Climate change, the most important issue currently affecting our planet and our species, is the subject of a global conference this week—yet it is barely a blip in media coverage. The 23rd Conference of Parties (COP23), which is the United Nation’s annual international gathering on climate change, is taking place this week in Bonn, Germany, co-hosted by both Germany and the island nation of Fiji. As usual, country delegates and their staff are huddled in official meetings and panels while climate justice and environmental activists are attempting to hold them accountable from the outside.
But this year marks a special moment: Less than a year after the historic (but flawed) Paris Climate Accord was agreed upon in December 2015, the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions chose a climate change denier as president. Donald Trump quickly moved to undo Barack Obama’s commitment to the Paris Climate Accord. Ten months into his presidency, Trump’s administration is racing to lighten the regulatory load of polluting mega-corporations and revive the dying coal industry. COP23 attendees perceive an even greater urgency to address climate change within this political context.
U.S.-based climate justice activists who have traveled to COP23 are especially sensitive and more determined than ever to push for grass-roots change in mitigating climate change. One such activist making his voice heard at COP23 is Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson (a network for sustainable development in Mississippi), and former executive director of the Peoples’ Hurricane Relief Fund, established in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Akuno, who is in Bonn as part of the It Takes Roots delegation, told me in an interview that he and others in his delegation are there “to strengthen the framework that we advanced in Paris two years ago, and that can best be summarized by making the argument to ‘keep it in the ground.’ ” That phrase, which describes what best to do with fossil fuels, has been popularized over several years by leaders in the environmental justice movement and has been echoed at COP23. “There have to be major reductions [in emissions] at the source,” Akuno warns, “if we are to keep to the goal of 1.5 degrees warming.”
Alarmingly, however, global greenhouse gas emissions have spiked this year for the first time in three years, not because of Trump’s election but because of Chinese resurgent reliance on coal. The Trump effect may still come next year or the year after. Regardless, if there is no slowing down and eventual reversal of emissions levels, there is absolutely no hope to mitigate a global climate disaster. As the residents of Houston, Puerto Rico and California realized this year, climate change is a global phenomenon and impacts all of us no matter where the emissions originate.
One climate justice activist who traveled a long way to attend the conference is Chief Ninawa Huni Kui, president of the Federation of the Huni Kui, an indigenous Amazonian tribe based in Acre, Brazil. He shared his insights with me in an interview from Bonn. “We understand what is happening and we believe that mother Earth is powerful, and part of her protests are terrible hurricanes, the flooding, the drought and the erratic seasons,” Chief Ninawa said. “They’re not talking about Mother Earth here in this conference of parties. They’re talking about business, money, capital, carbon credits and fracking, and supposedly [about] offsetting pollution.”
When asked how the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord was being felt in Bonn, Akuno explained that it has partly hindered progress but also fueled the determination of nations to power on without the U.S. “Many of us would argue that the United States and the Trump administration not being here to a certain degree has actually opened up more space,” he said. “It’s eliminated some of the blocks that the United States has traditionally registered.” Still, how do you hold the world’s economic superpower accountable for its contribution to climate change if its representatives are absent?
The Trump administration did make one appearance at COP23. It was the height of irony that at a global conference devoted to combating climate change, the White House decided to promote the very energy source that fuels climate change by audaciously sponsoring a panel featuring coal, natural gas and nuclear power as “clean” energies. White House energy adviser George Banks spoke alongside industry representatives and corporate fossil fuel executives in pushing the idea that “clean coal” and fracked gas could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The panel became a flashpoint for derision and anger from both the international community gathered in Bonn as well as the U.S.-based activists present.
Among those protesting the White House panel were two young indigenous members of Idle No More SF Bay, Isabella Zizi and Daniel Ilario, who are attending the COP23 as part of the same delegation as Akuno. They, too, shared their experience with me in an interview. Zizi described a powerful parade of people who protested the White House panel, and some among them held an impromptu press conference outside the location featuring indigenous representatives from all over the Americas. “That really just told the solid truth about what we have to deal with on the front lines in our own impacted communities when it comes to nuclear waste, fracking and coal.”
So embarrassing and inappropriate was the White House panel promoting fossil fuels that even COP23’s president, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, told the press, “I really don’t want to get into an argument with the United States of America, but we all know what coal does and we all know the effects of coal mining … we all know what coal does with regard to climate change.”
Countering Trump’s position on climate are several U.S. state governors who traveled to Bonn to present themselves as the new American leadership on climate. Among them is California Gov. Jerry Brown, who sees himself as a climate hero but who has been roundly criticized for promoting what many call “false solutions” to climate change, such as his state’s cap and trade program. At a panel in Bonn, Brown felt the wrath of climate justice protesters (including Ilario) who interrupted his talk with the familiar refrain of “Keep it in the ground.” According to Ilario, the irate governor responded, “Let’s put you in the ground.”
Ilario explained that he led the protest against Brown because, as a resident of the Bay area, his community is exposed to “five refineries that constantly pollute and are seeking to expand.” Brown’s signature cap-and-trade extension, AB 398, “allows these refineries to expand and it restricts us from the ability to locally cap carbon until 2030,” Ilario said.
Brown’s flippant response to him was a “shock,” Ilario added, because he sees himself as fighting, “to protect the water, to protect the air, so we have a chance at having a next generation because right now that’s not certain.” Indeed, this year’s U.N. climate conference appears similar to past conferences: While civil society representatives vocally demand basic rights to exist without fear of extinction, policy makers congratulate one another on preserving financial markets at the expense of humanity.
Chief Ninawa echoed Ilario’s sentiment, saying “We are sad when we see that the governments and corporations are setting the table to get down to auctioning off the animals, buying and selling the plants, buying and selling the water, buying and selling the very air that we breathe.” He added, “These gifts that the creator created for all of humanity are being auctioned off at these negotiations.”
Ordinary people, who will pay the heaviest price for global warming, far outnumber the powerful political and financial elites trying to silence the masses. Negotiators need reminding that the preservation of financial markets and the energy economy means nothing if large swathes of our species will be wiped out. “There are only one or two governments that are making all the decisions and the people of world’s voice isn’t being heard,” Chief Ninawa said. “Life itself and the future of humanity is at stake.”