As you get onto the shuttle buses at Le Bourget station you are herded between barriers and waved into the right door by young men and women with pleasant unvarying smiles. A few yards behind them stand the armed police, ready to step forward if you refuse to be managed. And as you get off your bus and approach the airport-like buildings of COP21, more paid welcomers greet you and herd you into the right area and the right line. Some of them can’t help dropping that plastic smile, and seeing their ordinary faces makes you realise what a strain it must be to smile and say, over and over again, ‘Welcome to Cop21!’
You’ll only be allowed in the Blue Zone if you are one of the ‘Parties’ – the countries – work for the World Bank, are a journalist, or a representative of an accredited non-governmental organisation that hopes to offer information that actually affects the outcome. Small chance, unfortunately.
Everyone else has to go through security into the ‘Climate Generations’ Zone, for activists and public. Even that is stratified. At one end are the regions and cities, where everyone is smartly dressed. Bristol has a booth there, as Green Capital. Two indigenous Brazilians wearing brightly coloured Tshirts looked incongruous in that area. They were holding a home made placard about their village, which had been built over a mine that collapsed, destroying the village and killing many inhabitants. (Later the man came to talk at one of our Forums. He spoke eloquently, he laughed, he wept – ‘He always cries’, said his wife.) These two were among the many people from ‘developing’ countries demanding compensation from rich countries for damage already done.
At the other end of the hangar, behind the Rio Pavilion where continual presentations are happening about the effects of climate change in South America, on the oceans, on the soil, on people’s livelihoods, Sustaining All Life has a table. We have no right to that table, we simply took it, moved it forward and covered it with our leaflets. We hold little fundamentals classes behind it,
and it is always surrounded by people We also have a booth, which we share with an African organisation whose leader was obviously impressed with our leader’s account of what we are doing.
Every time I go through security my false hips set off the alarm. They usually can’t find a female to search me. They make phone calls – ‘Je la laisse aller?’ They decide I look harmless and let me go. I deposit my jacket in the free cloakroom. More smiles. I walk through this big light hangar with all its exhibition stands on Climate Justice and Women’s Rights and Global Eco-villages, its green topped upholstered stools and benches in public areas where people can chat or use laptops, its expensive meat-centred restaurants and cafes, holding in front of me a poster saying, for instance, ‘Working-class? Brought up Poor? We suffer the most from climate change, but we’re excluded from decisions. Come to our workshop…’ If anyone asks if I was brought up poor, I decide to tell the truth, that I am helping to organise the workshop which will be led by working-class and poor people. Nobody does ask.
I enjoy advertising. I ask people if they speak French or English, and it’s fun trying to communicate in French. People are patient, and I do pretty well. Everyone is eager to talk – it’s very different from ordinary life. Activists are talking to each other, telling each other how the sea is rising, how the soil is being degraded, how children are starving, while a few hundred yards away in the UN China is saying it will allow its emissions to peak by 2030. 2030!
We take over some of the public space for our Forums, because our workshops in the lycee 15 minutes walk away are too small. The Forums are amazing. The stories are deeply moving. Stories of Hope and Courage. A young man from Guinea speaks. He decided to find out who was responsible for deforestation in his country. He identified six powerful men and confronted them in a meeting. He is exposing what’s happening, and he’s now at enormous risk. An Afghan woman in her early thirties describes how she escaped an abusive marriage, contracted too young. She became a doctor, but then decided it was more important to save lives on a big scale. She formed an organisation for women. Her father is with her. He tells me how proud he is. An Indian man describes his campaign to shut down a factory whose emissions are poisoning the children of his community. He tells us: “Believe I’m not doing this only because they are our children, my children! I would fight for any children.” It is clear that these people were originally pushed into activism by terrible things happening to their own people and communities, but now their idea of justice has widened. They want it for everyone.
Weekend at Montreuil.
Our planned time at Cop21 is over. Some of us have to fly home. I had always decided to stay over the weekend, thinking something interesting would be going on. It is – the ‘People’s Climate Summit’ at Montreuil, an Eastern suburb of Paris, in an enormous, rather bleak secondary school. Here we hold three events on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
On Saturday we do a Forum about the effects of climate change on people in ‘developing’ countries. This is perhaps the event that has most effect on me. Young person after young person, from several African countries, describe how their family, dependent on agriculture, lost their livelihood because of alternating floods and droughts. A young woman from Senegal describes how the rains have become so bad you literally cannot go out for days and cannot reach the clinic. People’s houses are destroyed, they are billeted in schools, the children have no access to education and the displaced young women are in constant danger of sexual attack.
One young man from Gambia says he has lost four friends to climate change. Agriculture is no longer attractive to young people, he says, with considerable understatement. ‘We have to be creative.’ That meant migrating. One friend was shot in Libya, three drowned. He describes how much these young men close to his heart had to offer the world. I knew all the facts, or thought I did. But to listen to these young adults, to take in their despair and at the same time their determination, is an unforgettable experience.
‘We are paying the price for climate change. My friends didn’t decide to die. It was the activities of developed countries that led to their deaths.’
On Sunday four of the younger members of the delegation lead a workshop called ‘Young people eliminating racism in the environmental movement.’ It’s the usual story: at first it seems as if nobody will come, and then a lot come.
A young leader from Kenya, starts us off with a song with movements, about getting ‘a little bit closer’. She talks about how divisive racism is, how it stops us connecting, how that holds back the movement. Emily, from the US, explains how oppression leaves hurts on people. ‘We still go forward, but we go forward like this…’ she imitates a wide legged awkward walk ‘because of all these hurts we’ve got stuck on us.’ Two other young leaders describe times when they unawarely slipped into racism, for instance by taking over. They are matter of fact about it. Everyone has mini sessions. The man next to me is taking notes.
Time to go home. One of our people went to see the ice installation, in the shape of a clock, near the Pantheon, and she shows me the photos. I hug the people who are still in the house where we’ve been staying, ten of us sleeping on beds and air mattresses in a house in wealthy, beautiful Enghien Les Bains, where a room in the Hotel du Lac next to the Thermal Baths is 300 euros a night. I stop off near the Gare du Nord to deliver a Sustaining All Life pamphlet in Chinese to a woman in a Chinese take away who had a longish discussion with one of our people when we were putting up posters. Time for me to find out what’s actually been happening in COP21.
Forum on the impact of climate change on developing countries, Saturday in Montreuil.