Profiles of Paris – May Boeve
Red. Above my head a billowing red cloth; below me the gray Parisian streets. Next to me, many hands holding the sides of a 100-meter banner so we could keep it above our head, so that the photographers leaning out of five-story windows could capture our message:
It is up to us to keep fossil fuels in the ground!
Everyone wore something in red: hats, gloves, umbrellas (it was December, after all). At first there were just a few of us, but before the day was out, many thousands. It was 12 December, 2015, and we were at the Champs-Élysées for the Red Lines action on the final day of the historic Paris climate negotiations. The goal of the action was for the public to have the last word about the Paris Agreement and, in so doing, make clear that we were committed to continuing to work throughout the world to combat catastrophic climate change. We wanted to make it clear that Paris was a beginning, not an end point, since to truly keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, we had enormous work to do even after the last negotiators left town.
I’d been worried about this action for many months, but since arriving in Paris it became much more intense. At our shared flat each night my colleagues would arrive after midnight, fresh with news of that days’ meetings with the activist groups, the other NGOs, and the volunteers planning the action. Each day brought a new and unexpected development.
It’s a lot like what was happening inside Le Bourget, the location of the official negotiations.
We often sit in a parallel process like this as we plan mass mobilizations. The actions we take are the same: we have meetings, we negotiate, we attempt to create clarity and shared purpose amongst many competing interests.
But this one was extra hard. Getting agreement from local, national, and international activists is always difficult—and it was made much more difficult by the tragic bombings in Paris on 13 November, when 133 people were killed. The French government declared a state of emergency, which made any street protests, however nonviolent, very risky and tense, and the rules of what would be allowed–and the consequences for mobilizing anyway–continued to change.
I was not in the middle of the organizing process, by a long shot. I would head off to the formal negotiations in the morning knowing this uncertainly, and would receive many questions from people who were actual negotiators, lobbyists, much closer to the so-called “inside.” They would ask, “are you really going through with this? is it safe? Are you sure this is a good idea? Won’t this undermine our important work?”
And often I wasn’t sure what to say! Because of those darned negotiations. It would be like asking the lead negotiator from a key country to share, at any given moment, will there be a deal? It would be impossible to know with any degree of certainty.
What was abundantly clear is how comfortable activists were with these risks. One night I attended an action training with about 400 people, and was told every single training had filled up. People practiced chants, songs, made connections with fellow travelers all over the world, often fighting similar battles against the fossil fuel industry, environmental racism, defeatism, often in the form of policy and pipeline permitting struggles.
A large part of our goal of doing mass actions is to shift a conversation; to insert an idea that isn’t sufficiently present. It’s a way of demonstrating power when you aren’t the ones holding the pens that actually sign a given deal. But you know what will happen—and crucially what won’t happen—as a result of those deals.
350.org began with this purpose. We wanted to insert the idea of 350 into the discourse of the global climate debate and promote much more ambitious action than was being proposed at the time. To take a scientific data point that people were guaranteed to have a reaction to, and use that to influence politics. About how fast to move, how deep of a societal transformation to be pursued. The debate about how much of society’s collective wealth can be dedicated to a just transition off of fossil fuels. Who has to pay for that, and when, and how quickly they will be required to do so. What to become of the perpetrators, the polluters themselves; and what becomes of those whose homes are already washed away, burned, who are losing hope about the possibility of climate action?
“350” was, at the time, seen as ludicrous, impossible, and us, its champions, a little hard to take seriously for proposing it. It refers to the safe level of carbon dioxide, measured in parts per million. Also, “we” at the time, this was 2007 at the Bali climate talks, were a bunch of newly minted college graduates from the US. All white, middle class, mostly men, which also raised eyebrows about our vision for global movement building.
Over time and with a lot of work and pressure that shifted some, but what hasn’t and won’t shift is the core essence of our demands and a dramatic approach to changing ideas. That is why we organized an action called Red Lines. Red lines that should not be crossed.
Would the Paris Agreement limit warming to 1.5 degrees ? Would it be equitable? Each essay in this series will put forth a different answer to the question of how close we’ve come to these milestones. But take any social movement gain over history and show me one where there isn’t this diversity of opinions. When we’re trying to restructure the entire global economy to a decentralized energy system, and convince the wealthiest corporations on the planet to stop turning a profit from planetary destruction, there’s going to be some disagreement.
And yes, the agreement crossed red lines. If followed through on to the letter we will still heat the planet much too much. Outside pressure is its main accountability mechanism. But it could so easily not have happened, and with it, the singular kind of focus that comes when commitments are made. Global reference points for complex problems are rare and we celebrate the tools they present for accountability and organizing.
That’s exactly what’s happened since Paris: massive proliferation of action at the local level. Because there is a framework that ties us all together, the pressure points become national, regional, and local; and even though many national governments work at odds with everything we stand for, that has not stopped anyone in the movement from using every lever they can.
That is why 350.org has launched the Fossil Free campaign: to unite work towards the just transition across the globe in three key areas: stopping fossil fuel projects, 100% renewable energy, and not a penny more of financing for fossil fuels. In cities like Seattle where movements effectively stopped Shell from drilling off their coasts, they’ve taken the fight to housing and public transportation, because a city where more people can affordably live is also a city with less transport emissions. In places ravaged by climate disasters, like Puerto Rico, there are organizers like Tara Rodriguez Besosa with “Efecto Sombrilla,” a food justice organizer seeking food system solutions that rebuild equitably. In coal-dependent countries in Africa, like Ghana and South Africa, it’s “de-coalinise”—a frame which highlights the new colonizing force coal represents and all the damage it does. They are calling for much, much more.
Most of the actions that demonstrate this momentum are ones you won’t read about in the newspaper. Most of the activists in this movement did not have a seat at the negotiating table in Paris—but they use their power wherever they can, and they do it with wisdom, beauty, and a fierce love. They are, in the words of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, “Protectors, not Protestors.” Attending the Paris talks and working on climate change amidst a truly global movement is an enormous privilege—and I am grateful to all the contributors in this series for what they contribute to the collective whole of this movement. Even—perhaps especially—when we work through our disagreements and recognize how we need each other in service of our greater goals.
To explore all the stories in the Profiles of Paris series, click here.
via 350.org – Movement Dispatches and Climate News http://350.org