On December 12th, 2015, when the halls of the Bourget erupted in applause with the signing of the United Nations Climate Change Accords in Paris, climate justice activists recognized a different reality.
The Paris Agreement signed by nearly 200 nations was an affirmation that national governments, despite all of the fanfare, were unable to address the roots of the climate crisis. For the international Climate Justice Movement it was yet another reinforcement of what they already knew: the only way to truly address climate crisis is to organize on a local, city and state level if we are to have any hope of real change.
"The only way to truly address climate crisis is to organize on a local, city and state level if we are to have any hope of real change."
Fast forward to the U.S. elections of 2016, the glaring shortcomings of the Paris Accord came into full view. As a filmmaker who followed seven grassroots activists as they organized to have the voices of the people heard at the COP 21, it was bittersweet news, but not without some sardonic retribution. Not that any of the activists have said it, but I have fantasized all of them standing in unison, shoulders shrugging, saying, “We told you so.”
Of course, they would never gloat, because many are neck deep on the front lines of the climate crisis and all of its intertwined issues. Nnimmo Bassey of the Niger Delta faces the ravages of oil extraction on a daily basis. Pablo Solon, a former ambassador to the United Nations, who lives in the high Andes region of Bolivia, witnesses the drying of glacial lakes and currently faces trumped up charges for speaking out against injustices.
But none of the activists are shy about pointing out the shortcomings of the acclaimed agreement.
One of the key aspects glossed over by mainstream media is the fact that the entire agreement, driven largely by the United States, was voluntary and non-binding. With no fear of legal ramifications, Trump and his Cabinet of special interests were able to implement their agenda of corporate greed over scientific fact. By denouncing the findings of 99% of climate scientists that the warming of the planet is due to human activity, the U.S., and subsequently the world, bowed once again to the powerful lobbies of Big Oil.
While the COP 21 had aspirations of keeping temperature increases to 1.5 to 2 degrees centigrade, the reality of the aspirational commitments add up to over 3 degrees centigrade. It should be noted that the temperature increase is an average for the globe. For Sub-Saharan Africa it would mean a genocidal 4.5 degree centigrade increase. Aspirations will not stop the heat waves, droughts and massive migration that are sure to come with these non-binding commitments.
Perhaps nothing is more astounding than the revelation that after 21 years of negotiations, painstaking research and countless hours of technical quibbling, there is a glaring omission of two key words: fossil fuels.
No mention of fossil fuels in the entire agreement. Could it be an oversight from negotiating fatigue? Perhaps a notetaking error by scribes? There was plenty of talk about carbon offset trading schemes as well as untested and dangerous geoengineering technologies to cool the planet. But no mention of reducing the dependence on fossil fuels.
Again, Climate Justice activists were not surprised. With the big oil corporations having a dominant presence at the COP 21 Solutions Expo in the glorious Grand Palais in Paris, the hypocrisies were on full display. While touting their clean energy programs, it took activists to point out Big Oil’s behind-the-scenes campaigns to block solar energy initiatives and their push for coal fired power plants and fracking throughout Europe.
These, among many other aspects of the agreement, reveal the corporate capture of the U.N. process. The activists are keen to point out that neoliberal economic policies based on infinite growth have driven developed nations to create the greatest inequality in history and at the same time are causing the destruction the planet. Their chants still ring in my ears: “System change, not climate change.” It’s time.
As with the making of any film, I have learned a great deal. The labyrinthine machinations of the U.N. Conference of the Parties, and their 21 year journey to achieve the Paris Accords was interesting to be sure. And like all of the activists in the film, I recognize the importance of the symbolism of nearly 200 nations agreeing that climate change is real. But how do we get to the actual change that we need?
My greatest revelation in making Not Without Us was far more personal in nature. In getting to know the activists, their personal stories, their struggles, I was most struck by their own moments of transformation. The moments that changed their lives and sent them on this path that brought them all to a cold winter in Paris, to stand up for us all, despite the horrendous terror attack in France two weeks before the climate negotiations were to begin. Their resilience to move forward and continue organizing in the face of a government crackdown on protests revealed to me that organizing for deep systemic change is not for the faint at heart.
More importantly, that the transformation that took place in all of them is possible in all of us. That we all need to find that inspiration, either from hardship, or birth from ignorance, to join the movement ourselves. To organize, get out into the streets, our town halls and into the faces of our political leaders to demand change. Our children, grandchildren and our Madre Tierra are counting on us.
Note: Not Without Us will appear nationwide on PBS World Channel August 29 and 30.