The failure of global climate negotiations to slow greenhouse gas emissions is fueling protest movements in the U.S. and other countries, as the effects of sea level rise, longer droughts and stronger storms begin to take a toll.
More than 190 nations sent some 9,000 government officials, scientists and technicians to Cancun over the last two weeks, but the diplomatic arm-wrestling yielded little progress. That didn’t sit well with thousands of environmentalists and social activists, many of them from California, who converged on the seaside resort to pressure negotiators.
The negotiations were “shrouded in a fog of unreality,” said Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, a group that advocates drastic cuts in emissions to reduce carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere from the current 387 ppm to 350 ppm. “The biggest and most powerful nations on Earth simply aren't paying attention to physics and chemistry.”McKibben, whose group sent several San Francisco-based activists to Cancun, predicted that “the grassroots movement to demand real action will continue to mushroom. We're not big enough yet to beat the fossil fuel industry and its allies, but we're gaining.”
Over the last two years, 350.org has organized more than 14,000 climate demonstrations in 188 countries.
In Cancun, if the delegates negotiated behind closed doors, environmental groups made up for it by vying to stage the most creative "photo ops" to capture media attention. Mark Malijan, a freelance photographer whose trip to Cancun was sponsored by Earth Journalism Network, captured vivid images of a broad variety of protests. See his slide show above this post.
Among them was the demonstration of La Via Campesina, a social justice group that included Mayans from the Yucatan province around Cancun, and activists from both developing and industrial countries. About 1,000 protesters-- men, women and children, many in colorful outfits--carried signs promoting indigenous rights and condemning efforts to sell carbon credits from forests. Music from a steel drum and chants of “Si, se puede!” (Yes, we can!) punctuated the march.
Among the Via Campesina marchers were several organizers from Los Angeles’ Bus Riders Union, a group that pushes for public transportation for low-income Angelenos. “We came together as a grass-roots community delegation because we are most affected by the dirty energy industries,” Sunyoung Yang, 28, an organizer for the union’s Clean Air campaign, told the L.A. Times.
Malijan also captured a 350.org “media event”: Four young protesters from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Philippines sat at a table plunked in the surf off Cancun, a symbol of the rising tides expected to swamp coastal communities if planet-heating emissions are not curbed.
And from a balcony of the Crown Paradise Hotel, an opulent beachside resort, he photographed the symbolic protest of Greenpeace and Tck Tck Tck, an alliance of climate action groups. Volunteers dressed as negotiators in dark suits floundered in the sea, around a giant inflatable ring symbolizing a “lifeline” they need to throw to the endangered planet. On the beach, others lay down on the sand in a pattern spelling out the question: “Hope?”
Back at Cancun Messe, a giant hangar with rooms for seminars and press conferences, a group of delegates from Tajikistan and Central Asia, sitting before a flaming red backdrop, offered a more tranquil tableau, as they presented data on glacial melt and water shortages.
In the same building, Malijan ran into a polar bear shaking hands with a skeptic. It was a British aristocrat, Lord Christopher Monckton of Brenchley, who has made a career out of casting doubt on global warming. Inside the polar bear outfit was Matt Vespa, a San Francisco-based attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group.
Getting permission to don the “Frost Paw” suit from the United Nations officials running the conference wasn’t easy, Vespa told The Times. “There is a general rule against anything that covers the face. I think they had in mind anarchists in black masks, but rules are rules.”
After getting permission, so long as the bear remained in one place, without roaming, Vespa said, the stunt was a hit. “Everyone seemed to love Frost Paw.” Then, wading into the media spotlight, Monckton approached, Vespa said, “grabbed my hand, and started spouting disinformation. Our climate law institute director, Kassie Siegel, removed him from the scene.”
Silly? Vespa doesn’t think so. “The fight against global warming must be waged on a number of fronts…. The polar bear is an icon of the climate crisis, under the Endangered Species Act. We need to raise awareness of the urgency of the situation. Saving the polar bear and the Arctic will help avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change on the rest of the world.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.