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After Paris: climate change or system change?

Jesse McLaren

December 13, 2015

“Years from now, today may very well be the day our children look back to as the beginning of an ambitious global effort to finally fight climate change. I am proud of the role Canada is playing in reaching this historic and balanced agreement, and I am confident that the world will rise to the challenge of addressing climate change.”

Taking his usual lofty rhetoric to new heights, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed that the fight against climate change began when world leaders met in Paris two weeks ago, and the Canadian government helped craft a historic agreement to stop climate change. Like Trudeau’s campaign motto, these words address the widespread demand for real change without actually doing anything to achieve it. But while the Canadian government hopes this rhetoric will appease people’s demands, the climate justice movement is emerging from Paris with a greater determination for system change to stop climate change. 

From Copenhagen to Paris

At the Copenhager climate talks in 2009, the climate justice movement was disillusioned to see governments refuse to act on climate change. But since then the movement has grown massively, led by Indigenous communities and with growing support from the labour movement—to challenge the oil companies and the states supporting them.

Across Canada and the US the climate justice movement has delayed every major pipeline project—stopping Northern Gateway, driving Kinder Morgan off Burnaby Mountain and TransCanada from Cacouna, and forcing Barack Obama to refuse the Keystone XL pipeline.

Last year the People’s Climate March mobilized 400,000 in New York and hundreds of thousands more around the world for climate action, and this year was set to be a historic march in Paris on the eve of the climate talks.

Violence inside and outside Paris

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris earlier the year, the French government called for a massive demonstration—which it cynically used to whip up Islamophobia and war. But after last month’s attacks in Paris, the government declared a state of emergency that it used to ban the climate demonstration.

As Naomi Klein wrote, “The reaction was revealing, since it took for granted the notion that climate change is a minor issue, a cause without real casualties, frivolous even. Especially when serious issues like war and terrorism are taking central state…When governments and corporations knowingly fail to act to prevent catastrophic warming, it is an act of violence. It is a violence so large, so global and inflicted against so many temporalities simultaneously (ancient cultures, present lives, future potential) that there is not yet a word capable of containing its monstrousness. And using acts of violence to silence the voices of those who are most vulnerable to climate violence is yet more violence.”

The French state followed with further violence—attacking climate justice protesters, and whipping up racism against Muslims and refugees to justify intensifying the war on Iraq and Syria. The result has been to stoke even more violence, with the fascist National Front rising leading in the polls.

Watering down the text as the waters rise

In the midst of climate violence, oil-fuelled war and barriers to refugees fleeing both, the Paris climate talks were supposed to stop climate change—but those most responsible for climate change have been the most resistant to taking action

As Anwar Hossain Manju, Bangladesh’s Minister of Environment, explained, “We refuse to be the sacrifice of the international community in Paris. Anything that takes our survival off the table here is a red line. All parties have an obligation to act. Not doing so is a crime.”At the Climate Vulnerability Forum, countries most affected by climate change, who have also contributed the least to it, announced the Manila-Paris Declaration calling for 100% renewable energy and zero emissions by 2050—as well as financial support for adaptation and mitigation from countries most affected—in order to keep global warming below 1.5 degree.

But through the negotations, the leading climate criminals worked to water down the climate targets and language around groups most targeted by climate change, including “the rights of indigenous peoples, migrants, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and under occupation.” As Dallas Goldtooth from the Indigenous Environmental Network said, "Considering that Indigenous communities often face the worst consequences of climate change, the decision to reject Indigenous Rights and advocate for false solutions is not only offensive and intolerable, but illogical and destructive to the climate change movement as a whole."

From Harper to Trudeau

For the Canadian state, Paris was an opportunity to rebrand itself and put a new face on Harper’s pipeline politics. In the recent federal election, the Liberals took advantage of the NDP’s rightward tack and monopolized the anti-Harper mood, pretending to be an alternative. Millions voted for real change and Trudeau has been trying to sustain that image to mask the reality. “Canada is back, my good friends. We’re here to help to build an agreement that will do our children and grandchildren proud,” he announced to a standing ovation in Paris.

“It feels totally revolutionary, from what we’ve had with nine years of Harper,” according to Michael Magee, chief of staff for Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson. But youth delegates, who Trudeau tweeted about while refusing to meet with, weren’t so enamoured. As Sophie Harrison explained, “We have seen Trudeau use a lot of positive language on taking strong action on climate change, and not give a lot of details. We’re really worried we’ll see a lot of strong language without the strong action to back it up.”

Even securing strong rhetoric was a battle against the Canadian delegation, which showed up with two executives from oil giant Suncor and Harper’s old climate targets. As Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion complained, “There’s an obsession about targets among some people. It’s very nice to have a target and to announce it to the media to look good. If you have no plan to implement it after, what kind of credibility do you have?” After initially resisting setting a target, Canadian Environmental Minister Catherine McKenna agreed to limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, without any mechanism to accomplish this. While the Liberals support the legally-binding TPP trade deal, they refuse to support an legally-binding climate deal—so under Trudeau, Canada earned the “fossil of the day” award just like during the previous climate talks with Harper.

As Canadian Youth Delegation wrote, “1.5℃ is an extremely important goal to keep in the agreement because it is what hundreds of millions of people need to survive. The implications of Canada committing to 1.5 degrees means putting tar sands pipelines and tar sands expansion on the chopping block, not to mention reducing our net emissions to 0 over the next 35 years. However, our government currently has no plan for getting to below 2℃ of warming, let alone 1.5. If the Canadian Government is real about this kind of ambitious target, they are going to need to break it to Kinder Morgan and TransCanada Corporation that they won't get to build their new proposed pipelines projects. Not to mention that they will have to come 
up with an ambitious near-term plan for how to reach 
this target—something Canada so desperately needs.”

After Paris

The Paris talks not only repeated the Copenhagen’s accord refusal to stop climate change, but showed that the world’s leading powers will restrict civil liberties to attack the climate justice movement while using climate change to make further profits. As human rights lawyer Alberto Saldamando explained, “The Paris accord is a trade agreement, nothing more. It promises to privatize, commodify and sell forested lands as carbon offsets in fraudulent schemes such as REDD+ projects. These offset schemes provide a financial laundering mechanism for developed countries to launder their carbon pollution on the backs of the global south. Case-in-point, the United States’ climate change plan includes 250 million megatons to be absorbed by oceans and forest offset markets. Essentially, those responsible for the climate crisis not only get to buy their way out of compliance but they also get to profit from it as well.”

Trudeau spoke of a “balanced agreement,” which for the Canadian government meant balancing between the climate justice movement and Canadian oil corporations. The resulting “agreement” becomes vocal support for one, along with material support for the other. This is emerging as Trudeau’s record: promising to withdraw fighter jets while continuing to bomb Iraq, and promising to stop climate change while continuing to support tar sands and pipelines.

Trudeau’s next promise is to meet with Premiers within 90 days to set a strategy to confront climate change, but this is the same list of oil-friendly politicians he brought to Paris: BC Premier Christy Clark who supports fracking, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley who supports tar sands, Saskatchewan anti-refugee Premier Brad Wall, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne who supports Line 9 and Energy East.

The real historic agreement is not from state leaders pushing more war and more warming, but from the growing climate justice movement including Indigenous, environmental and labour organizations. Indigenous communities led the way, including with a joint declaration, “Keep fossil fuels in the ground: a declaration for the health of Mother Earth,” which calls for support for Indigenous communities, an end to fossil fuel funding and extraction, a rejection of false solutions and market mechanisms, and immediate transition to democratized renewable energy. There is also growing links with the labour movement—from an international conference for climate jobs in September, to labour contingents at the conference and protests. As a tar sands worker said in Paris, “we’re going to need some kind of transition.”

There is growing support for this transition—including 25,000 people marching in Quebec City in April, 10,000 marching in Toronto in July, 25,000 marching in Ottawa last month and thousands more who have signed the Leap Manifesto. The movement has already organized two protests on Trudeau's doorstep within two months of his election, and will use his rhetorics to demand real change: for climate action, Indigenous rights and refugees, and against war.

Protests continued in Paris, forcing the government to lift the ban, and the climate justice movement is emerging more united, confident and determined than before. As Naomi Klein said during the protests on the streets of Paris, comparing, “The mood was so heavy (in Copenhagen), it felt like the end of the world. We felt really helpless. There was a dynamic between people and politicians where we were almost begging them to act. The mood is not despair today, it’s clarity: we know what they won’t do, and we know what we have to do. There’s grief about what we’ve already lost, but there’s also joy about what we’re building together.”

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