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December 20, 2015 | Detained by the French Military: Stepping Outside of the Us vs. Them Paradigm

“This is a movement of the people; we should…” As the words left my mouth and observers took out their phones to film the young man speaking out against the corporate dominance of the environmental movement, two French military men had appeared by my side. Within moments, I felt my arms grabbed by the gendarmes as they hurriedly whisked me away from the cameras and toward a hidden room full of other protestors, pushed me against a concrete wall, and searched my body as men held their rifles feet away, watching me with deep suspicion.

It was the 9th day of COP21, the UN climate negotiations, and I found myself detained along with 50-100 protestors, whose chants of “corporate solutions aren’t solutions” were silenced by the tight security in the aftermath of the recent terrorist attack. The darkness of the crowded room provided a metaphor for the unsettling feeling that the fire of democracy was being dimmed. I had flown to Paris to document COP21 as a journalist and was being interviewed at a COP21 satellite event, Climate Solutions, when the gendarmes mistook me for a protestor and hustled me off to a makeshift pen, shoving me against a wall and using their numbers and size to intimidate. 

At Climate Solutions, the likes of Coca Cola and Intel presented their cutting-edge sustainable solutions — some amazing, others just a quintessential form of green washing. I remained optimistic as I wandered through the various booths. “At least these major corporations are trying,” I thought. In fact, the presence of corporate interests didn’t bother me; businesses, as I have learned, should and will be a driver of the sustainable world we all need. What bothered me was the lack of bottom-up voices — the grassroots folks who have tirelessly pushed for a carbon neutral economy. How could we ensure that corporate interests didn’t steal the day without the vigilant eyes and voices of these leaders? Was any alternative to the free-market capitalist ideology permeating the discourse at COP21?

Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, a book that singles out capitalism as the driver of global warming, spoke passionately against the corporate interests at COP21, calling people to question the almost sacred treatment of business in our political process. Shouldn’t the voices of those without the economic means to dominate world markets also have a voice at the table? Indeed, the final Paris agreement, as Klein points out, doesn’t even contain the words fossil fuels, the culprit largely responsible for climate change; even worse, the goal of limiting rises in temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius is unlikely to be met without severely altering the current trajectory of our emissions. Did corporations use their power to weaken an international climate agreement? Many in low-lying island nations might say “yes,” for island nations left Paris still at the mercy of the world’s largest polluters. As a slight nod to the island nations who will be engulfed by rising tides with a rise of 1.5 C degrees, the COP21 agreement acknowledges a 1.5 C limit as aspirational, though it fails to mandate the system-shifting changes that would have to occur to make a 1.5 degree limit plausible. Naomi Klein’s answer, among hundreds of other activists and economists, agree: A capitalist framework isn’t sufficient in the fight to create a more sustainable civilization, and any agreement that arises in the meantime is going to be too weak.

Contrary to the chants of Klein and other activists, a true fight against climate change cannot be waged without the participation of business, participation that cannot happen if we create an “us vs. them” mentality between people and business. Indeed, businesses drive the economies that both build prosperity and engineer society’s progress. Yet, that prosperity and progress is too often achieved through the exploitation of the world’s most impoverished groups and valuable resources. Still, businesses are a symptom, not the disease itself. As consumers, we all have some blood on our hands for feeding an economy that has brought us to the brink of planetary collapse. We will not win this battle if our goals aren’t mutual, for Big Oil can outlast us and outspend us if world economies continue to be driven by fossil fuel. To transition the world from fossil fuels to clean energy, we shouldn’t waste too much time pointing fingers. As California’s Governor Brown said last week on MSNBC, “We aren’t going to have a backlash; we’re going to reach a consensus.” That is, all of us will need to work together to leave fossil fuels in the ground.

COP21 achieved the consensus that Governor Brown referenced, and creates a greenprint — if you will — for the way forward. That way forward must be together. Governments, businesses, and global citizens are beginning to realize this, and once we fully grasp our collective power to make the drastic shifts that need to occur, we can bring about the change we need. While the agreement produced at COP21 may be weak, the consensus achieved at COP21 is undeniably strong. COP21 represents something much more powerful: many, often disparate groups, coming together to address the single problem affecting all of us. The actions of the French military that day in Paris woke me up to the us-versus-them mentality that set the tone for protests that had been on the fringes of the events. Suddenly, as I was shoved and frisked, the sides in this battle became palpable, and I realized the absurdity of it — the idea that we could save the planet when we are still battling each other.

Without question, the grassroots activists who have protested Keystone and Shell in the Arctic and everything in between created the climate that fueled COP21. At COP21, both Secretary of State John Kerry and environmentalist Bill McKibben advocated for the same thing: a sound agreement, transcending the us-versus-them model and uniting with a single purpose. Just as the corporations that have caused so much destruction must now shift from blind corporate ambition to sustainable practices, we also must shift from an us-versus-them mentality to acknowledge the consensus that COP21 represents and to use that consensus as a platform from which a sustainable economy is launched, together. Not as corporations or activists, but as people whose voices have been heard just in time.

 

Jake Kornack is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Jake is an environmental activist and progressive majoring in economics and history at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.