Never before has a UN climate change conference drawn such worldwide attention as COP21 is doing since the beginning of the year. This is an incontrovertible evidence that climate change is bringing together people from around the world, fostering a kind of global citizenship that is unique.
By A.D. McKenzie
PARIS (IDN) - Tourists and locals walking along the River Seine, near the famed Musée d’Orsay, are currently able to charge their mobile phones at three unlikely installations: solar-powered street lamps. [P20] GERMAN | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF
The tall posts, topped by photovoltaic panels, have been set up by French NGO Electriciens sans frontières (ESF) in an attempt to heighten public awareness about climate change issues, ahead of COP 21, the next United Nations climate talks that will be held in the French capital.
“We’re also trying to show the public that there are solutions to the fight against climate change and to the lack of electricity in some parts of the world,” said Laura Cornu, ESF’s communications manager.
Over the past two decades the group has installed panels in rural areas in Africa, in refugee camps in Jordan, and in tent cities after earthquakes in both Haiti and Nepal. The Seine street lamps were among 170 projects submitted to the Paris Mayor’s office in a call for innovative climate action.
Not far from the lamps, meanwhile, is an embarkation area where tourists can board a solar-energy-powered boat for a cruise on the Seine. On rainy days, the boat sails on energy stored in its batteries, even as passengers shiver in the bracing wind.
But on sunny days, the vessel draws from power captured by the solar panels on its roof, with the crew explaining both the “wonders” of solar technology and that of the city to travellers.
Solar lamps and boats are just some of the high-profile initiatives being pushed as France pumps up the volume to make world leaders and the international community aware of the stakes in the run-up to the climate talks set for November 30 to December 11.
With his top ministers in attendance, French President François Hollande launched an ambitious drive in September to ensure success, though he warned that the possibility of failure was real.
“There is no miracle … there is a chance we’ll succeed but also a great risk we might fail,” said Hollande, speaking at a half-day meeting that gathered political leaders, artists, scientists, CEOs, non-governmental organizations, students and others – at the imposing Elysee Palace, the president’s official residence.
Alongside NGOs, the government has supported numerous conferences and projects, and the French capital even declared a car-free day on September 27, following in the footsteps of Brussels, which has had such programmes for several years.
But the volume is now being pumped up in unprecedented fashion, through song and dance, artistic projects, citizen marches, a COP 21 postage stamp, and the highlighting of innovative ventures such as using a stationary bike to generate energy for a sound system.
On Oct. 3, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius will also open a forum called “Make it work: civil society commits itself in support of climate”. Organized jointly by a local university and a newspaper, the forum will bring some 500 participants together to discuss climate change issues.
One can also take part in off-beat, civil-society actions that include “24 hours of meditation for the earth” – scheduled for November 1 – and a “fast for the climate” project – in which citizens have been asked to fast the first day of each month until COP 21, the 21st Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Among the “artistic movers” is a group called ArtCop21, which plans to “stage city-wide cultural events that address climate as a people’s challenge and work to create a cultural blueprint of positive and sustainable change”.
The group’s director, Lauranne Germond, said that sometimes artists can reach those that politicians can’t. But it’s anyone’s guess how much of an effect all this will have on reaching an agreement in December.
For a desired outcome, Hollande reiterated that one of the “keys to success” would be resolving the issue of financing for developing countries – an amount that has been set at $100 billion annually from 2020.
This funding is considered crucial for vulnerable states to adapt to climate change, and ways of raising the finances will be discussed at a European Council summit in mid-October, among other meetings. Some of the means will include taxes on financial transactions, Hollande said, outlining France’s own commitment to contributions.
He indicated that funding may also help to ease the migration crisis in the world, as climate change has also created refugees, along with conflict, “dictators … and terrorism”.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has additionally stressed that the people mainly affected by global warming are the “most vulnerable, the poorest” and said that France has a “determining role to play” in taking action.
Describing some of the effects of global warming on small island states, one of the participants at the Elysee conference, Victorin Lurel of Guadeloupe, told IDN that Caribbean islands, for instance, have been suffering the loss of coastal areas, more intense hurricanes and other phenomena, even though they are not among the major emitters of greenhouse gases.
“It’s about survival for us,” said Lurel, President of the Regional Council of Guadeloupe, a French overseas territory.
He said that Caribbean islands are also mobilizing to raise awareness, as global warming is a universal problem, no matter who the main culprits might be.
Ségolène Royal, the French Minister for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, said she was pleased to see the “formidable rise” in action among civil society. She said this needed to continue up to the climate change conference and beyond.
Royal outlined the “challenges” in simple terms: halting the destruction of the environment including forests; reducing pollution, including of oceans; reducing emissions; and ending the over-exploitation of resources.
According to the French government, COP 21 will be the most important conference France has ever hosted, not only because of the great challenges to the world but because of the “tens of thousands” of people who will be physically participating as well as watching.
For some NGOs, it will be important for another reason: perhaps French citizens will start listening to them, as France has lagged behind other countries such as Germany and Switzerland in national environmental awareness.
In informal surveys done during previous climate change conferences, people on the streets of Paris, for example, showed a near-complete lack of interest in climate change issues and in the outcome of the talks. Many expressed ignorance about the negotiations to reduce carbon emissions or the international goal to keep global temperatures below an increase of 2 degrees Celsius.
“We still don’t think that we have been fully heard,” said Diane Simiu, director of conservation programmes at WWF in France and representative of an NGO network .
Will all the artistic input – including more films about the environment from renowned French directors – be effective?
“It’s late and maybe even too late,” Hollande emphasized in September. “Therefore action is urgent … we can’t say that we didn’t know.”
Follow the writer on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale [IDN-InDepthNews – 02 October 2015]