Citizens, arrests, and 7-metre dinosaurs: the history of UN climate summit protests, by Marc Hudson, 4 January 2016

Here’s a scene that will be familiar to anyone who has watched media coverage of a major geopolitical summit:

By mid-morning the main entrance to the UN’s Palais de Congres, and its side entrances, were ringed by Swiss and German citizens, chained together. The blockade was total, if symbolic. Diplomats came and went, but had to duck under the chains. A barrage balloon floated in the sky over the Palais, urging delegates to “Cut C0₂ Now”. Boiler-suited Greenpeace activists swarmed over the roofs of the Palais, clutching placards bearing the same message.

That was 25 years ago this weekend, outside the Second World Climate Conference in Geneva, as recounted by British author and activist Jeremy Leggett. Leggett (2001, p.28) also noted the “uncharacteristic leniency” of the attendant riot police, which he claimed was down to the Swiss government’s wish “to be seen to be under citizen pressure” to help enact its proposed carbon tax.

What this episode shows – besides the wearying persistence of the same issues a quarter-century later – is that the climate protest movement predates what many people think of as the formal beginning of the United Nations climate process: the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

Nor was it the first such protest. An estimated 10,000 people rallied outside the 1972 Stockholm Environment Conference, the UN’s first ever environmental summit – albeit over a wider range of issues and at a time when climate concerns were the preserve of only the most well-informed.

By the 1992 Rio summit, where one march attracted an estimated 50,000 people, the protest movement had swelled enough for police to dispense with the leniency of two years before. Security guards dragged 40 youth activists from Rio Centro and detained ten, and activists were forcibly ejected by police (Rich, 2013 p.259) after protesting that a Kenyan youth activist had her microphone cut midway through a speech to the meeting’s plenary.

COP this

It was another three years before the UN held the first of its annual “Conference of the Parties” (COP) meetings, of which Paris 2015 will be number 21. That meeting was held in Berlin, with the then German environment minister Angela Merkel in the chair.

At COP3 in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 – the meeting that gave us the Kyoto Protocol – Japanese drummers drummed out pleas for action, although they couldn’t compete with Carbonosaurus, Greenpeace’s seven metre dinosaur built from gasoline pumps, auto parts and old fuel tanks. Sightings of the beast continued for several years.

Three years later, in the Hague in 2000 – during the last COP of the innocent pre-September 11 days – activists were hanging from the rafters, storming the stage and berating diplomats for their sluggish progress.

By 2004, security everywhere had tightened, Carbonosaurus had retired, and Greenpeace instead sailed a “climate ark” in the streets outside COP10 in Buenos Aires.

Over the next few years, subsequent summits featured various photo opportunities, including a “wanted” posters for George W. Bush in Nairobi in 2006 and indigenous people from around the world gagging themselves outside COP13 in Bali in 2007.

Good COP, bad COP

And so to the “blockbuster” COP15, in Copenhagen in 2009, where hopes of a global successor to the Kyoto Protocol were running high. As well as thousands of delegates, the summit also attracted a huge protest contingent, with all of the media stunts and heavy security that previous COPs had led people to expect.

While the cabinet of the Maldives was holding an underwater meeting to demonstrate the country’s vulnerability to rising sea levels, the meeting’s Danish hosts were drafting new laws to give police sweeping powers of “pre-emptive arrest”, which they duly used as world leaders arrived.

Copenhagen began with an ice sculpture polar bear and ended with police foiling an attempted mass invasion of the conference centre. A year later a Danish judge ordered police to compensate activists for their heavy-handed tactics.

Since Copenhagen, protests at climate conferences have been muted. The 2012 “Rio 20+” Earth Summit passed off with colourful but peaceful protests and at Warsaw in 2013 Greenpeace beamed protests onto power station chimneys, while groups including Oxfam and WWF staged a walkout to protest the lack of ambition.

Paris: Activism Constrained

In the wake of the November 13th terrorist attacks in Paris the French state staged pre-emptive arrests and banned the protests that had been planned for the Paris COP, though continued to allow football matches and other large gatherings to take place.  In response activists organised a symbolic protest involving thousands of pairs of shoes, and on the day that the deal was signed, there were ‘red lines’ events in Paris and elsewhere.

Fine and seductive promises were made in Paris.  But with the UK’s decision to cut renewables’ funding and allow fracking, and the US’s overturning of its ban on oil exports, the gap between words and deeds is already widening.

The following post was first published on The Conversation before the November 13th terrorist attacks in Paris. It has been edited and updated.