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The Paris Climate Talks Don’t Matter

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The COP21 climate talks began on Monday in Paris. Leaders around the world are seeking a legally binding restriction on emissions, hoping to save future generations from near-certain environmental collapse and catastrophe. But these talks won’t change a thing.

“Can the earth be saved by bureaucrats in long meetings, reciting jargon and acronyms while surrounded by leaning towers of documents?” Rebecca Solnit asks in a compelling piece for Harper’s. She’s right. Long talks and testimonies bear little fruit in making steps to achieve climate justice and combat climate change. What’s important is what happens in the crowded and sweaty streets. Solnit was writing before the November 13 terrorist attacks claimed 130 lives in Paris, before the government declared a state of emergency, before this state of emergency led to a ban on all public organizing.

The revolutionary fervor so pined for, the radical democratic politics of climate activism and mobilization, can no longer be realized under French law. The government has banned public protests, marches, and rallies. What started as a means of achieving peace and security has culminated in the total destruction of dissent. As of 27 November, at least 24 major climate activists had been placed under house arrest.

The conference is located outside the city of Paris itself, and is secured by over 2,800 police. An additional 8,000 police guard the border. In this way, climate change really is the great security issue of the new millennium. The dialogue is so securitized, that nearly all oppositional voices have been quashed.

Already, Parisians are finding ways to sidestep the rules. Protestors left out 10,000 empty pairs of shoes to signify the space of the march that would have been. Shoes were donated by the likes of actress Marion Cotillard, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, even Pope Francis.

According to reports, feet did fill some of the shoes in the streets on Sunday. Around 5,000 protestors faced off against hordes of riot police amidst the abandoned loafers. Some protestors hurled “projectiles” – those empty shoes, candlesticks honoring those killed in the attacks. I like to imagine the the Pope’s shoes, smashed up against an oversized riot police helmet. Pushed and crowded and intimidated, it was an act of desperation and self-defense for activists. Police saw it as aggression and outright hostility. There was tear gas, and about 200 arrests – even though even French officials admitted that only a small proportion of the crowd created any kind of trouble.

Art, too, occupied the streets of Paris in the absence of people. Brandalism, an art collective, hoped to reclaim the space traditionally occupied by corporate sponsors advocating endless consumerism. In this case, more than 600 pieces of art helped fill in the empty space created by the state. One ad for a French airline reads, “Tackling Climate Change? Of Course Not, We’re an Airline,” another, “New & Improved: GREENWASH”. But Parisians are encouraged to stay in their homes. No one dwells the streets to see the exhibits.

Heads of state and wielders of power will not act against their own self-interest. Change entails a new bottom line, something different than economic growth. It entails hearing the voices of those without power. Yet again leaders will seek cheap policies driven by technological advance. Yet again we’ll end up with piecemeal reform and empty words of promise.

It is in the streets that new forms of democracy, organization, and inclusion are enacted, that new ideas are tested and voiced, that risks are taken. Around the world, people are gathering and marching. They are voicing their dissent and their discontent.

But things won’t change in Paris. Not unless the French government eases its restrictions on organizing, and abates its abuse of public fear and paranoia. Or unless the people can show that they have a stronger will and reach than the state. COP21 will go the way of the rest of them.

Prove me wrong. Please, somebody show me I’m wrong.

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Nick Mott is a freelance writer, activist, and educator based in Fort Collins, CO. He has an MA in Anthropology/International Development. He worked as a journalist for the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, and, most recently, he’s published in The Denver Post. 

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