COP24: Voices rising

As the COP24 talks in Katowice, Poland, drew to a close, former Green Party leader Natalie Bennett takes a look at the effect of the gilets jaunes protests in France and what they mean for climate action.

COP24 protest
COP24 protest
Natalie Bennett

The gilets jaunes protestors have had a positive impact in Katowice, despite attempts to subvert their social justice message.

The annual global climate talks known as COP (Committee of the Parties if you were wondering) can sometimes feel like one giant bubble. The 22,771 registered participants at COP24 in Katowice, Poland, were mostly to be found in the over-heated air of the city’s conference centre or the long white igloo-like structures that stretched out from it.

But world events have a big impact on the deliberations within its halls.

In the heat of Marrakech, the chief external event impacting on the talks, hard, was the shock election in its first days of President Donald Trump. The world had increasingly been looking to China for climate leadership, with the EU in turmoil over Brexit and refugees, and the trend accelerated rapidly over the fortnight.

In Bonn last year, at COP23, the external events with the most impact were extreme weather: flooding in South Asia, Fiji and the Philippines. It helped put a real focus on the most vulnerable, for all that little progress was made in crucial areas of climate finance and “loss and damage”, compensation for the fact that most people suffering more extreme weather are not those who helped cause it.

This year, there’s little doubt that the gilet jaunes, the protesters in France (whose imagery and broad cause have since been picked up in neighbouring states), will have a big impact.

There were people in the venue halls, some with good intentions and some not, drawing the wrong conclusions, claiming that they proved you can’t introduce green taxes. One of the oddest moments of COP was a press release from Saudi Arabia almost allying itself with the protesters (this from a state that has abused the human rights of women campaigning for the right to drive). But then it has been called a ‘rogue state’ here at the talks, and isolation is hardly an adequate term for its position.

While a proposed rise in fuel tax might have sparked the French protests, it is also very clear this was simply a final straw rather than a root cause, and the reduction of tax for the wealthy at the same time was equally, and possibly more, important as a trigger. As was disillusion with the neoliberal approach of President Emmanuel Macron, who relied on personality, Tony Blair-style, to cover over the nature of his offer during his election campaign.

Demands are now not only for economic justice, but democracy and proportional representation so that Parliament reflects the will of the people. And the violence that’s helped get the protests such attention has been a product of just a tiny percentage of the protestors. The vast majority are peacefully expressing their extreme discontent with the level of inequality, poverty and struggle in France.

Looking around the world, as we’ve been hearing at session after session at this COP, there are cases where ‘green taxes’ are popular, where they are seen as fairly applied to those who can pay, with appropriate compensation for those who cannot.

So the Green MEP Jakop Dalunde spoke at an excellent session with Transport and Environment about polls showing the Swedish flight tax had 50-60 per cent support among the public.

Canadian Green MP Elizabeth May spoke about the revenue-neutral carbon tax being introduced there (following the lead of a number of provinces that have already introduced it, including British Columbia, which is paying the proceeds direct to citizens).

It has been suggested that we should talk about a ‘carbon dividend’, rather than tax. That can be both direct to taxpayers, as in British Columbia, but also to the global population in terms of mitigating the effects of climate change.

What the gilets jaunes have achieved is a sharpened focus on one of the important outcomes of this COP, an understanding that a ‘just transition’, an approach to tackling climate change that leaves no one behind, is the only way in which we can cut emissions to the levels needed. The Silesia Declaration codified that.

People struggling to survive, already on the edge, cannot be asked to pay the price of the change to sustainable future as multinational companies and rich individuals continue to plunder our world for their private profits.

As the Green Party has always said, economic and environmental justice are indivisible.

I’ve got a saying that politics should be something you do, not have done to you. While the Far Right has tried to claim them as their own, it is clear the majority of gilets jaunes are simply people who’ve said ‘we’re not going to take this any more’. Some went straight from the March for Climate to the yellow jacket protests.

‘We’re not going to take this any more’ is something that the young people of the world have also been saying here at this COP. Greta Thunberg has rightly taken the headlines as a really powerful 15-year-old force, but there have been many young delegates having an impact at sessions right across the COP.

I heard one of the 22-strong group of young people who were part of Norway’s official delegation, Mari Hasle Einang, speaking of how at age six she went on a glacier with her father for the first time, how moved she was by the experience, and how much she fears losing that opportunity.

There’s still much to do to get voices like these into the centre of the COP talks – to bring real democracy here – but it is clear that they are already having a big impact. The people are taking on the lobbyists for the corporate polluters and the multinational exploiters, and they are increasingly being heard.