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Report back from Paris climate protests

By: 
Carolyn Egan

December 23, 2015

I had the opportunity to attend the COP 21, the United Nations Conference on the climate, as part of a trade union delegation from Canada.

Upon arriving it was clear that Paris was a militarized city. Armed police and military were everywhere and the demonstration scheduled for November 29 was banned. More than 400,000 were expected to attend to hold their leaders to account for the environmental crisis that we are experiencing.

A human chain did take place along the original route of the march with over 10,000 participating, including visiting trade unionists such as ourselves. Parisians placed 40,000 pairs of shoes in a square to represent those who would have demonstrated in the climate justice action if the French state had not intervened. A small march did take place and was attacked by the police, taking many into custody. There were also house arrests of known activists.

People from every corner of the globe came together to put pressure on the negotiators and their governments who were deciding the future of the world we live in. The feeling was very different from an earlier event in Copenhagen in 2009 where there was tremendous optimism that an agreement would happen that would commit nations to take the climate crisis seriously. It didn’t happen and a real demoralization set it. This time the view was that “the road was not to Paris but through Paris.”

Climate justice movement

There was a recognition that we are in the process of building a global climate justice movement and no matter what happened in Paris this would have to continue. There were workshops and forums taking place in the area reserved for “civil society.”

There were many inspiring sessions: women from Indonesia spoke out against deforestation by lumber companies; activists from the Philippines described the devastation of their country by weather systems and the effects on the poor and working people; young people from Jackson, Mississippi spoke of the work they are doing and Hispanic water rights activists from California described their struggles. There were Indigenous people who were leading fights from every continent.

Labour for the climate

Historically there had been a real divide between environmentalists and labour. The tension between jobs and the environment had kept these sectors from working together. In more recent times there have been real attempts to bridge this divide.

The Leap Manifesto in Canada was one such attempt. Naomi Klien and Avi Lewis convened a symposium of Indigenous peoples, environmentalists, community activists and trade unionists earlier this year. They tried to build a basis of unity and the manifesto was the result. It linked the environmental crisis with the austerity agenda and brought a class and social justice approach to fighting climate change. In Toronto the July march for “Jobs, Justice and Climate,” which brought out 10,000, was one outcome. There was a well-attended forum on the manifesto in Paris.

Trade unionists had held a conference in September and the position they developed was “No jobs on a dead planet.” This was an important piece of building the unity that is so necessary in the climate justice movement. Workers are fighting for a just transition for those working in the resource industries and real green jobs.

At one session in Paris a worker from the tar sands stood up and made a statement from the audience. He said that the workers know what’s happening. They see a huge fire coming their way engulfing everything and they are grabbing their families and their belongings and running until they come to a river that they can’t cross. They need to build a bridge to get across but they can’t do it alone. They need our help and if we help them they can help us. He saw the forestry and fishing industries devastated, and the promise of jobs that never came.

He wants to be part of a climate justice movement that include the needs of working people, Indigenous communities and environmentalists. His comments were very inspiring and our job is to continue the fight to build this movement.  

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