This opinion is a part of a Point-Counterpoint on the Copenhagen Conference, read Chelsea Howard’s Opinion.
In the months leading up to the COP 15 climate negotiations in Copenhagen this past December, I was confused about what my role would be. I had specifically planned to study abroad in the fall semester so I could be in Europe during the conference- which was billed as humanities last chance to save itself from catastrophic climate change by most environmentalists.
A bunch of gritty details aside, I ended up in Copenhagen with no real plan. I hooked up with an organization called Climate Justice Action- a grassroots network of folks fighting for climate justice and ended up staying in an abandoned warehouse with about 1,000 other activists. These folks were from Denmark, Norway, Spain, Bulgaria, Mexico, the US…all over the world, but they were all drawn to this dingy, moldy warehouse in northwest Copenhagen because they believed in one thing: the COP 15 was a scam.
Lots of my friends in Copenhagen were inside the conference, working to reach a “fair, ambitious and binding” global climate treaty. I have nothing but respect for them and for all the work they did at the conference, but even with tens of thousands of people working on a global climate treaty for the past fifteen years, we have yet to reach any sort of legitimate, legally binding treaty that addresses climate change and climate justice while refusing to give into corporate and big business pressure. So what’s the problem?
The conference itself is the problem. How can we expect success at UN events like this when lobbyists from Shell, Exxon Mobil, and Archer Daniels-Midlands have more of a say than the youth of the world, the people who are going to live through the climate crisis? How can we expect success at these events when our political leaders don’t have the political or moral courage to stand up and do what is right (I’m referring here to Obama specifically and one of the biggest letdowns of the conference and his presidency). The point is, these conferences designed to save our planet were doomed from the start. But I’m not saying there isn’t a way to make them work.
This brings me to what I was doing in Copenhagen. My entire two weeks in Copenhagen were filled with non violent direct actions, all aimed at demonstrating the idea that another world is possible, but things need to change. I marched for System Change, NOT Climate Change in the biggest demonstration against climate change ever, I blockaded the Danish Ministry of Defense to protest the strengthening of borders against climate refugees from the global south and I illegally planted vegetables in front of the Parliament building to show support for indigenous farmers, but it was all leading up to the last day of the conference and a combination: protest, march and direct action that we called Reclaim Power.
Reclaim Power was called the most anticipated action of the conference by CNN and for me it sums up exactly why direct action organizing gets the goods, and working for policy changes doesn’t. The whole idea of Reclaim Power was to show that the COP 15 had gone astray, and been hijacked by the global north and transnational corporations and that “we the people” needed to Reclaim Power and set the United Nations straight on how to achieve true climate justice. The tactical goal of this action was to use our power as a mass of people and push through any barriers that were in our way to gain access into the Bella Center (the conference center where the negotiations were being held) and hold a “People’s Assembly”- bringing together people from the global south and north to lay down a roadmap for true climate justice which would then be delivered to all the delegations inside the center. We were advocating for change, not only to combat climate change, but to also increase transparency in the process and mobilize people to fight climate change themselves. By relying on politicians, corporations and negotiators to solve the climate crisis for us, we forfeit the power that we inherently have and lose the capability to solve these problems by ourselves. We need to reclaim our power!
So, while the Reclaim Power action didn’t succeed (we were brutally beaten back with batons, pepper spray, tear gas and dogs in a scene reminiscent of Seattle in 1999, Genoa in 2001 or Florence in 2002), the idea of it will live on in the global climate justice movement, and we will keep fighting: against fake politicians, against corporate control of our climate and for the reclamation of power by the people!
-Submitted By Aaron French, Class of 2011