(from Michael Pinsky’s “Breaking the Surface,” La Villette – Canal de l’Ourcq, Paris)
9 December 2015
COP21 takes place at a conference center in Le Bourget, north of Paris, about a 15-min metro ride from the apartment of my dear friend and host, Shannon Cain, in the 10th Arrondisment. Ten more minutes on a free shuttle and you arrive at a very official looking place, with large white signs and a grid of thick white pillars each decorated with a country flag. You need a badge to get into the official negotiators area, the “blue zone,” but the “green zone,” or the “Climate Generations” pavilion, is open to the public. A long tent constructed of particle board and god knows what else, it houses dozens of NGOs and non-profits and conference rooms, tables with pamphlets and expensively-printed posters and vinyl panels and compostable trash and flush toilets and photographs of glaciers and diagrams of technical solutions and indigenous people in traditional clothing and a lot of people on laptops on phones and scientists talking on screens and even, at one point, Al Gore, broadcast live from next door.
Early on I walked by a screen showing footage of the polar bear who keeps trying to find ice to stand on and keeps falling through. I stood there for a bit watching, feeling exasperated and anxious and helpless while someone next to me took a picture of the screen. Then I moved on and listened for a while to some young climate scientists talk about their bicycle trip from Antarctica to Paris (!)(www.PoletoParis.org) and then a bit later Al Gore up on the monitor said that in the last 40 years we’ve lost over half of the animals on the plant (not species, just individual animals) due to habitat loss and disaster.
There was a lot information to ingest (including nearly 10 seminar rooms with panels and discussions happening all day every day every hour), but I wasn’t much hungry for information because I was too busy feeling things. Eventually I found the Indigenous Peoples Pavilion and sat and watched movies made by Sami filmmakers. The Sami are indigenous to northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia. I didn’t know anything about the Sami until a few days ago, when a young Sami woman testified against Exxon at a mock trial held by Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein (brilliant!) speaking about her people’s relationship with the reindeer. Among other changes, warming temperatures have caused ice melt along travelways both reindeer and Sami people need to hunt and survive. Whole herds have fallen through the ice. So have people. Also, rain frozen on the surface of the snow prevents the reindeer from smelling food underneath, so they starve. And that’s problematic for the people who depend on them.
The short films showed vast and beautiful northern Scandinavian landscapes, big skies, blue mountains, stretches of green and yellow scrub, snow, water. The two I saw were both by women. (Yay!) Elle Maria Eira’s film (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akeu6WV_WxQ#action=share) was about a young Sami girl whose village is visited by oppressive Christians who want to convert them, or at least destroy emblems of their culture. Beautifully shot, it featured gorgeous underwater swimming scenes and swift running through the landscape. Amanda Kernell’s award-winning Stoerre Vaerie (Northern Great Mountain) (http://cargocollective.com/amandakernell/Stoerre-Vaerie-Northern-Great-Mountain), is a short film about an aging woman in denial of her Sami heritage coming to terms with loss. Gorgeous. Haunting.
After the films, the room filled with more people—including several more Sami in traditional dress, several Inuit people, and one young Shuar woman—and cameras and microphones, and soon Swedish-Sami artist and singer Sofia Jannok began to sing, her voice like a prayer. She spoke about her people, referencing the film Avatar. “I felt like I was watching a painful documentary of real life, my life.” She spoke of the grab for land in the region by mining companies and the increasing rate of suicide among Sami youth. In a video of one of her songs, two young Sami walk off into nothing, one into snow, the other into sea. “People are like the ocean,” she said, “whether you see them or not they are like the ocean, endless.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hr13WV7UkgA
At this point, I was unable to hold back the tears anymore.
“Artists and cultural workers always speak to our hearts. For us politicians it is sometimes difficult to reach out and touch people’s hearts,” said Aili Keskitalo, President of the Sami Parliament in Norway. Indeed.
Keskitalo was part of a panel of Sami and Inuit leaders sharing the realities of life in the Arctic and new coalitions such as Inuit Circumpolar Coalition bringing together Arctic Indigenous people to address climate change. “To survive in the Arctic you cannot be primitive,” Keskitalo said. “You have to have an advanced culture.”
All this, while the negotiators were next door making arguments and quibbling and furrowing their brow about cost and responsibility.
It starts to seem asinine after a while. When you hear the stories of the people and the reindeer and the polar bear and the lemmings and the tortoises and the entire cultures and languages and ecosystems.
And maybe this was why I was so agitated. All that energy in those pavilions. Brains and hearts and printed material and fancy screens and songs and the people who are most afflicted and its all swirling around and I think … there is so much at stake, and it’s all seemingly in the hands of world leaders and … do we trust them? It is too much to ask?
An hour later I’m at CentQuatre, an arts and performance space in the 19th Arondissment (a neighborhood near me and near where the Nov. 13 attacks occurred). There is breakdancing happening in a room by the front entrance, several exhibits of photographs and other artwork throughout the building, and a giant central hall filled with people sitting on the floor listening to a panel of speakers in the front. The hall is lined with banners and signs (“We have solutions!” and “No CO2LONIALISM” and “No jobs on a dead planet”). When I get there Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International, is delivering a passionate message. Make no mistake, he says. We’re not talking about saving the planet. The planet will go on with out us. We’re talking about saving humanity. He talks about smart solutions happening in the developing world, like a machine invented by four Nigerian teen girls that turns urine into electricity (http://makerfaireafrica.com/2012/11/06/a-urine-powered-generator/) and other projects that compost waste. “I don’t know about you but I’m pretty sure European shit isn’t superior to African shit. So let’s get our shit together and solve this,” Naidoo said. The crowd laughed and hands went in the air and in that moment I knew I was in the right place. The agitation turned to hope.
This is the Climate Action Zone, organized by CoalitionClimat21, (http://coalitionclimat21.org/en) with programs and events happening every day during the COP21, everything from teach-ins to yoga to civil disobedience workshops. Each evening, in a general assembly, those who’ve been inside the negotiations offer a public debriefing of what happened that day. And there are headphones for simultaneous translation, English-French.
As I listened to the debriefing, I realized (again) how complex it all seems. A cap of 1.5 degrees C is now what most island nations are demanding, though the negotiators are barely able to agree on 2 degrees C. A half a degree. It’s probably still not enough. The basic report was that we still don’t know anything but “They are negotiating hard.” One woman in the audience asked a question. “Is there anything positive at all at the negotiations? All we’ve heard so far is everything that’s not happening.”
The speakers on stage were startled by the question. “We weren’t expecting that,” one of the women said. “It’s complicated.”
Their answer: No, not really.
Negotiations aside, the day ended on a positive note with word about D.12 (http://d12.paris/), the protest planned for December 12 (sadly, the day I fly out), the day after the negotiations. The mobilization will begin with a ceremony honoring those who have died due to climate change with flowers and song and art. The state of emergency prohibits assembly of more than 2 people, so the protesters will go 2-by-2 in red (clothing, umbrellas, scarves) to create a red line of safety, a line that must not be crossed.
As always, I’m deeply impressed by the ability of activists to mobilize and plan protests in big cities. This a most beautiful choreography. And on Dec. 12, one with a beautiful and imperative message.