Climate summit protests challenge lack of progress on Paris Agreement

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Climate protest march in Madrid on December 6, 2019. Image: John Englart/Flickr

MADRID -- This year's United Nations climate summit, dubbed "COP25" for the 25th annual "conference of the parties" to the climate negotiations, heated up Wednesday as grassroots activists, youth and Indigenous leaders protested en masse outside the main plenary hall. As the Democracy Now! news hour broadcast live from the convention centre, chants rang out: "Shame! Shame!" and "The people, united, will never be defeated," in Spanish and English, and "What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!" The protest was one of many here in Madrid, challenging the lack of progress in finalizing rules for the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement, the global treaty that is the last, best hope to forestall catastrophic, irreversible climate catastrophe.

"The COP has been moving in a dangerously bad direction," Nnimmo Bassey, director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation, based in Nigeria, told Democracy Now! from the plenary hall protest. "The protesters here are saying that the trajectory on which the COP negotiation is moving, towards market mechanisms rather than real climate action, is wrong. The protesters are saying: 'Look, you have to respect Indigenous territories. You have to respect the rights of people from less polluting nations, and what we need now is real climate action and not just another talk show.'"

The protest was scheduled to directly challenge just such a "talk show" on the summit's main stage, where one of the featured speakers was Ana Botin, executive chairperson of the Santander Group, the 16th-largest bank in the world. Forbes magazine calls Botin the ninth most powerful woman in the world. According to Rainforest Action Network's 2019 "Banking on Climate Change" report card, Santander holds tens of billions of dollars in fossil fuel investments, from deep-sea oil extraction to Arctic oil exploration, from fracking to ventures in LNG (liquefied natural gas). Critics have long argued that corporations have polluted the UN's climate negotiations, and protests here in Madrid over the past two weeks have hammered that point home.

COP25 was abruptly moved from Santiago, Chile, to Madrid, as nationwide protests against inequality and austerity in Chile prompted right-wing President Sebastian Pinera to cancel the UN climate summit there. Chile retained the mostly ceremonial presidency of COP25. The COP's logo is a stylized clock with the linear outline of Chile forming one of the clock hands. The accompanying slogan, "#TimeForAction," is plastered all over the sprawling conference complex and on government buildings around Madrid. But inside COP25, diplomatic decorum and an entrenched bureaucracy cast a pall over the proceedings, masking the urgency of the crisis.

On the front lines of the worsening climate disaster, there is scant space for polite dialogue. Extreme weather events, made more severe and more frequent by human-induced global warming, are killing thousands, from hurricanes and typhoons to wildfires and droughts. Much of Australia's east coast is consumed by wildfires caused by the global heating. Smoke from the fires has blanketed Sydney, causing smoke alarms to go off nonstop in the city.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has encouraged burning of the Amazon rainforest, considered the "lungs of the planet" for the irreplaceable, complex ecological systems that it supports.

"We have been attacked in our democracy," Indigenous activist Daiara Tukano from the Brazilian Amazon told Democracy Now! from the protest outside the COP25 plenary hall. "We have been attacked in our forest. And we, as Indigenous people from the forest, are trying to defend what is left of nature. Indigenous territories defend more than 80 per cent of biodiversity in this world. Biodiversity is connected to cultural diversity. It is in our knowledge, in our way of life."

While Forbes may rank the wealthy, Time magazine named Greta Thunberg as its 2019 "Person of the Year" on Wednesday, just as the protest at COP25 was at its height. The 16-year-old Swedish climate activist began "school striking" just over a year and a half ago, skipping school on Fridays to stand in front of the Swedish Parliament, demanding urgent action to combat climate change. Her solitary protest inspired millions around the world to take action, building on an already vibrant youth climate movement with dedicated leadership among Indigenous youth and other youth of colour worldwide.

Thunberg spoke at COP25's "High Level Event on Climate Emergency" on Wednesday morning. Afterward, scores of youth activists rushed the stage as security tried to escort them off. They stood, immovable, fists raised in the air. "You can't drink oil! Keep it in the soil!" they chanted.

Their final chant as they walked off the stage: "We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!"

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Democracy Now!

Image: John Englart/Flickr

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