Mass marches scheduled for 29 November in Paris and disruptive demonstrations (including barricades) on 12 December have been called off by climate justice activists following the terrorist attacks on Friday 13 November. The COP21 climate conference (the 21st conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), which will run from 30 November to 11 December in Paris, is expected to produce a deal which will fall some way short of being a binding international treaty, and national targets declared in advance of the conference would result in global temperature rises of at least 2.7 degrees C (even if they are all met). This is above the internationally agreed target of 2 degrees, and would lead to impacts described by some African delegates as genocidal. For these reasons, among others, climate justice activists had been planning large scale marches before the negotiations opened, and mass demonstrations – including civil disobedience – at the end of the conference to ensure it was movements rather than governments who had “the last say” in Paris.
These plans have been thrown into disarray by the attacks of 13 November in which 130 people were killed. On Wednesday 18 November, after several days of intense talks between organisers from groups including Greenpeace and 350.org and French authorities, it was announced that whilst all demonstrations organised in closed spaces or in places where security can easily be ensured could go ahead, “the government has decided not to authorise climate marches planned in public places in Paris and other French cities.” Activists said that they accepted Wednesday’s decision with regret, but were now considering “new and imaginative” ways of making their voices heard. Buses and trains of demonstrators heading for Paris have not been cancelled and organisers are urging people to attend anyway, with talk of “creative ways to make many of our plans possible within the new restrictions,” including indoor events.
The changed context for the climate talks and the demonstrations raises a host of interesting questions about the relationship between security, governance, resistance and protest. Many activists have questioned whether cancelling public protests is a sign that terrorists have succeeded in closing down spaces for liberal freedoms; others point out that the very idea that a government can prohibit civil disobedience is a contradiction in terms. Civil disobedience is by definition illegal and participants risk arrest, but it is unlikely that mainstream environmental groups will be willing to expose their members to a heavy-handed (and possibly lethal) response by French police. The atmosphere is likely to be charged and tense.
Fraught relations between protestors and conference delegates and organisers are of course not new. In a recent article published in the journal Global Governance I argue that it is possible to see changing forms of disruptive protest at environmental summits from the 1970s onwards, and that understanding the logics of protest can help unpack their consequences for both social movements and forms of global governance. In Stockholm in 1972 protestors at the UN Conference on the Human Environment mobilised on issues including the Vietnam War, whaling, transboundary pollution, and poverty. Protest repertoires were borrowed from the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, including sit-ins, teach-ins, campsites, demonstrations and marches, and one observer characterized the crowd as “a colourful collection of Woodstock grads, former Merry Pranksters and other assorted acid-heads, eco-freaks, save-the-whalers, doomsday mystics, poets and hangers-on.” This form of disruptive protest was largely symbolic, but nonetheless effective for that. It produced new values, discourses and identities, and would shape the environmental movement and their attendance at conferences over the next forty years.
At the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ in 1992 protestors were more organised and professional, and deployed an inside-outside strategy to influence the official text. Marches and banners were accompanied by the drafting of alternative ‘Green Treaties’, a form of procedural or institutional disruption which demanded delegates recognise non-state participants and radically different discourses. But in the aftermath of Rio it became clear that the optimism of the early 1990s was not going to last long, and the influence of civil society was eclipsed by pro-business partnerships. In Johannesburg in 2002, therefore, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, protestors were more overtly confrontational. Marches clashed with police, and crowds threatened to blockade highways or storm the summit. Anti-summit marchers were described in the South African press as “war veterans from Zimbabwe, ultra-leftists, disgruntled former soldiers, right-wingers, international anarchists, Palestinian and Israeli campaigners and hackers.” It was a far cry from Stockholm’s ‘hippies’ or Rio’s ‘colourful carnival’. This more coercive form of disruption is risky, and protestors were marginalised and repressed. A very similar mood was evident at the Copenhagen climate summits in December 2009, when protestors clashed with Danish police and tried to break into the negotiations. They were beaten back in violent scenes and arrested in large numbers. In the cold aftermath of Copenhagen, activists reflected sombrely that “following the circus of capitalism and its road-show of pseudo democracy around the world becomes increasingly unproductive” and maybe alternative sites of protest and activism were more worthy of time and energy.
It was partly as a result of this changing focus of protest that the Rio conference in 2012 was such a low key event for protestors. With the exception of Brazilian indigenous peoples groups protesting the Belo Monte dam, and youth activists who carried out a ‘ritual rip-up’ of a negotiating text condemned as a betrayal of future generations, there was little high profile protest and little press coverage. According to Bill McKibben the conference “came spontaneously alive for a few hours this afternoon, when a youth-led demonstration turned into an Occupy-style sit-down that in turn agreed to a mass walkout.” Even so, such forms of exit and evasion can still be conceptualised as disruptive protest (think of the strike, or boycotts by scientists, stewards, NGOs, or negotiating blocs). The divestment movement is another example of withdrawal as protest. The power of such forms of evasive disruption lies in the new spaces created by moving away from conventional conference diplomacy, and in the de-legitimisation of the processes of global governance themselves.
Perhaps the key point to take from all of this is that even ostensibly disruptive forms of protest are not simply and straightforwardly opposed to the ‘theatre’ of major summits, but are rather important constitutive elements of these conferences. The history of global environmental governance shows that even disruptive protest has a central place within the story of inter-state negotiations. Activists need to (literally) demonstrate their presence at major meetings of world leaders, and paradoxically even politicians need protestors outside to add pressure and a sense of occasion to the negotiations. That is why, even in the highly charged and radically changed context of Paris in November-December 2015, it will be worth watching the theatre of summitry with its performance of protest unfold – whatever stages it happens on and however it is scripted.
See: Carl Death (2015) ‘Disrupting Global Governance: Protest at Environmental Conferences from 1972 to 2012,’ Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations, October-December 2015, Vol. 21, No. 4, pp. 579-598.