Benj Brooking, COP 21, New Zealand

Q&A | Benj Brooking on the climate agreement that just might change the world

On November 13, 2015 terrorists attacked a number of sites in Paris. The assault happened two weeks out from COP 21, a UN-led conference that was expected to finally secure international agreement on a viable response to climate change, and the risks it presents. Despite the security clampdown that followed the Paris attacks, thousands of environmental workers, NGO reps and activists still came to the city, seeking resolution. After more than 20 years of back and forth on the issue, such an agreement – which required global consensus to pass – was signed. Benjamin Brooking, a videomaker and podcaster from New Zealand was there, leading a delegation for the Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute. Sarah found out more.

How did you end up at COP 21?
I went to the previous COP in Lima, where I made a podcast about a group of young people who are pushing for a very specific policy ask in the treaty, for something called intergenerational equity. Which is a fairly jargony term, but important moralistically. Lima was meant to be finalising the road towards a Paris agreement – knowing what the skeleton of the agreement was going to be, in advance of actually nutting out the nuts and bolts throughout the year, and then the real power play negotiation stuff that happens during the conference, and did happen, in Paris.

Why did you go to Lima in the first place?
I think I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast a lot, which led me onto listening to Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University. His lectures and wider online coursework led me to take a bigger interest in climate change, and climate change policy in New Zealand, which led me to meet the Generation Zero and other activisty folks who are working on it here. Which led me to the Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute, which is who I went to Lima with, and who I led a delegation for in Paris. They pretty much exist solely to take people who are interested in doing individual independent research projects to large UN conferences, they give them the official backing of an organisation that’s registered. As an individual you can’t apply to go to COP. You have to have the backing of some kind of climate change-based NGO. Or business, or university. Or government. There were 40,000 people that attended Paris. About 10,000 of those were civil society – people like me going with an NGO. That’s huge, but the amount of people I know who missed out on going was probably 10 to 1, who actually got to take part in Paris.

So you actually participated in the Paris COP? I wasn’t sure if you just travelled to the city to be part of the activity around it.
Oh yes. And there was a huge contingency of, especially young people, but also just people who work in the sphere – a lot of city officials, mayors and councillors – who did travel without getting official access to, they call it the Blue Zone, that’s the part where delegates are allowed to go. But they set up a whole other side of the conference centre which was called the Green Zone, which was for people who weren’t affiliated with an NGO, or just couldn’t get a pass. The city was flooded with enviro types. It was nuts.

It was directly after the Bataclan shooting too – it’s great that so many people still went, but that must’ve definitely affected the energy of the city. What was that like?
As far as I know, the Parisians and the French are and have always been resilient, to say the least. I personally, having been there before, didn’t expect there to be a huge feeling shift. And there definitely wasn’t amongst the general population. Getting there, it was just normal Paris life. I didn’t see any increased military or policing, except for on the first weekend there was a big demonstration held in République. That was kind of nuts, because there was meant to be a protest march from République to Bastille. Thousands and thousands of people – but the authorities called it off because of the attacks.

Which makes sense, right?
Yeah totally. They called that off, along with making a bunch of widely publicised – amongst the NGO community – not really threats, but warnings that there would be a lot less tolerance for people putting on demonstrations that were unsanctioned, or trying to make some kind of public statement. A lot of people argued that they were using the attacks as an excuse to clamp down, but I think they were genuinely concerned for, probably saving face in case something else did happen again and a lot of people got hurt because of gathering in public places. But it was annoying for the environmental community – I mean, I know people who work at AVAAZ, who had spent the entire year working up to this protest, to make this a huge public statement. And it was just canned a few weeks before.

Were they able to redirect that planning and energy to other activities?
Totally. There was a lot of stuff that took place. Probably nothing as impressive as would have happened. There was a demonstration in République on the first weekend, where police came in and blocked the road towards Bastille. People just kept gathering in the square, and there’s a subway station there. They didn’t shut the trains down, people kept going in. The place filled up. Ironically, I had to leave. As part of my head delegate duties I had to go to the conference space – this was a day in advance of COP starting – to get a security briefing, that I could then pass on to everyone else. So I had to leave, and jumped on a train. About 20 minutes later the demonstration got co-opted by an anti-capitalist group in France, who put up their banners and led a march down one of the side streets. Police then rallied around and blocked off the side street. Everything got caught up for a long time. A lot of my friends were still there when the teargas started going off. Which resulted, I think, in the only COP 21 demonstration in the world, while the conference was on, that ended with some kind of violence.

And that was the anti-capitalist group?
Yeah, that was the anti-capitalists taking a bunch of people and putting a banner on it.

I guess that’s always a possibility in any kind of mass action, involving a bunch of different kinds of civil society groups – that one group could co-opt it with their own agenda.
I don’t think it was that effective though, because the thing that made the most headlines was this beautiful action which involved a series of empty shoes all gathered and placed line by line on the ground at République to symbolise everyone who couldn’t march, because of the clampdown. That went around the world, and that was in the exact same place where people started gathering later in the day. The shoes were set up before dawn.

What happened during the conference itself for you and the group you went over with? How was it structured?
It was huge, there was so much going on. The conference environment is like living in some kind of 24-hour, non-stop city on steroids. There are so many different, amazing and interesting things going on at the same time. You can’t see and do everything that you want to. The official reason to involve civil society, and observers, is to have people sit in the back, around the outside of the negotiators and listen to what they’re saying, and work out if it’s in the best interest of what your organisation represents; report back, offer advice or support. There’s quite a lot of lobbying that goes on, and the system’s built for that to happen. So, civil society are not at the negotiating table, but are there to try and have their own impact on the way the negotiations take place. That’s something that you’re very encouraged, and able to do. But you also don’t have to do that at all, if that’s not your focus.

I spent a lot more time with the other representatives from youth NGOs that took part, from all around the world. Some countries had really good representation, some had quite poor. As with all these kinds of things, and the conference being based in Europe, there was a lot more Global North, developed country youth participation. There were a bunch of Global South youth who made it on their own accord, but there were also a bunch that got sponsored to attend. Which was great, but it’s never going to be even, and that’s always problematic. The youth are an official constituency to the Secretariat, which means that we have a represented group who we can go through to talk to the official UN organisers. There are less than 10 constituencies, and these are just officially recognised groups that the UN Secretariat can communicate with.

The one for youth is called YOUNGO. Basically, anyone who’s there with a youth NGO can say they’re part of the constituency and through some focal points talk with the Secretariat about how the process is working and if they’re being recruited properly and all that kind of fun stuff. But that also means that they have to have meetings amongst themselves as a constituency, and that’s really messy because – as one of the more apathetic youth put it – there are a lot of baby bureaucrats who take part, people who are there to toe the line, and hope one day to get a job with their foreign ministry or that kind of thing. There are also a number of quite ardent activists, some of whom are there purely to try and disrupt the process and cause as much trouble as they can.

A melting pot of quite passionate people, that are so in very different ways.
To simplify it a little bit, there are two main bodies of passionate youth who are engaged in this kind of world. They kind of match the two main civil society groups, which are the Climate Action Network and the Climate Justice network. The Climate Justice folk, in the context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), are basically never happy with what’s going on, and want to shut the system down and think that the whole deck is rigged against climate justice ever happening within that system, so are basically there to point out how terrible it is.

By which you mean the capitalist, global economic system?
Yep. The Climate Action folk are there to work within the system, and think that it is flawed, but workable. Or not even that, maybe they just think that there’s no way they’re going to tear it down, so the best option is to try and work as well as they can within the system. The split almost matches that between the Global North and Global South NGOs, or activists, although there is quite a lot of nuance there. But certainly, youth are meant to have one constituency, and one voice. And that one constituency gives them speaking rights, so at the end – after all the countries have had their 10-minute speeches that they get to do throughout the whole conference – the different constituencies get a chance to talk as well. Youth always get the very, very last slot. Not sure if there’s a reason behind that, but we talk and then everyone goes home. Although, in reality everyone goes home as we’re talking. And before then. Often we’re talking to an empty room.

Let’s let the kids have a go.
Basically. Free open mic time. Where was I going with that? There’s very little that global youth agree on. There should be more, but there’s not. There’s only a few, very specific asks that they have that they all uniformly want. Because they are just as split as adults are on dealing with climate change. Adults. I say that, but most of these people are 20-30.

What are some of those key asks? Do they align with what the adults, the grown-ups, want or are they quite different?
They’re often shaped by what the current dialogue is, and pushing that to a slightly more extreme view. Like, there’s the 2 degree global temperature rise limit, which has been in place since 2010. Last conference the Small Island States were talking about 1.5, because a 2 degree rise is too much for them, and no one was really taking it seriously, except for the youth. It’s a better push than 2 degrees. This conference everyone finally caught up, to the point where the official agreement at this stage says a limit of 2 degrees, with a target of 1.5 degrees. The youth, throughout this transformation, were suddenly moving their goalpost as well, to say that 1.5 degrees is great but –

What about 1? What about none?
Pretty much. 1.5 degrees was the official thing that youth agreed on to say in the speech, as a limit, not as a goal. A lot of them were pushing for 1 degree more privately.

Sounds like a complicated, messy time. But it must’ve still felt exciting to be a part of those conversations. Or was it frustrating?
Nah. It was exciting. As someone who very much ascribes to the Climate Action way of thinking, and working within the system – and obviously seeing it for its flaws, but trying to eke out what good stuff will come out of it – it was an incredibly exciting conference to be a part of. The really groundbreaking thing is that the world has never ever agreed on anything in the past, and there’s a lot of reasons why the world had to agree on this. It actually goes back to the inception of the UNFCCC, in 1992. Right back then they tried to formalise rules of procedure. Voting rules, and basically how the whole thing is going to work and make progress. The reason there has been 25 years of basically nothing until now is because, right back then when it all started, Saudi Arabia put their hand up to veto adoption of any kind of rules of procedure, which meant defacto UN rules of procedure were put into order. Which basically involves consensus being the only way to move forward on an issue. Every single country, around the world, has to agree on every single point before anything can happen. There’s no majority voting, no super majority voting, which does exist in most other UN things.

This is the very first time the entire world has said yes to something in near-unanimity – this is agreeing to the entire text of the Paris Agreement. That’s actually the amazing thing about it, is that never in the world has that happened. It was in part due to some very, very astute diplomacy by Laurent Fabius, he was the French Foreign Minister but also the COP 21 president. His deft hand at diplomacy pushed the whole thing forward. A lot of backroom agreements in secret, deals and making parties happy with each other, and then hitting the gavel as soon as everyone was lined up. The coolest thing about being there was being there on the final day. I guess the UNFCCC conference is more dramatic than anything else, but if you’re ever at a UN conference, you don’t want to miss the final, closing gavel hit. There’s a saying that goes around the negotiating community, that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’. Everything is up in the air until all the countries let the gavel hit the desk.

And it did.
And it did. And it was tense. Everyone was called in, it was more than 24 hours over time at this point. The plenary started filling up, there were a couple of overflows, everyone watched from wherever they were. The negotiators milled around and chatted, and you saw all of the head negotiators – Todd Stern is the US head negotiator, he’s quite iconic. He was just milling around and chatting with people, quite friendly for how the previous two weeks had been. He’s quite stern, hence his name is the best. Jo Tyndall, New Zealand’s Climate Change Ambassador was hanging around. People were quite jovial, but just kind of waiting for things to kick off, which hinted that it was pretty much at the end of the agreement stage.

There were two hours that we were sitting around waiting for them to start, because there was one line in the text that suggested finances for, I think it was for mitigation or adaptation – basically to help developing countries cope with either dealing with the impacts of climate change after the fact, or preventing them by changing technologies earlier. It was a money issue, and any money issue that is going to go through an international treaty with the United States has to go through Congress. So the Americans just couldn’t have this, because the Obama administration knows it’s never ever going to pass. They need to keep it out of Congress. To do that there needs to be no mention of money. And there was this one word, in one line in this – I think it’s about a 21-page treaty at this point – which said something like ‘parties shall offer financial contributions’, rather than ‘parties should offer financial contributions’. This one word held the whole thing up for two hours, where the Americans were basically saying, we actually can’t have this, it’s not going to work.

How many people did you go over with, from New Zealand?
I had eight delegates. My organisation is run by Rachel Dobric. Someone else started it. She thought, why bother emulating the UN when you can actually take part? She’s also very into the climate change policy world. So she runs this organisation to effectively register for accreditation to attend, and then offer them to people who were interested. It’s fully self-funded, people have to apply – talk about their merits and why they should be given a pass – and then pay for a ticket and accommodation and all that stuff. But the organisation offers training and expertise to guide people through. That was my job. I was there foremost to help these eight, mostly university students, through their first UN negotiations experience. They all had a variety of reasons for going, but they were all independent in their causes. Whereas there is another group of youth NGOs, called NZYD, New Zealand Youth Delegation. They go with a very specific mandate to put the official New Zealand government negotiators to the wall, critique them on everything they’re doing, and push for a more agreeable outcome within the scope of the negotiation process. Because we’re not saints by any stretch. New Zealand’s policy standpoint is very conservative, compared to most of the world, on climate change.

We like to think we’re a little greener than we really are?
Under a Labour government we probably would be. I think it really comes down to national politics at the time. The Climate Action Network puts on an event called Fossil of the Day, where they give the Fossil of the Day to the most obstructionist country taking part in the negotiations that day. We’ve won it a few times, we won it the first day. The first day was the leaders’ speeches, so John Key was there. He’d talked in his speech about New Zealand’s efforts in – we had started something called the Friends of Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform. Which was a side project of the UNFCCC, really actually quite good work for MFAT and MfE – well, of the employees who are making that thing happen. Basically it was a group to encourage people to join and push for all countries to get rid of subsidies on fossil fuels. In reality it was only supply side, so it was trying to encourage governments to stop subsidising petrol costs at the pump. John Key touted this, talked about how great New Zealand was because of it. But at the same time the National government has been increasing fossil fuel subsidies for the exploration side every single year since the National government’s gotten in, to the tune of, I think $46 million at the last count. Money that could be much better spent elsewhere. Because I don’t feel like deep sea drilling of the Coromandel is the best idea. Call me cynical.

Real Zeitgeist thinking.
So John Key currently advocates for subsidies in New Zealand, while elsewhere publicly talks about how great we are for trying to get rid of them. That’s why we won the very first Fossil of the Day. But Australia won it more than us, because their policies are terrible at the moment. That’s part of the fun that goes on back in the civil society space of the negotiations.

You were talking about how you’re pro- working with the system to bring about change, rather than ‘screw the system, nothing’s ever going to change’. Why do you feel that way?
I guess I’m quite optimistic. I would describe myself as quite moderate in terms of the sort of people that I meet at a conference like this. There are a lot of very staunch activists there, and there are a lot of very staunch establishmentarians. I see myself somewhere in the middle, not really on either side. If you take the really positive outcome from the entire negotiations, what has happened is really groundbreaking and new and has never happened before. The ideas and policies that are being put forward, and the outcome of the final text of the treaty is so much more promising than most people expected. If we were to follow it to the letter – actually we wouldn’t be safe just yet. But we’d be well on our way to ratcheting up towards more and greater commitments by individual countries, so we could actually achieve something. I really see that as working better than anarchistically pushing the whole thing over.

I see the whole thing really, really broadly as being about a big shift in dialogue. Governments can’t really affect what happens in the world directly. They can make laws, but laws that are not very easy to follow don’t get followed. There’s no way they can just ban different types of energy use, and for it to actually stick. The UN has even less power here. The UN has no power internationally, except for being able to recommend things. All they can do is shift the public dialogue, and the public rationale, and turn people onto what could be possible in a future world. Where we maybe have achieved this thing in 50 years time – we have levelled off C02 emissions and they are on a downward trend. People have been saying that’s not possible, people will continue to say it’s not possible for a long time, but everyone that puts forward ideas, and puts the thinking and the effort into what needs to be achieved to get there, will shape individuals and businesses, and how they do what they do. I remember two years ago, when climate change was still up for debate.

Yeah, and in terms of international conversation, that’s a really short timeframe. It’s not so long ago that it was a 4% limit. That it’s come down, and that the business world, as well as government, and everybody’s kind of going, oh shit we actually do need to move on this – that’s pretty big.
It’s huge. I think that’s the best thing about the conference. That the Agreement’s come out of it has been necessary and impressive, but I can see a post-Paris world. I see this as the point where climate change stopped being negotiable on the science – half of the people think it’s real and half don’t – to a point where people see how seriously the world is taking it. The experts and the bureaucrats –

Not just one camp.
Yep. Everybody’s representatives are saying: we agree, this thing is serious. In a post-Paris world, people are not engaging with skeptics. It’s not up for debate anymore, it’s down to what needs to be done to achieve change.

Check out Benj’s photos from COP 21.

Benjamin Brooking is a videomaker from Auckland, New Zealand. Find him at Header image by David Tong.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.

*The original version of this contained some errors (Sarah’s), which have been amended.