two main parts to the conference headquarters. First is the Blue Zone, where the actual negotiations take place.  You have to have a badge to get into the Blue Zone, which I do not have. In the past, I am told, the United Nations has been pretty generous in issuing badges to observer organizations such as Sierra Club, but this year they were not.  Sierra Club had about 70 members coming to Paris, but they got only 10 badges.  This meant that only certain staff members and the highest-level volunteers could get in.  Citizens Climate Lobby had badges only for Joe Robertson and the global strategies advisor Sarabeth Brockley, who works for the United Nations.  Climate Reality had no badges for anyone but Al Gore and president Ken Berlin.

Wind trees create power from wind near COP 21.

Wind trees create power from wind near COP 21.

I knew going into the conference that getting into the Blue Zone was unlikely barring a last-minute miracle. For example, a couple of times someone posted on the CAN listserv that their group had an extra badge, but invariably it was snatched up within minutes.  Even knowing this, I decided to go anyway. I was on the fence until the Sustainability conference in October at Ohio State. Among the speakers was Andrew Light, staff climate adviser in the Office of Policy Planning for the U.S. Department of State.  Light had acted as a negotiator at several COPs, so he knew first-hand what it was like.  He told me that watching the actual negotiations was incredibly boring, and that most of the action was in the civil society section of the conference.  He described the hope he felt walking through the enormous civil society section which housed organization after organization working on some aspect of addressing climate change.  That made me decide that even without a badge to the Blue Zone, I could get a lot out of attending.

Entrance to Climate Generations.

Entrance to Climate Generations.

The civil society section of COP 21 was called Climate Generations, also known as the Green Zone.  That is where the Sierra Club had a booth set up, so today I set out to see the Green Zone and meet the people at the Sierra Club booth.  Getting to COP 21 from my hostel was pretty involved, but there were people in green jackets at the Gare du Nord train station to provide directions.  First I had to buy tickets for Line B of the regional train, known as RER, which were more expensive than regular metro tickets.  I had to take that train to the Le Bourget stop, then catch a free shuttle to the COP 21 headquarters.  Once I got off the shuttle, I had to walk over to the Green Zone.

Once arriving at the Climate Generations space, I had to go through airport-like security screening. They had about a dozen lines, and I didn’t get there until the afternoon, so lines were short.  Finally I was in the Green Zone.  It was a huge building, the size of an airline hangar, with all the facilities set up just for this conference.  Coming in there was a coat check, a station to recharge electronics, and an area of tables to meet at.  Down most of one side was a large auditorium and a series of seven meeting rooms.  These would be filled every day with panels, discussions, and other events.  Then there were various performance spaces and three different areas for civil society booths.

Sierra Club booth

Sierra Club booth in the Climate Generations space. From left to right are President Obama (in cardboard anyway); Glen Besa, Virginia chapter; Jim Dougherty, national board; and Tyla Matteson, Virginia Chapter.

I was wondering how to find the Sierra Club booth when I happened across area C, which housed about 50 booths, and saw that its map included the Sierra Club.  So I went in to say hi, and met several of the people who I would become friends with during the course of the trip.  These included Glen Besa and his wife Tyla Matteson from the Virginia chapter, Jim Dougherty who is on the national board, and Steven Sondheim from Tennessee who was in charge of staffing the booth.  These four were the mainstays of the Sierra Club booth and ended up doing the lion’s share of work staffing it.  Beside the booth was a life-size cutout figure of Obama, which people kept wanting to get their pictures with.

I had not had lunch, but lines at the restaurants were so long that I decided to skip it. My Sierra Club colleagues told me that this is how it always works the first day — the vendors just don’t seem to be able to handle the crowds.  Lines for food were at least an hour and sometimes two hours long. Tyla shared some of her croissant with me, and we all decided in the future to pick up food at the train station and bring it with us to the Green Zone.  I did walk around and get some photos around the building, and I located the all important bathrooms and water filling stations.  As a souvenir each booth got COP 21 water bottles to hand out, and I accepted mine gratefully.

James Hansen surrounded by media after his talk at Place to B.

James Hansen surrounded by media after his talk at Place to B.

Tonight was an important event at Place to B.  Each night from 6 to 8 p.m. the hostel has programmed special guest panels for a feature called Place to Brief, and tonight’s panel included Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, and former NASA scientist James Hansen, known for testifying about climate change before Congress in 1988.  I knew the CCL people would be there to see Hansen as he is on the CCL board.  I wanted to see both, as did others from the Sierra Club.  Steven and I left the Green Zone a little after 5 p.m., but transportation took so long that we didn’t get to Place to B until right at 6 — and the downstairs area where Place to Brief happens was completely full.

James Hansen and Sustaina Claus at Place to B.

James Hansen and Sustaina Claus at Place to B.

Fortunately the hostel was live streaming the proceedings on TVs in the workspace upstairs.  Unfortunately a lot of people in the workspace would not stop talking, even though others were trying to watch the event.  I set up my GoPro video camera and taped the panel from upstairs, which meant that I was basically taping a TV show, but it was better than not taping anything at all.  The sound quality was poor at times, but we were able to catch most of it.  Later I discovered that a Facebook friend, Paul Beckwith, had also gotten into this event, taped Hansen’s entire presentation, and posted the video on his blog.