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Climate Justice protesters reclaim power as UN talks dither

With ministers and heads of states arriving in Copenhagen, protests surrounded the climate change conference venue, writes Oscar Reyes

December 18, 2009
4 min read


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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As the UN climate change conference enters its final days, thousands demonstrated in the streets of Copenhagen as part of the ‘Reclaim Power’ protest. Starting from multiple points around the city, the demonstrators approached the Bella Centre to hold a People’s Assembly and give voice to climate change solutions that are marginalised from the talks. Despite significant repression from the police, the groups succeeded in holding the Assembly close to the conference venue. The main protest was organised by Climate Justice Action!

At the same time, about 300 delegates from the Climate Justice Now! network and led by members of the Bolivian delegation and the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus, marched out of the Bella Centre and the official process, attempting to join the protests outside. These delegates were met with police truncheons; some were badly bruised.

‘First they shut the public out of the climate negotiations, then they shut out 80 per cent of NGOs who have been accredited to attend, and now they are jailing people who challenge the undemocratic nature of the climate negotiations, while the future of life on earth hangs in the balance,’ says Dorothy Guerrero of Focus on the Global South.

Hundreds more UNFCCC accredited civil society observers were denied access to the Bella Centre all together, including the entire Friends of the Earth International delegation, who staged a sit-in in the lobby at the Bella Centre in response.

‘In the wake of the mass exclusions of critical civil society voices from the COP15 process, and with the future of our planet hanging in the balance, we joined the mass nonviolent movement in Copenhagen to protest the unjust agenda of the rich countries,’ said Anne Peterman of Global Justice Ecology Project. Proposals to limit global warming to two degrees would ‘literally wipe entire nations off the map,’ she added.

Going nowhere fast

Inside the conference, negotiations remained deadlocked. The US expressed strong reservations concerning a new summary text from the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action, one of two major strands of the climate negotiations. It is seeking to avoid internationally binding targets equivalent to those established under the Kyoto Protocol.

Meanwhile, the Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen came in for strong criticism when he attempted to table a new text that was ‘parachuted from the sky’, in the words of the G77 and China. They called the process ‘illegitimate, undemocratic and non-transparent’, a concern echoed by President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Chavez went further and echoed many of the sentiments of the protestors outside. ‘The rich countries of the north helped bankers, the big banks. I’ve forgotten the figure, but it’s astronomical.’

‘What they’re saying on the streets is that “if the climate was a bank they would already have saved it”, I think it’s true. If the climate was a capitalist bank, a capitalist bank, one of the biggest ones, they would have saved it.’

Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, also spoke in support of the protests. ‘We understand that there are lots of protests outside and inside, and there need to be. I don’t believe we will come to an agreement because there can be no agreement if it does not challenge the model that created climate change, which is capitalism’, he said.

System change, not climate change

The street protests expressed frustration at a political process that has proven itself incapable of tackling the issues at hand. Inside the talks, climate justice activists continue to oppose and counter jargon-ridden texts on some of the worst excesses of the climate talks – including new Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) schemes, which could trigger land grabs in the global South by many of the same corporations that have driven deforestation.

Pressure from outside sought to draw attention to more systemic failures, too. Whereas market-based solutions translate the problem of climate change into a language of neo-liberal economics – attempting to use the problem of the market to fix the worst market failure, climate change – climate justice activists were inviting a more fundamental rethinking of how goods are produced and consumed, and how the international trade system works.

‘We have no more time to waste. If governments won’t solve the problem then its time for our diverse people’s movements to unite and reclaim the power to shape our future’, said Stine Gry of Climate Justice Action.

Oscar Reyes is a researcher with Carbon Trade Watch, and co-author of Carbon Trading: How it Works and Why it Fails

This article was published in Climate Chronicle – a climate justice newspaper put together during the UN Climate Change Conference


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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