On 11 December, two and a half days shy of the end of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Madrid (COP 25) and minutes before the start of a high-level session, one of the COP’s keynote events in which U.N. Secretary-General António Gutteres would speak in a video conversation with a Spanish astronaut in space, demonstrations broke out by the doors of the main plenary hall where the session would take place.
What started as chants calling for “climate justice” and for countries to “step up, pay up” and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions escalated as the media flooded around the activists. As the high-level discussion carried on, the activists were forced outside of the venue by security, which refused to comment for this article. In what a coalition of civil society organizations is calling an “unprecedented crackdown on dissent,” many of the activists and other observers that followed their movements outside were not allowed back into the COP. Some were also stripped of their badges for future attendance.
The demonstrations were the most heated moment of the COP so far and a metaphor for what many are seeing as a growing chasm between climate activists – namely the youth movement, Indigenous communities and environmental defenders – and the decision-makers of chief polluting countries and industry.
“So I’ve been taking part in these COPs for 25 years, and I’ve never seen the divide between what’s happening on the inside of these walls and what’s happening on the outside so large,” said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace, earlier during the same day.
Morgan spoke in the same session as Greta Thunberg, who questioned: “How do you respond to the fact that basically nothing is being done about this without feeling the slightest bit of anger?” The stage was soon thereafter joined by other youth activists, who occupied the stage until they were forced to leave.
“So far, being at this COP, I still haven’t seen any outcomes come out of it,” said Alexandra Villaseñor, a 14-year-old climate activist who co-founded of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike. “So far, no action has been taken, and that’s why today, Fridays for Future ended up occupying the main stage here – to really put pressure on our heads of states here.”
Dissent against the fossil fuel industry was also at the core of the day’s demonstrations. “Since the Paris Agreement, global banks have invested USD 1.9 trillion in fossil fuels,” Thunberg noted in her speech.
The fossil fuel industry’s greenhouse gas emissions and development of a global framework for carbon markets, as is included in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement on climate change, have been at the core of the COP 25 negotiation processes. Among the biggest concerns over the development of the Article’s text regards human rights and safeguards, particularly for communities in which carbon offsetting projects will take place.
Text on these issues has been added to and removed from the Article in various ways over the course of the COP. Currently, human rights have been removed from the text of Article 6 in lieu of cross-referencing the Paris Agreement’s preamble, in which human rights are mentioned. Text on social and environmental harm remains in the Article but in a section on reporting mechanisms. In essence, this means that a new implementation framework for carbon markets would have extremely weak commitments to the rights and protection of those most affected by such markets, namely vulnerable and Indigenous communities.
“Article 6 was the core of what we’re involved with here and the negotiations around that,” said Janene Yazzie, a leader of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development involved in the negotiation processes, in a statement. “The Indigenous peoples have been very vocal that we cannot accept an Article 6 decision that does not include that language [on human rights].”
Many participants at the COP, including Yazzie, believe that no outcome on the text of Article 6 would be far preferable to text that does little to protect human rights.
The shared concerns of communities often marginalized in climate negotiations, such as youth activists and Indigenous communities, is resulting in new alliances and actions that refuse to congeal with the rules and limits of events as formalized as a COP, fueling such demonstrations as the two that took place on 11 December.
“The demonstrations today were virtually overtaken by security,” said climate policy analyst Steve Leonard. While demonstrations at COP 17 in South Africa also resulted in contentious turmoil, Leonard said that, “In 10 years of COPs, I’ve never seen that happen.
“Greta Thunberg has done more for climate action as a youth with the Fridays for Future movement in one year than the fossil fuel industry ever has.”
Leonard says that an outcome on Article 6 is unlikely for this COP, given the difficulties and pace of the negotiations. He shares Yazzie’s views that the Article must be stronger around rights. “The acting that’s happening in these rooms and behind closed doors is undermining the Paris Agreement,” he says. “It could be worse than no action.”