“Paris is a crazy place to be right now,” says Diane Connors, a 26-year-old Edmonton activist who landed at ‘ground zero’ of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris, France, just last week. The COP21, an unprecedented climate change convention running from November 30 to December 11 2015, has attracted 25 000 leaders and delegates from more than 190 countries. The aim of COP21 is for world leaders to achieve a universal agreement on climate change, with the goal of keeping global warming below 2C.
Connors is a member of the Canadian Youth Delegation (CYD), a group of 17 Canadian youth leaders who’ve come together in Paris to have their demands on climate justice be known. For two weeks, Connors and her comrades are actively working inside the Paris talks as a negotiating body with politicians and policy makers, while also pressuring from the outside and voicing their opposition to “corporate interests” over human rights.
Vue Weekly: What has the experience been like so far?
Diane Connors: It’s been pretty surreal. I didn’t expect to have this kind of access to such powerful people. The other day I was hanging out inside the conference centre and the French President, François Hollande, suddenly came into the room and the media rushed around him. No one was asking him anything, they were just filming him. So I asked him why he wasn’t letting people in Paris protest. “Our society needs a voice,” I said.
VW: Did you get a response from him?
DC: [Laughs]. No, I’m sure he’s really good at ignoring people. But everybody else kind of turned their heads and glared at me; although, a few people said, “good job.” It’s an interesting place to be, interacting so closely with “enemies and allies” to your cause.
VW: Despite the fact that the French government has prohibited public protesting in Paris, are people finding ways to voice their concerns?
DC: They absolutely are, both in the conference centre and all around Paris. In lieu of the big protest march, there were two actions. One was a human chain, and the other was a “Ghost March,” where people put out thousands of shoes in the square to represent all of the people that couldn’t protest. It’s ironic because people are still allowed to gather in large numbers to go Christmas shopping, but we’re not allowed to be political in large numbers. It’s oppressive.
VW: How is the CYD participating in the conference?
DC: We’re targeting the Canadian government and pressuring them to implement the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and also demanding for a just transition from fossil fuel dependence. We’re rallying for Zero Emissions by the year 2050. Outside the conference, we’re participating in targeting oil companies, or companies with big interests in the negotiations, and trying to be part of a movement that urges the UN to not accept those special interests over the interests of the common person.
VW: How would you say Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has represented Canada at the conference?
DC: The general feeling is that his statements on climate change were very vague. He hasn’t shown any concrete ways that he’s actually moving away from the inadequate promises and targets of [Stephen] Harper’s government. We requested a meeting with Trudeau, not only because he’s our Prime Minister, but also because he’s the Minister of Youth. Unfortunately, we didn’t get much of a response. Part of our messaging going forward is on the importance of listening to youth. We’ve found that a lot of the politicians love the idea of taking their photos with us and having us at the conference—almost as a token—but not actually listening to our voices. Youth want to be heard, not just seen.
VW: What should Albertans be paying attention to in Paris?
DC: Alberta is in a unique situation right now because we actually did put out a Climate Change Plan, which was unprecedented in our province’s history. But it would be interesting for Albertans to learn how other countries are planning for climate change. Although it’s great that we have a cap on oilsands emissions, along with a carbon tax, there’s more that we can be doing. Many of the leaders of climate change policy and action are also the frontline countries that are experiencing climate change right now. We should be taking a lead from them. For example, today was Ocean’s Day. Many of the world’s small island states, whose homes are in direct threat of climate change, have been some of the first to divest from fossil fuels and take drastic political action. They’re seeing the water rise every year. This is a wake-up call for Albertans. We may not be experiencing this, but we’re certainly contributing to it. Within our own country, our First Nations communities are the leaders on climate action. They’re calling for divestment from corporate interest and calling for justice, so that the communities that are most affected by climate change are the ones at the centre of decision-making.
VW: What are your hopes for the outcome of the conference?
DC: We’re pushing for small wins. We’re supporting other groups here, including the Canadian Indigenous delegation, and pushing politicians to identify indigenous rights. We’re also hoping for the goal of zero emissions, or reduced emissions by 2050, though we’re already hearing some disappointing news that the date will likely be pushed back. Beyond the negotiations, we’re hoping to build on the strength of the climate movement from the grassroots level. After COP21, we’re going to need to continue pushing for climate justice, and these relationships with other grassroots organizations and communities will be essential.
VW: Last words of wisdom?
DC: I think it’s important to put human rights at the center of climate change policy. It’s so easy to get lost in the numbers when we think about ‘what’s economically feasible?’ But there are human lives, livelihoods and cultures at stake – and that’s what should drive us to make the right solutions and right choices.