Polluters talk, we walk

Over 800 members of civil society walked out of the UN climate talks (COP19) on what was supposed to be the penultimate night, led by social movements like the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA) and the Bolivian Platform on Climate Change, the International Trade Union Confederation, as well as NGOs including LDC Watch and Aksyon Klima Pilipinas, who were joined by household names like Oxfam, WWF and Greenpeace. The lack of progress at the talks – combined with the increasingly overt presence of dirty polluting corporations, not to say anything of their historically negative influence – led many to say ‘enough is enough’, walking out with t-shirts saying “Polluters Talk, We Walk”.

Corporate Europe Observatory was among those leaving the talks, alongside allies like Friends of the Earth International. Their chair, Jagoda Munic, had no doubts about why this was the right thing to do:

“Polluters and corporations dominated this conference with their empty talk, so we walked out in protest. Polluters talk, we walk,”

The unprecedented corporate influence has had a detrimental impact on progress in the talks. Rich, industrialised countries like the EU and US have a legal obligation under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC – which the talks fall under) to take the lead in cutting their emissions while providing the finance and technology to poorer countries to adapt to climate impacts and avoid the same fossil-fuel intensive development pathways they did. However, Warsaw showed that not only did none of this happen, but they instead pushed more failed carbon markets and unproven, distant technologies which would make big polluting corporations rich but do nothing to combat climate change. Unsurprisingly the same agenda being promoted before and during the talks by the very same polluters.

Dipti Bhatnagar, Friends of the Earth International’s Climate Justice and Energy coordinator, who was in Warsaw at the time and also involved in the open letter to the UN on kicking fossil fuel lobbyists out of the UNFCCC, was clear:

“Developed nations governments have been hijacked by corporate polluters and their positions prevented even a minimal progress of the talks. Developed country governments' actions in Warsaw demonstrate that they are listening to polluters such as Shell and ArcelorMittal instead of their own people”

Mithika Mwenda, from the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), emphasised the strength in diversity of those walking out:

“We come here from the South and the North, from industrialised countries and poor countries, to say that the solution to climate change relies on the action which takes place here [in the UNFCCC], but [...] we will go home without anything to tell our people and this is unacceptable. We say no.”

Greenpeace International’s chair, Kumi Naidoo, whose #Arctic30 activists face 7 years in prison under hooliganism charges for protesting against oil drilling in the Arctic, also put the blame at the door of the fossil fuel industry:

“Our political leaders have the temerity to tolerate the fact that we are called hooligans, when in fact the real hooligans are the CEOs and the big bosses of oil, coal and gas companies that have completely captured our governments and have completely captured this negotiating process. It is an insult to us that, in fact, this COP is largely sponsored by the coal industry."

350.org, who are currently running a divestment campaign trying to get schools, universities, churches, mosques, councils, trade unions and all other public institutions to take their money out of the fossil fuel industry, also offered a statement:

“It’s powerful to see groups from across civil society coming to the same conclusion that in order to keep open any hope of an international climate treaty, we need to challenge the power of the fossil fuel industry. By walking out of COP19, we’re walking into a fight with the real enemies to progress: the coal, oil and gas companies that have a stranglehold over our governments and economy. It’s time to stop sitting in negotiating halls and stand with the Philippines and millions more who are calling for real climate action in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.”

Written on the back of the t-shirts of those leaving was ‘#Volveremos’, (‘we will return’ in Spanish), signifying the need to go home to our capitals and build the power among our own communities, movements and organisations so that we will be able to return stronger and reclaim the UNFCCC. It remains the only multilateral international space where poorer countries theoretically have a voice on climate solutions, the only democratic space there is. Yet as it stands those voices are muted because governments are not being held accountable at home in their capitals.

However, building our power is one side of the coin, and can and must be done through collectively challenging the dominance of the fossil fuel industry. Pablo Solon, ex-head Bolivian climate negotiator and now leading Focus on the Global South, was clear about what needs to happen:

“The fight must be about concrete goals such as shutting down coal mines, stopping pipeline construction, halting fracking projects, imposing carbon taxes, banning GMOs, stopping free trade agreements, preserving indigenous lands, putting an end to land grabs, sinking carbon markets, and occupying financial speculative markets.

To address climate change, we need to link all kinds of initiatives: legal reforms and civil disobedience, hunger strikes and national consultations, massive protests and creative individual actions, consumers’ actions and boycotts, occupation of banks and road blockages, political pressure, and replication of good practices. We cannot lose energy in sectarian debates. The goal is to always try to go further from the original target, promoting broader and stronger forms of organization and mobilizations of workers, peasants, indigenous, women, youth, faith communities, migrants, intellectuals, artists, human right activists.”

One initiative to come out of COP19 that Corporate Europe Observatory has been involved in is to kick fossil fuel lobbyists out of the UNFCCC (and, if the World Health Organisation’s tobacco industry precedent is anything to go by, also out of our capitals). Complimenting the grassroots struggles, it looks at how we can change the rules of the game to help us, while building the public support for campaigns against dirty industry and making sure their PR machines don't succeed in rebranding coal, gas and oil as part of the solution. If successful, the UNFCCC could become a space where we discuss real solutions, like leaving fossil fuels in the ground or equitably sharing a scientifically determined carbon budget.

It's clear that to get where people, the planet and our climate need us to be, we need to do everything we can to smash the power of the fossil fuel industry while building our own, and this walkout led by movements and organisations who may be working together for the first time is part of that process.

[Top photo courtesy of Luka Tomac Photography]