The climate conference that just might change the world

Photo credit: David Tong.

On November 13, 2015 terrorists attacked a number of sites in Paris. The assault happened two weeks out from COP 21, a UN-led conference that was expected to finally secure international agreement on a viable response to climate change, and the risks it presents. Despite the security clampdown that followed the Paris attacks, thousands of environmental workers, NGO reps and activists still came to the city, seeking resolution. After more than 20 years of back and forth on the issue, such an agreement - which required global consensus to pass - was signed. Benjamin Brooking was there, leading a delegation for the Aotearoa (New Zealand) Youth Leadership Institute. I interviewed him about the experience for Impolitikal.

What happened during the conference for you and your delegation? How was it structured?
It was huge, there was so much going on. The conference environment is like living in some kind of 24-hour, non-stop city on steroids. There are so many different, amazing and interesting things going on at the same time. You can't see and do everything that you want to. The official reason to involve civil society, and observers, is to have people sit in the back, around the outside of the negotiators and listen to what they're saying, and work out if it's in the best interest of what your organisation represents; report back, offer advice or support. There's quite a lot of lobbying that goes on, and the system's built for that to happen. So, civil society are not at the negotiating table, but are there to try and have their own impact on the way the negotiations take place. That's something that you're very encouraged, and able to do. But you also don't have to do that at all, if that's not your focus.

I spent a lot more time with the other representatives from youth NGOs that took part, from all around the world. Some countries had really good representation, some had quite poor. As with all these kinds of things, and the conference being based in Europe, there was a lot more Global North, developed country youth participation. There were a bunch of Global South youth who made it on their own accord, but there were also a bunch that got sponsored to attend. Which was great, but it's never going to be even, and that's always problematic. The youth are an official constituency to the Secretariat, which means that we have a represented group who we can go through to talk to the official UN organisers. There are less than 10 constituencies, and these are just officially recognised groups that the UN Secretariat can communicate with.

The one for youth is called YOUNGO. Basically, anyone who's there with a youth NGO can say they're part of the constituency and through some focal points talk with the Secretariat about how the process is working and if they're being recruited properly and all that kind of fun stuff. But that also means that they have to have meetings amongst themselves as a constituency, and that's really messy because - as one of the more apathetic youth put it - there are a lot of baby bureaucrats who take part, people who are there to toe the line, and hope one day to get a job with their foreign ministry or that kind of thing. There are also a number of quite ardent activists, some of whom are there purely to try and disrupt the process and cause as much trouble as they can.

What are some of the youth's key asks? Do they align with what the 'adults' want or are they quite different?
They're often shaped by what the current dialogue is, and pushing that to a slightly more extreme view. Like, there's the 2 degree global temperature rise limit, which has been in place since 2010. Last conference the Small Island States were talking about 1.5, because a 2 degree rise is too much for them, and no one was really taking it seriously, except for the youth. It's a better push than 2 degrees. This conference everyone finally caught up, to the point where the official agreement at this stage says a limit of 2 degrees, with a target of 1.5 degrees. The youth, throughout this transformation, were suddenly moving their goalpost as well, to say that 1.5 degrees is great but -

What about 1? What about none?
Pretty much. 1.5 degrees was the official thing that youth agreed on to say in the speech, as a limit, not as a goal. A lot of them were pushing for 1 degree more privately.

COP 21 took place directly after the Bataclan shooting. It's great that so many people still went, but that must've definitely affected the energy of the city. What was that like?
As far as I know, the Parisians and the French are and have always been resilient, to say the least. I personally, having been there before, didn't expect there to be a huge feeling shift. And there definitely wasn't amongst the general population. Getting there, it was just normal Paris life. I didn't see any increased military or policing, except for on the first weekend there was a big demonstration held in République. That was kind of nuts, because there was meant to be a protest march from République to Bastille. Thousands and thousands of people - but the authorities called it off because of the attacks.

Which makes sense, right?
Yeah totally. They called that off, along with making a bunch of widely publicised - amongst the NGO community - not really threats, but warnings that there would be a lot less tolerance for people putting on demonstrations that were unsanctioned, or trying to make some kind of public statement. A lot of people argued that they were using the attacks as an excuse to clamp down, but I think they were genuinely concerned for, probably saving face in case something else did happen again and a lot of people got hurt because of gathering in public places. But it was annoying for the environmental community - I mean, I know people who work at AVAAZ, who had spent the entire year working up to this protest, to make this a huge public statement. And it was just canned a few weeks before.

Were they able to redirect that planning and energy to other activities?
Totally. There was a lot of stuff that took place. Probably nothing as impressive as would have happened. There was a demonstration in République on the first weekend, where police came in and blocked the road towards Bastille. People just kept gathering in the square, and there's a subway station there. They didn't shut the trains down, people kept going in. The place filled up. Ironically, I had to leave. As part of my head delegate duties I had to go to the conference space - this was a day in advance of COP starting - to get a security briefing, that I could then pass on to everyone else. So I had to leave, and jumped on a train. About 20 minutes later the demonstration got co-opted by an anti-capitalist group in France, who put up their banners and led a march down one of the side streets. Police then rallied around and blocked off the side street. Everything got caught up for a long time. A lot of my friends were still there when the teargas started going off. Which resulted, I think, in the only COP 21 demonstration in the world, while the conference was on, that ended with some kind of violence.