Karin Louise Hermes: An account of protest & power at COP23

Can global, institutional conferences create meaningful spaces for authentic storytelling and listening? Or, even in light of initiatives like Fiji’s Talanoa space at COP23, is it still the grassroots work of protest and activism that generates the critical consciousness needed to create effective action on climate change?

These are some of the questions I’m left with after reading Karin’s reflections on her time in Bonn, attending this year’s United Nation’s climate change conference. Below, she shares her account of being involved in the overwhelming, chaotic and often inspiring civil society section of the event. Karin reflects on her interactions with several protests during the conference. She also pauses to question the often tokenistic involvement of indigenous and Pasifika peoples at COP.

From what I gather from her account, despite the existence of more formal spaces for cultural displays and storytelling at this COP, it was still in the corridors, on the streets and via blogs and personal accounts that the power of civil society was really heard. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to attend one of these conferences, you’ll appreciate her take. Over to Karin – Hannah

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It has been a remarkable and inspiring time to be in Bonn, among so many climate activists. I came early to the city, for some grassroots organizing with the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice and their DCJ Assembly (November 2-3), and the subsequent People’s Climate Summit (November 3-7). By the time COP23 officially started on November 6, I had already met, discussed, and taken photos with some of the most inspirational activists who care for Indigenous rights and the environment.

In particular, the Indigenous Environmental Network and their “It Takes Roots” Alliance touched on the issues in their panels and workshops that closely align with my own interests – namely Mauna Kea and Hawai‘i; US imperialism, and indigenous climate justice.

Aside from some protest actions I couldn’t participate in at the “Bula Zone”, I was sufficiently overscheduled by running around the “Bonn Zone” during COP23 and attending many parallel events. Since I’m not a policy wonk but have experience in Model United Nations long nights, I stayed out of the formal negotiations aroung which word belonged in which article with great relief.

Read Karin Louise Hermes: Why I protest

I live-tweeted the best I could from the climate march on Saturday, November 4, but my miniscule German data plan got used entirely for the month. Since I hadn’t been able to find Tetet and the DCJ comrades, I spotted the 350.org Pacific Climate Warriors, activists from the Pacific Islands who highlight the plight of islands states.

What I didn’t know at that moment is that this group was leading the entire march, and that in the end there were going to be 25000 behind us. Curiously, the UN COP23 Presidency of Fiji legitimized this #Klimademo protest, typically associated with being against the COP itself, as he met with the activists shortly after the protest march.

The march had called for Germany to #endcoalnow, coal being a major cause of the carbon emissions contributing to, among other things, sea-level rise in the Pacific Ocean. At the finale of the march near the COP23 official conference center, called the “Bula Zone”, Climate Warrior and my former Pacific Islands Studies classmate Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner performed onstage. I marched next to Te Ara Whatu youth delegate Te Rama Thomas Pene, who held the Tino Rangatiratanga up front and center of the march.

The following day, a rainy and cold Sunday, a mass civil disobedience led by the German group Ende Gelaende had brought around 4000 activists to the largest European coal pit near Bonn to disrupt the machineries, and they were met with police resistance and physical harm through police horses and tear gas. In addition,the Pacific Climate Warriors initiated a Fijian ceremony in the nearby village of Manheim that was being dislocated from its land for the expanding coal extraction pit.

I hadn’t attended any of this coal pit disobedience or ceremony, since I was giving a Sunday morning talk to a group of Belgian students that Tetet Lauron had called Atama Katama and me in as a co-presenter, which excitingly had me doing what I enjoy over protesting itself: appealing to students to do more academic activism!

IBON International and my “focal point” Tetet Lauron were also represented in various panels and workshops of the People’s Climate Summit, and the one on militarization and wars was so in-demand we quickly switched lecture rooms in the Wissenschaftszentrum research center.

Atama Katama is Dayak from Borneo representing the International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL), who was on the militarization panel and an official COP23 side-event on “out-of-the-box” approaches to the Paris Agreement. Both times, among other spontaneous events, he broke out his rhymes to rap the wrap-up demanding climate justice for Indigenous Peoples, and he’s done this at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) before.

“While the journey to participate in COP23 requires scholarships or personal funds, Indigenous involvement is still at risk of being perpetually belittled or disregarded.

On Thursday, November 9, in a move of Indigenous solidarity to decolonize the UN, the Māori youth of Te Ara Whatu in attendance at COP23 staged a protest action with the Indigenous youth of the SustainUS delegation in the Bonn Zone. Kera Sherwood-O’Regan from the Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute had noted their tokenization and continued silencing in international forums like the UN and in this particular UN body tasked with mitigating climate change.

They called to “Pass the Mic” to Indigenous Peoples who are the custodians of the land and have survived millennia with sustainable land practices through Indigenous knowledge systems by respecting the environment. While their journey across the globe to participate in COP23 requires scholarships or personal funds, their Indigenous involvement is still at risk of being perpetually belittled or disregarded, when it is not also being tokenized and commodified.

What is even more telling, is that Samoan journalist Lani Wendt Young wrote about being left out from sitting at the meeting table in their Deutsche Welle journalist scholarship event, despite being explicitly invited as Pacific journalists.

Just an hour after the #PassTheMic action, the US People’s Delegation organized a Speak Out for grassroots activists within the “alternative” US delegation’s US Climate Action Center. The Speak Out illustrated the influence of the USA on other regions outside the US territories, covering speeches on the responsibility of the USA to act on climate, as a result of not only the wars they had fought to occupy for instance the Philippines and Puerto Rico in 1898, but also in its contributions to climate change through carbon emissions and the corporate exploitation of natural resources in the Global South.

“Lani Wendt Young wrote about [their] being left out from sitting at the meeting table, despite being explicitly invited as Pacific journalists.

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner and fellow Marshallese Pacific Climate Warrior Milañ Loeak touched on the nuclear-testing of the US government in the Marshall Islands and demonstrated the culture that is at risk of being lost in the showcasing of traditional Marshallese weaving and Jetnil-Kijiner’s poem “Butterfly Thief”, stating “I’m taking you with me”. After the youth delegates of SustainUS tied in the environmental racism of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the militarized violence that enforced the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, Kandi Mossett concluded the Speak Out with her powerful speech reminding the audience of the foundation of racism and violence that built the USA.

Over the following days this US People’s Delegation staged more walkouts and gained media attention. During the speech of Governor Jerry Brown of California, they called out the hypocrisy of his climate leadership in the unofficial US delegation, while California was still big in the oil and gas industry. When Dallas Goldtooth and other Indigenous leaders chanted the phrase “Keep it in the ground”, Gov. Brown replied: “In the ground, I agree with you. In the ground, let’s put you in the ground, so we can go on with the show here!”

The delegates of the Trump-selected official US delegation held an event in the “Bonn Zone” venue on Monday on “clean” fossil fuels and nuclear power, attended by energy executives with lobbying interests in coal and nuclear power. Within minutes, led by the youth delegates of SustainUS, the It Takes Roots Alliance members, and 350.org, the audience began chanting and singing an altered version of a patriotic US American song: “And we proudly stand up until you keep it in the ground. We the people of the world unite and we are here to stay.”

The activists walked out of the event and hundreds gathered outside the meeting room and staged a sit-in culminating in another Speak Out they called the “People’s Panel” at the main stage of the “Bonn Zone” pavilion hall.

“Gov. Brown replied: “In the ground, I agree with you. In the ground, let’s put you in the ground, so we can go on with the show here!””

Banners were held with their organizations’ demands and the statement “We The People”. Diné Dakota elder Tom Goldtooth, who had been onstage at the People’s Climate Summit the week before, and had also been one of those told by Gov. Jerry Brown to be put “in the ground”, said “we are building an alliance of people of the world.” Once more stressing the Indigenous and Pacific solidarity of this COP in Bonn, Germany, the People’s Panel Speak Out ended with the Pacific Climate Warriors and their chant of “We are not drowning! We are fighting!”

Personal highlights:
*All the protests, panels, and workshops with It Takes Roots and the Pacific Climate Warriors
*The #Decolonise #PassTheMic action with Te Ara Whatu and SustainUS
*Mingling at the press reception in the US Climate Action Center to successfully convince Democracy Now! to interview Tetet at COP23 the following week

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Karin Louise Hermes is a Berlin-based academic with an MA in Pacific Islands Studies from the University of Hawai’i. Read more by Karin.

Hannah Spyksma is Media & Climate Editor at Impolitikal. She is currently completing a doctorate in journalism at Queensland University of Technology. Read more by Hannah.