Demanding climate justice in Paris

Sue Wheat travelled with friends from Waltham Forest to demand climate justice at the recent COP21 talks hosted by the United Nations in Paris. Here she gives her thoughts on the experience.

Climate activists from Waltham Forest beside the Eiffel Tower

Climate activists from Waltham Forest beside the Eiffel Tower, including Sue Wheat (right)

For the last 25 years, having been an environmental journalist and campaigner, I’ve come to realise that climate change is the biggest issue since the dinosaurs became extinct.

If our point in history was a film, the superhero would be told: “You’ve got 15 years to save the world,” and it would be a white-knuckle-ride with no-one knowing if they were going to manage it until the very end.

But we don’t know how the story will end. Every day weather is wrecking people’s lives around the world. In the UK this month we saw pictures of dramatic floods on our TV screens in Cumbria, with people’s homes and lives in tatters and several dead, before we began sweating for the rest of the month in temperatures more akin to May. It has now been confirmed that 2015 was the hottest year on record.

I saw the COP21 meeting in Paris as our last chance to really focus world leaders’ minds on this issue and come up with an international plan to reduce carbon emissions by enough to keep the temperature from rising a further two degrees and beyond.

This is what spurred myself and thousands of ordinary people to travel to Paris for the final weekend of the COP21 climate talks in December. Several residents from Waltham Forest joined the mass mobilisation, some travelling by train, and others by bicycle – an amazing feat.

We stayed in youth hostels or on the floors of local halls and schools. Briefings were held to make sure that people were sure of how to stay safe during the demonstrations. As Paris was in a state of emergency, there were a lot of rules to follow.

On Saturday morning, 12th December, we went out in small groups of five or less. Our task was to stand at several GPS points given to us, take a picture and upload it to a pre-arranged website. Collectively, the points would spell out a digital picture of the words “climate, justice, peace”. It was an ingenious demonstration of collective action, without being a typical protest.

At midday, around 15,000 activists met near the Arch de Triomphe for the ‘red lines’ vigil, with people wearing red, carrying red umbrellas and laying red tulips on long strips of red cloth that were laid down along the road at 12pm. Two minutes’ silence ensued for all those who have died in climate-related disasters.

The Global Climate Risk Index estimates that between 1994 and 2013, more than 530,000 people died worldwide and losses of £1.45trillion were inflicted as a direct result of over 15,000 extreme weather events.

Demonstrations in Paris during the COP21 climate talks

Demonstrations in Paris during the COP21 climate talks

The red lines of our vigil signified the minimal conditions for a just and liveable planet. After the two minutes, a carnival-style street festival started, with samba bands and other musicians leading the way. My favourite moment was watching a friend singing a song telling David Cameron to “not be a planet bruiser,” recorded by a polar bear wearing large sunglasses, a Father Christmas hat and a bikini, surrounded by French riot police.

I asked Walthamstow resident Hannah Boustred, who is studying a masters in sustainable cities and cycled to Paris over three days, to describe her thoughts on the week. She told me: “It was the longest cycle ride I had ever done, 210 miles. I wanted to add my voice to the cyclists and activists from all over the world taking part in the vigil in Paris.

“The ride had its tough times – there were moments when I thought I wouldn’t make it. But we were rewarded with unforgettable moments, including dancing under the Eiffel Tower and one of the most creative protests I’ve seen.

“It was a once-in-a lifetime experience that I am proud to be a part of.”

Social media played a vital role during week and news came in during the afternoon that the Paris Agreement had been signed, with a reference to keeping temperatures below two degrees “moving towards 1.5 degrees” by 2050. It was lauded as an historic agreement, bringing together so many countries all with different agendas. A climate corner had been turned.

But reading tweets that evening, I realised the deal wasn’t without criticism – the actions were voluntary. Unfortunately, only two days later, I woke up to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme telling us that the UK government was likely to vote to allow fracking for shale gas under national parks. No mention was made of climate change or the historic Paris Agreement the previous weekend. The vote went through.

For me being part of the COP21 weekend was incredibly inspiring as I saw that thousands of people from around the world understood the threat to our world and are committed to holding governments to account. But the news in the following days showing business as usual makes it clear that the Paris Agreement was not the answer to our climate woes. There is a much bigger struggle to come, and we are just at the start of it.

Local groups in Waltham Forest campaigning on climate change include Waltham Forest Friends of the Earth, Transition Leytonstone, Greenpeace Waltham Forest, and many others. The Hornbeam Centre’s website carries information about most green groups and activities in the borough:

Visit www.hornbeam.org.uk