COP21: In a time of terror, democracy and climate lose

Anti-terrorist measures threaten to reduce Paris COP21 summit to a conversation between bureaucrats and specialists

Thousands of pairs of shoes at Place de Republique represent those people who would have marched for a climate deal before the demonstrated was cancelled (Pic: Ed King)

Thousands of pairs of shoes at Place de Republique represent those people who would have marched for a climate deal before the demonstrated was cancelled (Pic: Ed King)

By Adrienne Russell

Peaceful protest has been outlawed at the climate talks in Paris. Protester squats have been raided. Activists have been surveilled and placed under house arrest.

The security measures, put in place after the terrorist attacks in Paris last month, threaten to reduce the climate negotiations to a conversation between bureaucrats and specialists, a threat that has hung over the COP summits from the beginning.

France 2 TV reporter Nicolas Chateauneuf, who has covered the COP summits for years, told me that this one is different.

“All the voices are out there but not really audible in the blue zone [the site of the official proceedings]. It’s a shame because the presence of protesters puts pressure on negotiators.”

Shutting down public protest in the digital networked communication era has the added negative impact of tamping down real-time citizen and activist-generated news coverage — the tweets, videos, blogs, photo essays, Facebook “open letters” and reports that now stream out of events like the summit and create wider more diverse coverage than news organizations alone can deliver.

Report: Paris climate summit march banned due to security concerns

The clampdown on protest in Paris is also effectively a clampdown on the way mediated citizens the world over have come to understand crises like the one facing the environment and how they have come to shape those understandings with their own media contributions to the coverage.

France is limiting the kind of free speech and engagement that is the hallmark of today’s democracies at a time when terrorists aim to do the same thing.

Still, tens of thousands of activists have come to Paris. Some of them are official delegates and observers of the summit who enjoy access to the blue zone, if not to the rooms where the high-stakes consequential negotiating is taking place.

But the vast majority of activists are working to influence the talks from outside the summit halls, and they have been struggling to make their voices heard.

VIDEO: Police and activists clash at Paris climate summit protest 

Last Saturday, activists were ejected from the Climate Solutions pavilion, where corporations are proposing their own preferred responses to the climate crisis, which activists see as more deflections than solutions.

For activists, making their own media has become a central strategy in challenging the status quo and influencing people in positions of power. In Paris, they have had to work doubly hard to be effective.

A group called Brandalism plastered 600 spoof ads in public spaces around Paris that critique the summit’s corporate sponsors — sponsors like Volkswagen, presently embroiled in the global scandal tied to its efforts to undercut vehicle emissions testing. “We’re sorry…[that] we got caught,” says a mock Volkswagen ad, underscoring the wariness with which negotiators should approach the summit’s corporate participants.

Artists and alternative media reporters convene at “The Place to B” located at a youth hostel and pub near Gare du Nord. They are creating and distributing material concerning the summit that goes beyond coverage of high-level officials and their climate proposals.

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Other activists are meeting at The Climate Action Zone, holding workshops that include civil disobedience training for people who plan to participate in the “Red Line”demonstration scheduled for Saturday.

And others are using a “Climate Games” tool that helps teams of activists coordinate protest online and offline through mapping technology and crowd-sourced information.

Many activists have told me that it’s hard not to see the security measures as a muzzle on free speech and as a dam blocking the flow of data and analysis we’ve become accustomed to in the networked information age.

French government efforts to ban public wifi and the use of tools that ensure online privacy suggest that encroachments on civility liberties in France may yet intensify.

Indeed, the political climate in France in the wake of the 13 November terror attacks recalls the climate in the post-9/11 United States, when public fear ran high and lawmakers responded by ratcheting up security measures at the expense of civil liberties.

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Anti-Islam sentiment flared and support for extreme-right groups surged. In Sunday’s regional elections, France’s anti-immigration far-right party, the National Front won historic first-round electoral victories that ultimately could see it control four of the country’s 13 regions.

More than ever, public interest lies in peaceful civic activism, on the streets and on the digital networks. The great challenge for democracies of how to balance security and freedom in an era where terror attacks come at a regular clip seems to grow more daunting every day.

The stakes are high, particularly as terrorism and climate change intersect, as they have done in Paris. Free to assemble, fully mediated activist publics are perhaps the greatest tool in combatting both threats.

Adrienne Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media, Film and Journalism at the University of Denver and author of the forthcoming book Journalism as Activism: Recoding Media Power. 

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