Dispatches from COP 24 Climate Change Summit in Poland

Climate change

This is a series of reports from guest contributor Alex Carlin about his observations from the United Nation's 24th annual climate "conference of the parties" (COP) in Poland from December 3 to 14. All opinions expressed are his own. Please bookmark this page and check it for regular dispatches from the field about what's happening on the ground at these critical negotiations. –Editors

Change Is Coming -- Whether They Like It or Not

Dec. 10, 2018 -- Saturday was the big March for Climate. More than two thousand people marched, danced, sang, chanted, and heard quick to-the-point speeches by impassioned activists from all over this planet. The speeches were delivered from a flatbed truck that would stop every so often along the march route.

COP 24 "March for Climate" participants carrying a "Wake Up!" banner.

One really fantastic speech was given by a 15-year-old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, who has emerged as a wise and articulate star in the climate protest world due to her "School Strike for the Climate" that became an every Friday event, inspiring copycat strikes around the world. Here are some of the things she said, in a Swedish lilt that was plaintive, but suffused with a surprisingly savvy gravitas:

We have had 30 years of pep talking and selling positive ideas, and I'm sorry but it doesn't work. Because if it did, then the emissions would have gone down by now, but they haven't. And yes, we do need hope, of course we do, but the one thing we need more than hope is action (crowd cheers). Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So, instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come (cheers).

So, for 25 years countless people have stood in front of the UN Climate Conferences asking our nations' leaders to stop the emissions. But clearly this has not worked, since the emissions just continue to rise. So I will not ask them anything. Instead, I will ask the media to start treating the crisis as a crisis (cheers). Instead, I will ask the people around the world to realize that our political leaders have failed us (crowd chanting "shame, shame, shame") because we are facing an existential threat, and there is no time to continue down this road of madness.

Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground. So we can no longer save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed (cheers).

Everything needs to change, and it has to start today. So we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past, and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge, and since our leaders are all behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.

Major media can't resist stating the irony that coal is king in Poland, and especially in Katowice, and yet it is the site of a conference that logically should be dedicated to the prohibition of coal. In some way, Poland thereby gets a bad rap, and a bad rep, or at least a raised eyebrow since the Polish coal companies are knee deep in sponsorship here, with the potential for corrupting the process. So, Patryk Białasm, a Pole from the climate activist association "BoMiasto," was pleased to tell me that, "In my opinion, the March for Climate in Katowice was a proof that, in the coal region, the grassroots climate movement is rising. The people of Silesia (the region of Poland where Katowice is located) are aware of climate and the planet. Their new energy was awakened because of COP 24. There is a green future for Silesia and Katowice."

Wojciech Szymalski, from the Institute for Sustainable Development Foundation, and a co-organizer of the March, told me: "There were more than 2,000 people. There were groups from different parts of Poland which fight coal mines and power plants. There were people from all over the world which have the same problems. We cannot give up in the face of greedy corporations threatening us as a statistical number. And we do not!"

I asked Ewa Sufin-Jacquemart, from Fundacja Strefa Zieleni (Green Zone Foundation), and one of the main organizers, "Since my blog is about 'how do we win, how do we solve the problem, how do we fix COP,' and since so many speakers at the March say it is time for action, can you tell me, which actions exactly? Which actions, in Poland and globally, will actually achieve our goals?"

She told me,

First, we will support the Green party to make it grow in cities and regions, and to get it into the Polish Parliament and the European Parliament.

Second, we build coalitions, platforms of cooperation to have more influence and pressure. There is already a strong coalition against lignite (a very toxic form of coal) open pit mines; RT-ON (opposes the mines); Save the Rivers Coalition to stop the project of transforming rivers in waterways; Living Earth Coalition to change agriculture into agroecology, and defend traditional ecological farming, and change the EU Common Agriculture Policy, CAP; and the Let Them Live coalition to change hunting rules and defend wild animals. And we cooperate with the same platforms abroad to act together at the EU level, and at the global level.

New forms of activism are also born, based on peaceful civil disobedience, like Ende Gelande in Germany, Climate Camps in Germany and Czech Republic, and recently Extinction Rebellion in the UK which will spread to other countries. Online organizations support the movement, like Akcja Demokracja in Poland, strongly represented on the March, 350.org, Avaaz, Campac in Germany, and WeMove.eu acting on EU policy. Besides that, there are Urban Movements in cities, stronger and stronger each year, influencing how cities develop, for inhabitants and not big business, greener, with more parks, food cooperatives and local food production, with less cars and more public transportation, with more real participation in decision making about how cities look.

Finally, we change our way of living helped by organizations and networks like Zero Waste and Slow Food. We develop local currencies, socially and ecologically responsible. We grow food by ourselves and in cities, learning permaculture. We share cars and build the Common Goods economy. With many, many innovative initiatives born every day, ecovillages, ecological housing, renewable energies are developed by people. We will do the Great Transformation anyway!

I said, "These initiatives and strong platforms of cooperation are very good, but will they definitely cause oil companies to stop extracting oil? Will it stop coal mining? Or do we need additional tactics?"

She replied,

We hope they will be enough. That's why Climate Camps introduce direct action like physically blocking open pit mines, and there will be more and more actions like that. Extinction Rebellion is very inspiring for people, who are ready to be arrested for the civil disobedience to put pressure on politicians to change the system. Definitely it will change the system. If not, then wars, conflicts, and natural catastrophes will, but not necessarily in a good direction. Media have a great role to play, but they must be independent from big business, and it's not the case for the majority of them."

Click here to read the March's entire "manifesto," which begins, "We, citizens of Poland, of Europe and of the world, are aware of how important this moment is in the history of our planet. We are aware of how little time we have left to repair the damage that we and past generations have caused. We are aware of how much the future of our children and grandchildren depends on us -- on what we do HERE and NOW -- we appeal ... Wake up politicians and bureaucrats!"

At the mid-point of the march, the organizers asked me to play my Climate Song, which is written from the point of view of a future world, about 2050, after we had done all the necessary things to manage the Climate Crisis, and we landed on our feet. The bridge has a chant, "Coal, Gas and Oil, We Left It In The Soil." After I ended my song with a rousing barrage of high distortion loud power chords, this chant was picked up by Wojciech (see above). He was on the stage with a microphone leading the chant, and the crowd seemed to enjoy the power of imagining what it feels like to actually win.

Leave It In The Ground -- But How?

Dec. 7, 2018 --The single most important thing we must do to avoid Climate Ruin is to "Leave It In The Ground," to stop extracting fossil fuels. All other efforts to avoid a runaway climate breakdown will be overwhelmed by the effects of the continued extraction of fossil fuels. Why? Because humans have already added one trillion tons of CO2 into the skies, and that is a lethal overdose. This means that fossil fuel emissions must be immediately brought down to close to zero to have any chance of lessening the lethality of the trillion ton overdose. Even if we finally start the parallel task of carbon removal, that carbon drawdown will not be a silver bullet, it will only become effective if emissions reduction is swift and radical.

"Keep It In The Ground" (Photo by Asian Peoples Movement on Debt and Development)

In a word, we are already -- for all practical purposes of CO2 management -- "overbudget."

So, you would expect that the COP process after 24 years would be on the cusp of devising a way to prohibit the extraction of fossil fuels, right? Sadly, it is not even close. Fortunately, we know what the bottleneck is: the fox is guarding the henhouse. The fox is the fossil fuel industry, and the henhouse is COP.

Enter Sriram Madhusoodanan, Deputy Campaign Director with Corporate Accountability (CA), an organization with over 40 years of success throwing foxes out of henhouses. We agreed that one scenario where humanity avoids Climate Ruin would be along the lines of 1) a new rule prohibiting fossil fuel companies from participating in the COP process; 2) no longer crippled, COP devising a ban on fossil fuel extraction; and, 3) with the wind now at our backs, and nobody stabbing us in the back, the other necessary measures are agreed to.

For an object lesson on how to get this Ghostbusters trick done, I asked Sriram to explain how his group, CA, after beating Nestlé and GE, contributed to getting Big Tobacco out of the negotiations that led to the World Health Organization (WHO) treaty banning the hawking of cigarettes to kids.

He talked about, "the campaign to send Joe Camel packing," referring to exposés of the ad campaigns aimed at children, with logos like Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man. The outrage over this led to "a moment to educate and engage massive numbers of people, these public campaigns were starting to shift the public mood. So through those campaigns that put direct pressure on the corporations around the set of demands, we began to see signs that there was a movement taking foot around tobacco control, because the tobacco companies felt forced to reduce their practices in the US, and went foreign. Then, there was a movement afoot towards worldwide regulation."

This is a critical moment for climate activists to learn from, because at this point the WHO starts negotiating the FCTC, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, aka the Global Tobacco Treaty. And, as Sriram explained, "here, there was achieved a massive success, as the Treaty contained Article 5.3, which provides that the Tobacco Industry and any entities with vested interests that profit off the sale of tobacco cannot be involved in the talks, when policy about protecting health is being decided. It was critical to insure that those provisions were in the Treaty."

This, of course, contains a great lesson for COP 24. Article 5.3 of the Tobacco Treaty contained a "conflict of interest policy." COP 24 is the "Rulebook COP," and Sriram told me that "there are groups that are working to advance a conflict of interest policy that protects the Paris Agreement from big polluters. There was just a demand for it by YOUNGO (the youth arm of COP), and civil society has been joining governments around the world in urging COP to adopt it. At the last COP intersessional in May there was a demand from governments around the world to make sure that a conflict of interest policy be included. And here at COP 24, this is a critical moment where it can be decided if it will happen or not."

The oil, gas, and coal companies have apparently decided that they will plunder until there is no more fossil fuel to plunder, and the well-being of you, your friends, and your family is no reason to stop. In effect, they are challenging us to force them to stop doing their business, if we want a chance to survive the coming Climate Onslaught.

Sriram and I agreed that COP is the central and preeminent organ of planning for how we can achieve a liveable future. So, it's great to know that the seeming hopelessness of COP is actually largely a result of an impediment that we can identify and remove. As a way to encourage the readers of this blog to help remove this impediment, to remove the big fossil fuel polluters from COP, I will list here a few websites that will help you do something about it:

"Keep It In The Ground" (Photo by Asian Peoples Movement on Debt and Development)

Extinction Rebellion

Dec. 6, 2018 -- Finally, on the world stage, a group of people are taking Climate Ruin by the scruff of the neck, looking it straight in the eye, and saying, "Enough is enough, we are mad as hell and we aren't going to take it anymore!" Their name is Extinction Rebellion, or XR.

This group's fresh energy has taken London by storm with their masses of high-spirited citizens blocking bridges, and with their brilliant set of demands on the government: it must tell the truth and properly communicate to the public about the climate crisis; it must introduce legally binding policies to become carbon neutral by 2025; and it must create a "citizen's assembly" to oversee this process of getting carbon neutral. Two XR members are at COP 24 now, and I interviewed both of them, Nils Agger, a Swede living in southeast England, and Liam Geary Baulch, an artist and organizer.

Nils Agger (L) and Liam Geary Baulch (R)

Nils has a sprightly smile that can't be dampened by mere worldwide doom, and with considerable verve he explained some of the intricacies of how this movement will get their demands met. Their main tactic is disruption of traffic in the city, rising in scale, combined with public displays of sacrifice, that is, getting arrested in splashy settings. One spectacular recent day they managed to block five central London bridges, including the bridge to Westminster Palace.

I wondered if this could be shrugged off as an irritation, and not something that could exert the amount of leverage necessary for Parliament to agree to their demands. Nils pointed out that they are "managing to find a way to disrupt on an ongoing basis."

After the day of blocking the bridges we trained several small affinity groups and they went out into five or six different locations in London, crucial congested points, and they did these short roadblocks. They would go out into the road for 10 or 15 minutes with a banner holding up traffic, then go off the road for a few minutes letting some traffic pass, then go out on the road again obstructing traffic. We managed to create significant traffic disruption across London, doing this in a few key points in the city. They can't ignore this forever if we can keep shutting down a major city like London. Ongoing disruption, scaling it up, in combination with high-profile dramatic things like blocking the bridges, and events where people get arrested en masse in a public display of sacrifice. This combination is a key theory of change that we are working with.

I told Nils that many activists here at COP 24 think that governments are so far away from doing the right thing on climate that the only way to successfully pressure them would be something like a total refusal to do business with large corporations (see previous blog), until the demands are met. Nils has a different view. He thinks there are many members of parliament who would want to come out and support the goals of XR, if the public support was ramped up. And he thinks that an increasing and relentless level of disruptive civil disobedience, coupled with public displays of sacrifice, will ramp up that public support.

Extinction Rebellion's five-bridge tour de force certainly ramped up my enthusiasm when I saw it splashed across the worldwide news media last month. It made me feel like the dam had burst, as masses of people were finally pouring out of their homes to make a spirited stand for climate restoration.

Next, I met up with Liam. He emphasized that what makes XR effective is that it really is a rebellion, in the sense that it is not a one-shot demonstration. "We are going to keep on doing this," Liam said. "This excites people that they are not just going for a march, but they are going to keep coming back, keep taking actions, keep getting together in small groups to do this economic disruption."

He says they are not doing anything new, but "the difference is that we are not only aiming at the left and the climate activists, but we are aiming this at everyone, as we are all risking food price hikes, famines, more wars, and human extinction."

He described one of the tactics as "swarming."

Small groups of people all across London, or whatever city you are in, [are] all doing the same thing, short road blocks. By having these roadblocks placed strategically around the city you create a gridlock scenario. And you're not sitting there all day to get arrested, you're sitting there for ten minutes, just enough for the traffic to back up, you leave the road, you lose the police, you go back 5 minutes later, you do it again. You can create massive economic disruption for that city.

I asked him, "So this disruption is what starts the peoples' conversation about climate?"

He said, "Yes, the idea is to get people talking about it. That puts pressure on politicians. Politicians feel very scared about people power. It only takes a few people to write a letter to a Prime Minister for them to start realizing this is something they need to worry about."

I continued asking for the fascinating inside scoop on the inner workings of modern rebellion, "How do you get to the point where the parliament agrees to your demands?"

He said, "We are already thinking ahead by having a political strategy group who are trying to think about these things. And we have a negotiating group getting ready to meet with the government as soon as they agree to meet with us. Those people are being trained."

I asked, "So the leverage comes from the disruption?"

"Yes, and we're going to keep changing the tactics. Everything is an experiment, everything is a learning ... at the moment it's disrupting traffic, who knows what it's going to be in a month. They don't know, we don't necessarily know. That's part of how this kind of organizing works, that the police can't stop it because we don't even know what's happening."

Then Liam talked about the negotiating stage. He wondered, "Will we just break down in tears and talk about our grandchildren, or talk about our own lives because we are risking our own lives? But we have advisors from different places that are helping us deal with that. It's a learning process. We've only been going for six months. We've only started doing actions a month and a half ago."

The key point is that we, as activists with a small budget and not that much manpower, we can't come up with a solution to this. We actually need a new system to come up with a solution. So, what we are doing is pushing for that new system in different ways. At that point it's up to the citizens' assembly. It's up to that new system to take over and solve this crisis. It's up to everyone, it's everyone's concern, it's not just our concern.

And as the Extinction Rebellion rocks England it can rock the entire world.

Photo is Nils Agger (L) and Liam Geary Baulch (R)

Viable Parallel

Dec. 5, 2018 -- Amalen Sathananthar, an activist from Malaysia, is an avatar, an exemplar, of why participating in the COP conferences is worth the effort. While the delegations are busy hashing out how to implement the rules of the Paris Agreement, some of us are meeting each other and hashing out what we are going to do if the Paris Agreement will not prevent Climate Ruin. I sat down with Amalen and we went to the nitty gritty of our future prospects.

We agreed that in many ways governments and corporations set the agenda as it relates to climate, and they seem to have no intention to solve it, since their overriding agenda is power and short-term financial gain. We agreed that a third power, "people power," would have to rise to the power level of the other two if we are to survive this problem. We also agreed that, at some point, exercising "people power" will require tactics along the lines of general strikes, civil disobedience, and not paying taxes. But how can we expect that people will risk their jobs, livelihoods, and jail time?

Amalen was able to articulate the missing ingredient in two words: "viable parallel." He said that for a general strike to be successful it will probably need to last a long time.

To take power away from the corporate sector, people will have to be ready to grow their own food and get their electric power 'off grid' from devices like small solar cells. And for maximum pressure on the polluting industries, we must find a way to live without buying any of the products of the companies that are refusing to stop emitting greenhouse gases. We need a viable parallel economy.

Amalen summed up what we must do as "decentralisation."

Amalen Sathananthar with his sign, "Fair Share For Fueling The Crisis," which speaks to the fact that the rich countries have caused most of the climate problem, but they refuse to clean up their mess.

What is the alternative to this level of action? This is only the second day of the conference, but I am already hearing a common theme, uttered by speakers on panels and by folks chatting over coffee: everything we have tried for the last 30 years has essentially failed. Emissions have not come down. Governments and corporations are refusing to do what the scientists are telling them that they must do. We come to these COPs every year, we are busy as bees, things are agreed to, papers are signed, and yet nothing seems to change on the ground, as in greenhouse gas emissions, which are still cooking along at essentially the same rate.

Today, French President Macron backed down from raising diesel prices in response to a form of people power -- violent rioting in the streets of France. But Amalen does not advocate violence. His method is NVDA, Non-Violent Direct Action, which he teaches to people here at COP 24 from the art space that he and his colleagues have established across the street from the giant flying-saucer-shaped COP conference hall, "Spodek" (which means saucer in Polish). A key tactic within NVDA is the general strike.

Amalen's concept of a general strike involves a period of time where masses of people would live outside the current system until the pathological policies of governments and the devastating activities of corporations are terminated by non-violent pressures and tactics. Despite the hardships, he says this "viable parallel" existence would have great benefits. Amalen describes how this can be a great opportunity to make a "big improvement in the notion of what we consider to be development." He says "development should not be measured in terms of finance and economics, but rather in terms of consciousness. Development should not be a process of dominating nature but rather it should be achieved by being symbiotic with nature." That is, living outside the system can actually reap huge spiritual benefits by re-establishing a healthy relationship with nature.

In other words, if the governments and corporations remain firm in their commitment to destroying our society with their intransigence regarding Climate Ruin, we have no choice but to create a "viable parallel" economy and ride out the storm as best we can. And perhaps we can be even happier and healthier than we were previously, while, with NVDA, we force the changes we need to survive. Finally, we then put society and the economy back together on a new and better footing.

Today I witnessed Amalen and his comrades from around the world stage a demonstration inside Spodek, in a spot where all the delegates enter the conference. Their messages to the delegates were passionate and quite moving pleas for getting the most out of COP 24. One slogan was "End Corporate Interference In, And Capture Of, The Climate Talks," since certain corporations relentlessly try to shoehorn their false solutions, such as natural gas and carbon offset schemes, into the negotiations that -- surprise, surprise -- would allow them to continue their businesses and so continue to destroy the climate.

Note: The photo above is Amalen with his sign, "Fair Share For Fueling The Crisis," which speaks to the fact that the rich countries have caused most of the climate problem, but they refuse to clean up their mess.

Let's Get It Done

Dec. 3, 2018 -- COP 21 in Paris in 2015 was the breakthrough where virtually the entire planet agreed to work together to avoid Climate Ruin. COP 24 in Katowice, Poland, right now, is where the rubber hits the road, where Paris' general plans will become specific work programs. But will this result in a roadmap leading from Point A, "The Road To Ruin," to Point B, "A Lane to a Livable World?"

Three days before COP 24 started, the Conference of Youth (COY, associated with the UN) brought many young climate activists from all over the world to Katowice. I was asked to give a 90-minute presentation to about 45 of them. I could see that they were ready to rumble, so I set out to give them some tools, some ammunition, and some important facts that they didn't already know to help them succeed at COP 24.

Young climate activists gather at Conference of Youth (COY), Katowice, Poland, 2018

I started by telling them about Ocean Pasture Restoration (OPR). No doom and gloom, OPR is an approach to the climate problem that gives a person under 20 a chance to make it past 60. During the next two weeks at COP 24, they can now challenge the influential people they will meet by saying, "What about OPR? Do you know about its effectiveness? Can you help us to get it going before it's too late?"

The second part of my talk was about my new idea for how to "get it going." I call it MAC, the Monthly Action for Climate. It works like this:

Large masses of people will all do the same action at the same time, on the first day of each month, worldwide. The first actions will be very easy and very positive, like sending food or money to a village suffering climate-caused starvation. This demonstrates our collective will and establishes our ability to make a collective action.

From the beginning we will have our eyes on the prize: that future moment when we can start making big climate demands coupled with the kinds of actions that can force compliance to our demands. For example, we can demand laws that prohibit issuing insurance policies to companies that extract fossil fuels, making it impossible for them to do business. We could force that with a worldwide general strike. Of course, there are not enough people today willing to risk their jobs for this, so we will start with small and simple "good will" actions that build our reputation, hone our processes, and prove that once per month we can and will act.

However, as climate disasters multiply, people will get more frustrated with the slowness of governments to act. We are, after all, facing mass death and the destruction of organized society if we don't speed up our restoration of the climate. As MAC's monthly acts become more publicized, more folks will join MAC. The mass media will pick up on the drama of "Will they boycott Exxon this month?" or "Who will be this month's victim of their wrath?" MAC voting will become a monthly horserace with large financial consequences, and therefore it can create big TV news ratings and great clickbait.

Eventually, MAC can become a power in parallel to the powers of governments and corporations -- a "people power" agency to force the actions and changes that will be required for us to survive.

There is no limit to how many websites can be used for creating and engaging the lists of members. You just put your name (or a pseudonym for anonymity) on one of the lists and that's it. Each monthly action is chosen by discussing and voting online. Anybody can add up the votes, as it's all transparent. The first week of each month people submit ideas, or "candidates" for actions and demands. The second and third week these candidates are discussed and debated. The fourth week is primarily for voting.

I presented these ideas to the COY delegates. Then I played them my "positive future" climate song, which is written from the point of view of somebody in the year 2050, after humans somehow succeeded in actually making the moves and changes that are required to avoid Climate Ruin. The COY delegates were singing along, clapping beats, and banging on the tables, creating a surprisingly strong world-beat rhythm track. Later, many of them came up to me and told me they were "inspired" by the event.

All this added up to a potent kick-off for my involvement in COP 24. I will be blogging nearly every day for the next two weeks, sticking to this theme of how to actually GET THIS THING DONE.