COP 21: Don’t Ignore the Background (Part 1)

posted by Benjamin Collins


Riot police van at sunset, COP 21 in Le Bourget, France


Introduction: Glimpses of the Background at COP 21


The start of the Paris Climate Conference has been jam-packed with flashy side events, crackdowns on dissent, full-blast media coverage, and negotiating twists and turns. This blog series sets aside the official coverage and looks to the background of the COP 21 in and around Paris to try and make sense of what’s going on.

Why look at the background? Because it contains clues to the larger stories that main narratives and media coverage miss (or deliberately obscure). Like Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film, Children of Men, based on P.D. James’s dystopian sci-fi novel, the central story of COP 21 centers on a fast-paced, high-stakes political drama. However, the camera in Children of Men tends to linger on people, places, and events taking place in the background behind the main characters. These glimpses of the background reveal a dystopian near-future set in London in 2021, where a mix of xenophobia, decay, and political despair mirror the reality of present day Europe and the U.S. (For more on what the film reveals in the background, see this excellent video analysis here.) Although COP 21 is set in Paris and not London, the background and of the COP has often revealed more insight than the messages coming from the corporate-sponsored and locked-down main stages.


The camera in Children of Men pans past detained immigrants at a railway station


COP 21 is not short on hype and stage-management, with the city plastered in signs promoting the COP. But here and there, graffiti on COP 21 posters adds an urgent counterpoint to the smoothly-polished feel-good messaging.



Subway graffiti in Paris metro reads: “Change the system, not the climate!”


Part 1: Working up a Sweat at the Disneyland of Climate Change

For those of us without accreditation to enter the negotiation zone at the COP, the organizers have created a separate space, the “Climate Generations” area next to the main event. Here, in between event spaces and booths promoting NGOs, governments, and corporations, numerous entertaining distractions await visitors. Bicycle-power is a big theme:  You can hop on pedal-powered cell phone chargers and ride a stationary bike to get a free juice. I even reluctantly had my picture taken at WWF’s booth calling for a climate target lower than 2 degrees (exactly how low, they didn’t specify).


Pedal-powered juice stand at the Climate Generations Area of COP 21



For the record, RAN supports a 1.5 degree climate target, which is only faintly visible here


All of this would be good fun, except for the reality that “having fun” and participating in side event panels appears to be the only thing I and other visitors are allowed to do. The security presence at the Le Bourget conference site is military-grade, with uniformed soldiers embedded on small hills surrounding the entrance, and plainclothes security visibly present throughout the venue, ready to eject anyone who steps out of line.

Following the November 13th attacks, protest in France has been effectively criminalized. Gatherings of more than two people in public are prohibited. Youth climate delegations and advocacy groups have occasionally tested this ban at the COP, organizing silent protests, and even a brief, vocal protest for climate justice inside the Climate Generations area yesterday.



Climate justice protest breaks out in the Climate Generations space…


Security guards eyed this protest warily but allowed it proceed. However, a few hundred feet away, an invite-only, corporate-sponsored event called the “Caring for Climate” summit was underway. Sponsors of the event included coal power giant Engie and other companies with deep ties to coal and other fossil fuels.


…unbeknownst to the participants in an invite-only, corporate-sponsored climate forum, just a few hundred feet away


Writing for Harper’s, Rebecca Solnit insightfully described COP 21 as the End-of-the-World’s Fair, “a vast, secured suburban cluster of convention buildings with exhibits, displays, meeting rooms, conferences, and cafes.” However, power and influence are distributed unevenly across the enormous white tents of the COP “fairground.” And it is in the VIP rooms, exclusive events, and negotiating zone where corporate and government networks mingle and the big decisions are made, away from the public eye.

Overall, the Disneyland-ification of the COP’s open-access spaces has a subtle, but dangerous effect. By corralling unaccredited NGOs and the general public into spaces that are lively, engaging, and swarming with security, the civil society presence at the COP is transformed into a fun, but politically pacified experience. Meanwhile, corporate actors are able to hide in plain sight right next door, undisturbed by critical voices.

 In my third post in this series, I will address the fierce police crackdown that has been deployed to suppress attempts to directly confront corporate influence at COP 21. This repression outside the COP is made easier by the superficially open spaces inside of it, without which silencing of dissenting voices would be too obvious and intolerable. Just like social media, the entrance to the Climate Generations area is free and open to the public. However, when offered something for free, be wary that you—or more specifically your consent—may be the actual product being sold.


Coming up in part 2: Weaponized cuteness and other tricks of the greenwashing trade: