Our call for climate justice will be heard

November 25, 2015

The French government is barring the largest marches during the UN climate summit--but climate justice organizations will still speak out, writes Ragina Johnson.

BARACK OBAMA and other world leaders attending the United Nations summit on climate change--set to begin in Paris on November 30 and last through December 11--won't hear the voices of those calling for ecological justice, either inside or outside the conference, if the French government has its way.

After the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, President François Hollande's government declared a state of emergency and other restrictions on civil liberties that extend to the basic right to protest. Police officials announced that "in order to avoid additional risks, the government has decided not to authorize" the largest climate justice demonstrations planned for Paris, on November 29 and December 12.

In other words, the world's leaders are taking advantage of a horrific tragedy to try to quiet the voices of opposition to their inaction on a looming environmental disaster. As Nicolas Haeringer wrote on behalf of 350.org:

We need global solidarity more than ever right now, and that is, really, what this movement is all about. Even as climate change fans the flames of conflict in many parts of the world--through drought, displacement, and other compounding factors--a global movement that transcends borders and cultural differences is rising up to confront this common existential threat.

Marching to demand climate justice in Oakland, California
Marching to demand climate justice in Oakland, California (Jack Owicki)

THE BATTLE to make our voices heard in Paris is another challenge facing a climate justice movement that has already faced many.

The determination to continue the struggle has produced some concrete victories this fall. After years of protests, sit-ins, marches and blockades, President Obama announced in November that his administration was stopping the Keystone XL project to build a pipeline to carry tar sands oil sludge from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

Not long before, Royal Dutch Shell announced it was abandoning plans to drill in the Arctic, even after the Obama administration granted permits over loud protests from activists in the Pacific Northwest.

Both of these developments testify to the pressure of a growing movement resisting climate destruction--but they also show the distance the struggle needs to go to have a real impact. Stopping Keystone hasn't stopped the construction of other pipeline networks, and Shell's decision to give up on new Arctic exploration doesn't change the fact that the U.S. has become a net fossil fuel exporter.

The challenges ahead for climate justice are highlighted by the Paris summit--officially called the 21st Congress of the Parties for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP 21. Theoretically, the conference is organized for more than 190 nations to decide on a binding international treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The goal of negotiations is to keep the global temperature increase to less than 2 degrees Celsius.

But the leaders of wealthy countries, led by the U.S., continue to drag their feet on an agreement that would come close to what is needed to stop, or even slow down, global warming, while also supporting poorer countries and island nations on the frontlines of climate change, extreme weather and rising sea levels.

In the face of this long record of inaction and stalling, climate change campaigners were planning for large protests and direct actions leading up to and during COP 21 "on a scale Europe has not seen before," the Guardian reported earlier in the fall.

Grassroots groups from 350.org to Attac France participated in organizing for the "Climate Games," with "10 blockades, themed around 'red lines' which they fear negotiators for the nearly 200 countries inside the summit may cross," the Guardian reported.

NOW THOSE protests have been put in doubt by the French government's threats to bar demonstrations from taking place. Nevertheless, after the attack in Paris, most environmental organizations vowed to hold their demonstrations as planned, turning them into a call for peace. As Nicolas Haeringer wrote:

There is a real danger here that those already impacted by both the climate crisis and the wars that are so intimately bound up with it--migrants, refugees, poor communities and communities of color--will be further marginalized.

If there is a thing we must resist, it is our own fear and shortsightedness. No government should use a moment like this to increase the burden of hatred and fear in the world--sowing suspicion, calling for war, and reducing people's civil liberties in the name of security. This is a mistake we've seen too often before, compounding tragedy with more tragedy.

With the French government's announcement of a protest ban focused on the two largest marches on November 29 and December 12, organizers said that other climate justice meetings and actions--more than 2,000 planned for 150 countries during COP 21--would take on greater significance.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Neale, an organizer of the One Million Climate Jobs initiative in Britain, reported that the December 12 demonstrations in Paris would continue, though in a different form. Organizers, Neale said, "ask all people who are planning to come to Paris for that day to come. Because the French government has forbidden one big demonstration or rally, we will have many, many small groups in 'distributed demonstrations' all over Paris."

A number of important trade union events are going forward in Paris. Under the slogan "No jobs on a dead planet," the International Trade Union Confederation is still planning to hold a labor forum on December 3-4. On December 7, author Naomi Klein and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will speak at a meeting on trade unions and climate change.

IN THE U.S., activists were focused on protests and actions in November in the weeks leading up to the Paris summit.

In Oakland, California, several thousand determined people turned out for a November 21 demonstration to stand up against climate catastrophe, stop fossil fuel extraction and fight for 100 percent clean, safe, renewable energy. The rally connected local struggles to stop coal from being exported through the Port of Oakland and to end the drive to extract oil and gas in California by energy corporations using the environmentally destructive technique of hydraulic fracturing, called fracking.

Importantly, the march demands addressed the need to end war and fight racism--the call for the demonstration spoke out for a "demilitarized world with peace and social justice for everyone; where Black Lives Matter; with justice and respect for immigrants and migrants; where good jobs, clean air and water and healthy communities belong to all."

The rally had close to 200 endorsing organizations spanning traditional climate and environmental groups, as well as labor organizations and councils representing teachers, service workers and nurses--along with faith-based organizations and anti-racist groups.

Idle No More Bay Area and Indigenous activists led the march from Lake Merritt to Oscar Grant Plaza across from City Hall. In the opening ceremony, these demonstrators underscored the ongoing resistance of Indigenous nations against environmental destruction.

At the rally, Black Lives Matter Bay Area activist Amanda Weatherspoon expressed her solidarity to the crowd and argued how climate change is tied to the fight for Black liberation:

[T]he war on Black lives has been, historically and present day, fought on the battlefield of environmental justice, or rather environmental injustice. The injustice of dumping and pumping toxins in Black and Brown neighborhoods. The injustice of poor housing structures in lower social-economic status neighborhoods. The injustice of building prisons rather than sustainable structures such as farms and affordable housing. The injustice of sentencing Black and Brown people to jail and prison for 10 or more years while corporations walk free--corporations that pump our air and water full of toxins and poisons.

That is an injustice. The injustice of fighting for clean water is not just a right--it is necessity to life. And people not far away from us are fighting for clean water."

Ann, a member of the California Nurses Association, a union committed to connecting the fight against climate change to labor, economic and human rights, said: "We nurses care about the planet. If the environment isn't good, it's not good for our patients, it's not good for us."

In the wake of the attacks in Paris, marchers also talked about how it was vital to connect escalating wars and bombings by the U.S. and France to stopping the destruction of the planet. Holding a sign reading, "War is not green," Michael of Veterans for Peace said:

A lot of what's going on in the Middle East...is climate-related. It's probably going to get worse and worse, because people are going to be going from one country to another. Because of the climate, they can no longer live in the country they're in, and everybody is going to be fighting over dwindling resources. All we can hope is that our leaders will finally wake up and stop [obeying] corporations and profit.

FOR ANYONE who was politically conscious during the U.S. drive to war in the Middle East after the tragedy of September 11, 2001, attacks, the idea of history repeating itself cannot be lost on them. The "war on terror" led to 14 years of continuous war, violence and occupation, while the planet is on fire due to global warming.

Immediately after 9/11, Bush administration National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice notoriously called the attacks engineered by al-Qaeda as an "enormous opportunity" the U.S. government "must move to take advantage of."

After Paris, while the world mourns the loss of innocent lives, representatives of the 1 Percent are once again operating as if they have an opportunity to exploit. President Hollande responded immediately by stepping up France's commitment to the U.S.-led war on ISIS, and in the U.S., Barack Obama has pledged his full support.

And along with more of the warfare that has claimed millions of lives in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and beyond, political leaders are using this moment to sew more fear, with the racist scapegoating of Muslims, Arabs and South Asians, as well as a clampdown on the right to protest or express dissent.

But the truth is that more wars and occupations and political repression will feed the anger and despair that leads to violence and gives reactionary forces like ISIS the opportunity to thrive.

In Paris, world leaders attending the official COP 21 meetings will gather behind even higher walls, guarded by an armory of weapons. All the while, scientists warn that the problem of climate change is growing more severe--contributing yet another calamity to a world wracked by poverty, violence and oppression.

Our movement must ask what politics are needed to cope with a world ravaged by so many crises?

The climate justice movement must rise to the challenges we face by deepening the politics of the movement, taking up issues of racism, imperialism, war and social inequality. As the rally in Oakland did, our mobilizations must not only take up calls for climate justice, but raise the slogans of solidarity--because we have more in common with ordinary people than our rulers who try to pit us against each other, deceive us into fighting their battles, while they control and exploit the world's resources.

Whatever the sizes of marches in Paris and beyond during COP 21, they can't put the genie back in the bottle. The climate crisis continues to be one of the top concerns of a new generation in the U.S., as it also mobilizes to challenge racism on campuses and in neighborhoods, rising student debt, skyrocketing housing costs and low wages.

The contradictions of the world we live in are laid out in front of us. All of the crises we face are the product of a system that puts profits before all other considerations. That priority of the capitalist system leads to climate change, to wars to exploit the world's resources, to the impoverishment of larger and larger numbers and more.

Our movements are in the process of understanding what we are up against and what we should fight for. In that struggle, solidarity is essential to achieve a better world.

Bruno Ruviaro contributed to this article.

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