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COP25 Dispatch: Shaken by Climate Justice Protests

I have been lucky to hear from a number of incredible speakers during my days at COP25 so far, and yesterday was no different. My day began with an unforgettable speech delivered by Greta Thunberg, who struck a beautiful balance between urgency, outrage, and optimism as she called on parties to prioritize swift and just climate action. She called out their existing efforts as inadequate, saying, “the biggest danger is not inaction. The real danger is when politicians and CEOs are making it look like real action is happening, when in fact almost nothing is being done — apart from clever accounting and creative PR.”

Greta is a powerful speaker, but what made this high-level event so impactful to me was that after Greta and the other speakers finished, a group of youth took over the stage in protest of lacking and deceptive climate action, especially from countries who contribute to climate change the most. An action like this at COP was unprecedented, and the peaceful yet urgent demand for action from a diverse group of young people highlighted the frustration that so many have with the slow and inadequate international commitment to climate action.

Protests did not end there – during the afternoon, a group of indigenous, youth, and feminist leaders staged a disruptive action in front of the entrance to the plenary hall where the Secretary General of the United Nations was about to speak. This peaceful protest was a “cacerolazo”, a traditionally Latin American form of protest that involves banging pots and pans together, in the name of climate justice – with participants singing and chanting “we are fighting for your children”, “climate justice now”, and more. After several minutes, these protestors were removed by UN security, forced outside where they continued to sing and chant in protest, and eventually they were removed from the COP25 conference center altogether. Many of these protestors had their badges taken, effectively barring them from participating in COP activities for the remainder of the conference, and all observers were not allowed back into the conference center if they had left for the rest of the day. UN Security was everywhere – they were blocking entrances to the plenary hall, and I was stuck in the middle because they were not letting anyone in or out. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced before.

In her speech that morning, Greta said, “I am telling you there is hope. I have seen it. But it does not come from governments or corporations. It comes from the people.” In almost every event I have attended, youth have been praised for their advocacy. It was disappointing for me (and many other COP attendees) to see the protesters forced outside, de-badged, and silenced, especially since so many of them were indigenous leaders who are already struggling to have their voices heard by the decision-makers here at COP.

There is tangible frustration with the lack of progress towards just climate action, and this protest and the way it was handled seemed to bring this frustration to the surface. It highlighted some structural issues at COP that reinforce oppressive and silencing power structures, and it made it clear to me that certain voices are prioritized over others here at COP despite seemingly universal verbal commitments to justice and equity. In one panel I attended, I was struck by the statement that an indigenous woman made: “We are these lands – without them, we are nothing. And we are being criminalized for defending them.” Her statement stuck in my head as militarized security silenced and punished indigenous leaders for staging a peaceful protest here at COP to defend themselves, their land and water, and their way of life.

The UNFCCC and observer organizations involved in the protest released a statement this morning, which said that protesters will be allowed to re-enter COP25 for the remainder of the conference and reiterated the rules around actions at COP. It will be interesting to see if/how this protest and the way it was handled has an impact on the rest of COP25 as the negotiations wind down today and tomorrow.

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