Confronting Climate Catastrophe: Direct Action is the Antidote for Despair

Or, Why the UN is Worse than Useless and we need to Flood Wall Street!

Climate Convergence Plenary Address, Friday, 19 September 2014

Anne Petermann, Global Justice Ecology Project, Campaign to STOP Genetically Engineered Trees

UN Security arrests clown at Durban Climate COP shortly before assaulting the photographer.  Photo:

UN Security arrests clown at Durban Climate COP shortly before assaulting the photographer. Photo:

Good evening everyone and thank you to Jill, Margaret and the other convergence organizers for the opportunity to speak to you tonight.

In four days time, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will hold a UN Climate Summit–a closed door session where the world’s “leaders” will discuss “ambitions” for the upcoming climate conferences (or COPs as they are called) in Lima, Peru and Paris, France.

I was asked to put into context the reason for the march and actions this weekend–especially the problem of the corporate capture of the United Nations Climate Convention, which I have attended and organized around since 2004, when I attended my first UN Climate COP, in Buenos Aires, until 2011 when I was permanently banned from the UN Climate Conferences following a direct action occupation at the Climate COP in Durban, South Africa.

But I actually got involved with the UN Climate Conferences through the work I have dedicated myself to, which is stopping the dangerous genetic engineering of trees.

What happened was in 2003, the UN Climate Conference decided that GE trees could be used in carbon offset forestry plantations. Understanding that this was a potential social and ecological disaster, and being completely naïve about the UN process, we decided to go to the UN and explain to them why this was wrong, and to get them to reverse this bad decision.

But what we found out was that GE trees had been permitted in carbon offset forestry plantations because Norway had tried to get them banned. But Brazil and China were either already growing GE trees or planning to, so they blocked Norway’s proposal. As a result, GE trees were allowed simply because they could not be banned. The UN, we learned, does not reverse decisions, regardless of how ill-informed and destructive they are.

This is the dysfunction of the UN Climate Convention.

But let’s go back a minute to see how we got where we are now.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change emerged in 1992 out of the Rio Earth Summit. Five years later, the Kyoto Protocol was penned as the first binding global agreement to tackle climate change. The target: 5.2% emission reductions below 1992 levels by 2012, a target which climate scientists agreed was grossly inadequate to the task. To make matters worse, the US–the world’s largest polluter–responsible for one-quarter of global emissions–refused to sign on unless carbon trading and other market-based approaches were included.

You know, because Capitalism and the market are so awesome for promoting social and ecological justice. Desperate to get the US on board, these mechanisms were included, and then, of course, the US refused to join anyway. Thank you Al Gore.

And it wasn’t until 2005, 8 years later, after Russia ratified it, that the Kyoto Protocol had enough membership to go into force.

And what has this meant for greenhouse gas emissions? 2012 and 2013 saw the fastest rise in emissions since 1984.

So, what can we do? That’s what I really want to talk about.

In 2007, The UN and the World Bank announced the launch of the “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation” initiative, or REDD. They announced it with a press conference featuring then-World Bank President Robert Zoellick. Zoellick is also one of the key figures in the Project for a New American Century, which strategized to advance US global domination after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and which orchestrated the Iraq War in 2003.

Yet there he was in Bali, Indonesia at the UN Climate Conference, talking about the need to protect forests to help stop climate change. Why would he do that?

Because REDD is a scheme to enable business as usual under a green veneer.

Promoting the idea that forests can store the greenhouse gases emitted through burning fossil fuels allows corporations like Chevron to buy forests in the Global South rather than cut their emissions.

In fact, REDD creates a framework that encourages the theft of the most ecologically intact lands remaining on the planet from the people who have historically protected them–the Indigenous and forest-based peoples who depend on them for their existence.

So the Indigenous Peoples in Bali, excluded from the negotiations on REDD, even though it was their lands being discussed, held a spontaneous protest directly in front of the media tent, where press from around the world were straining to find interesting ways to cover the fantastically boring negotiations. And when 100 Indigenous People from around the world, wearing traditional garb put gags on their mouths and denounced UN REDD as genocidal, it was picked up by media around the globe.

At the end of two weeks of almost daily protest in Bali, organizations, social movements and Indigenous Peoples from around the world came together to form Climate Justice Now!, a global movement to demand justice-based and ecologically appropriate approaches to the climate crisis.

The next major organizing opportunity for the burgeoning climate justice movement was the 2009 UN Climate COP in Copenhagen. This conference was where countries were supposed to agree to the next round of binding commitments under the Kyoto Protocol after the first round ended in 2012.

The Copenhagen Climate COP was scheduled to start on November 30, 2009, the 10th anniversary of the historic shutdown of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. The Seattle WTO shutdown was a watershed moment for the global movement against corporate globalization. That action, where affinity groups took over the city and effectively halted the ministerial meeting of the WTO helped bolster the positions of developing countries inside who were fighting unjust WTO rules, especially on agriculture.

Fearing another shutdown, the WTO held their next major ministerial in Doha, Qatar–known for its repressive laws regarding protest. But this too was a bust and they never fully recovered from Seattle.

We planned to use that auspicious anniversary and the framing of the UN as the World Carbon Trade Organization, to build momentum for a mass action in Copenhagen.

We announced these plans at a press conference during the UN Climate COP in Poznan, Poland, one year before Copenhagen. One day later,  the UN changed the date of the Copenhagen Climate COP, pushing it back by one week.

At the press conference, Climate Justice Now! released a powerful statement denouncing the UN. It was titled, “Radical New Agenda Needed to Achieve Climate Justice.”

It states: “We will not be able to stop climate change if we don’t change the neo-liberal and corporate-based economy which stops us from achieving sustainable societies. Corporate globalisation must be stopped.

Private investors circle the talks like vultures, swooping in on every opportunity for creating new profits. At least 1500 industry lobbyists were present, some as members of country delegations.

Market ideology has totally infiltrated the climate talks, and the UN negotiations are now like trade fairs hawking investment opportunities.

Solutions to the climate crisis will not come from industrialised countries and big business. Effective and enduring solutions will come from those who have protected the environment – Indigenous Peoples, women, peasant and family farmers, fisherfolk, forest dependent communities, youth and marginalised and affected communities in the global South and North.

We stand at the crossroads. We call for a radical change in direction to put climate justice and people’s rights at the centre of these negotiations.”

The following year at the Copenhagen Climate COP, which the UN was ridiculously calling “Hopenhagen,” Climate Justice Now! and Climate Justice Action organized the Reclaim Power march out. Country delegations, organizers and others, led by Indigenous Peoples, marched out of the talks in protest of the lack of meaningful and just action, and the silencing of people’s voices.

On the outside, thousands of people excluded from the talks participated in an unpermitted march toward the conference center. The two sides were to meet in the middle for a Peoples’ Assembly, where real solutions to the climate crisis and ways forward would be discussed.

But the Danish Police had other ideas. They pre-emptively arrested key organizers of the Reclaim Power march out days before it happened. They beat accredited delegates on the UN grounds during the march out, and on the outside, they violently attacked and arrested march organizers, charging them with terrorism.

Meanwhile, inside the negotiations, the US was bribing and threatening small countries to go along with Obama’s secretly negotiated and disastrous “Copenhagen accord.” After that, we started calling him O-Bummer. But Venezuela and Bolivia refused to capitulate and it was not adopted.

CJN released a statement at the end of the Copenhagen Catastrophe which was titled Call for “system change not climate change” unites global movement

It stated, “The Climate Justice Now! coalition, alongside other networks, was united here at COP15 in the call for System Change, Not Climate Change. In contrast, the Copenhagen climate conference itself demonstrated that real solutions, as opposed to false, market-based solutions, will not be adopted until we overcome the existing unjust political and economic system.

Government and corporate elites here in Copenhagen made no attempt to satisfy the expectations of the world. False solutions and corporations completely co-opted the United Nations process. Virtually every proposal discussed in Copenhagen was based on a desire to create opportunities for profit rather than to reduce emissions. The only discussions of real solutions in Copenhagen took place in social movements.

Our demonstrations, organised together with Danish trade unions, movements and NGOs, mobilized more than 100,000 people in Denmark to press for climate justice, while social movements around the world mobilized hundreds of thousands more in local climate justice demonstrations.

While Copenhagen has been a disaster for just and equitable climate solutions, it has been an inspiring watershed moment in the battle for climate justice. The governments of the elite have no solutions to offer, but the climate justice movement has provided strong vision and clear alternatives. Copenhagen will be remembered as an historic event for global social movements. It will be remembered, along with Seattle and Cancun, as a critical moment when the diverse agendas of many social movements coalesced and became stronger, asking in one voice for system change, not climate change.”

At the next two climate COPs, in Cancun, Mexico and Durban, South Africa, the UN cracked down on dissent. Any demonstrations or protests had to be permitted or participants would be ejected from the conference. Even wearing a t-shirt with an unsanctioned message was enough to lose your credentials.

In Cancun, the youth delegation held a permitted action where they counted the number of people that had been killed by climate change that year. But the permit was only for 30 minutes, by which time the youth were only a fraction of the way through. UN security immediately moved in, arrested them, put them on a bus and removed them from the grounds.

Even journalists were not exempt from this treatment. A journalist covering the youth protest was violently arrested and thrown on a bus to be removed. His fellow journalists came to his aid and a near riot ensued with journalists from around the world yelling and rocking the bus in outrage.

The following year in Durban, security was even tighter. We organized an official press conference inside the climate conference with accredited delegates scheduled to speak–including Kandi, who just led the opening ceremony, and Desmond D’Sa, who speaks on tomorrow’s plenary. One of the other speakers was Uncle Sam, dressed as a clown, there to argue the merits of business as usual. After the press conference, Uncle Sam was in the hallway being interviewed by the media when UN security grabbed him and dragged him out of the building. My husband Orin, who is also a photojournalist, was documenting the incident when a second UN security officer came up to him and violently shoved Orin’s camera into his face, nearly knocking him over and threatening his credentials if he took any more photos.

All of this is what led to the youth occupation of the hallway. And the permanent banning of my colleague and me.

The next year the UN Climate Convention hid out in Doha, just like the WTO.

Is there hope that the UN will accomplish real, effective and just action on climate change?  No.

Will they promote dangerous profit-driven false solutions that endanger people’s lives and further destroy the planet’s life support systems.  Yes.

Is it time for people to stand up to corporate power, shut down the polluters and to build our own solutions to climate change?  Absolutely.

Is it possible to change this entrenched system?

It has to be. We don’t have any other choice.

We have seen the power people have when they refuse to obey, when they take on the power structure through creative and direct action, when they fight back. We saw this in the movement against the Vietnam War, we saw it in the civil rights movement, and we just powerfully witnessed it in Ferguson.

People are putting their lives on the line to defend their communities and their lands against the ravages of climate change and false solutions like biofuels–peasants in Honduras and Indigenous Peoples in Indonesia who are rising up against oil palm plantations in the face of violent repression and murder. Farmers in Mexico fighting industrial wind farms, Innu people in Quebec organizing to stop massive hydroelectric dams that would drown their ancestral lands. Tupinikim and Guarani peoples who cut down industrial eucalyptus plantations in Brazil to re-establish their traditional villages, and when the corporations burned them down, came back and rebuilt them again.

Then there are the rural women in Kenya re-learning how to grow and forage for traditional foods to become independent from food aid, often in the form of GMOs. And La Via Campesina, organizing peasant farmers around the world who are practicing traditional agriculture, feeding people while cooling the planet.

There are thousands of such inspirational examples.

What are you going to do to become part of the movement for change?

You’ve got a great opportunity on Monday at the Flood Wall Street actions. On Monday, thousands will take their outrage and their demands directly to the source. Directly to the bankers, the financiers, the power elite. You can get plugged in by showing up at 9am at Battery Park on Monday, where Naomi Klein, Chris Hedges and others will speak before the launch of the actions.

Because as those of us know who’ve been involved in the movement, who’ve spent time in jail, there is great power in not complying with the state. In saying No. In taking direct action to stand strong for your beliefs and not back down. In putting your body on the line.

Direct action is the antidote for despair.

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Filed under Actions / Protest, Africa, Carbon Trading, Climate Change, Climate Justice, Corporate Globalization, False Solutions to Climate Change, Forests, GE Trees, Green Economy, Greenwashing, Indigenous Peoples, Land Grabs, Latin America-Caribbean, Posts from Anne Petermann, REDD, UNFCCC, World Bank, WTO

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