Red Line for Climate Justice activists march in Paris on Saturday. (Sonali Kolhatkar)

As climate negotiators at the COP21 summit in Paris celebrated a global accord on greenhouse gas emissions, tens of thousands of activists from all over the world gathered on the city’s streets, having obtained a last-minute permit despite a ban on assembly. A disconnect between the official view on climate change and the popular desire for climate justice remains wide.

During the summit, there were three broad sticking points between wealthy nations and developing nations. First was “differentiation,” which is how rich versus poor nations, or former colonizers versus former colonies, ought to be treated. On that, developing economies like India seem to have scored a victory. The second point was finance, which encompasses the real dollar amounts for what wealthy nations ought to pay to developing countries to mitigate climate change and adapt to it. Wealthy nations won on that score, only aspiring to a $100-billion-a-year fund without making an actual commitment. The third issue was ambition — how deep a cut in greenhouse gas emissions that countries were willing to commit to. For a long time, a 2-degree Celsius rise in temperature was the goal of choice, but island nations and poor nations with weak infrastructures pushed hard for a commitment to 1.5 degrees, saying that any greater rise than that would lead to disastrous consequences. On that point also, wealthier, more powerful nations won out, agreeing to the 2-degree limit while merely aspiring to 1.5 degrees.

A fourth sticking point, which was not raised inside the halls of COP21 simply because it is a non-starter for countries like the United States, was legal accountability regarding any agreement that is signed. The closest the Paris agreement comes to that is a unified accounting system that enables countries to report on their emissions every five years.

Hugh Sealy, a professor at St. George’s University in Grenada, was a lead negotiator for the Maldives during COP21. The Maldives is the current chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and has been among the most persistent nations pushing for a strong climate treaty. For island nations, climate change is an existential issue. In an interview just hours into the final day of negotiations, Sealy explained to me that “the U.S. has made it clear from the very, very start that they were not going to accept legally binding targets.” He added, “That has to do with the level of exceptionalism that the U.S. maintains.”

Still, the U.S. did not object to having the language of holding warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius somewhere in the accord, and that, said Sealy, was significant progress. He agreed that a 1.5 degree-limit was key to survival, saying, “We are at 1 degree now and we’re feeling it. Two degrees was never a scientific conclusion. It was arbitrarily chosen by a group of people that were trying to be pragmatic.”

The new climate accord is the culmination of years of negotiations, going back to the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol. Its significance cannot be understated. And yet, agreeing to curb warming is quite different from actually mitigating climate change. The problem is that the planet does not allow a do-over. And that fact is keenly felt by protesters who converged on Paris from many areas of the globe. For two weeks now, civil society representatives outside the halls of COP21 expressed frustration and anger that the negotiators were simply not taking seriously the threat of climate change. It appears that they were right to be skeptical.

COP21 organizers took pains to insulate delegates from public pressure. Many civil society representatives and even journalists (such as myself) were denied accreditation to the official proceedings. “That lack of transparency is unfortunate,” said Sealy. “We developing countries have been calling for allowing the observers into the rooms. We’re not afraid of everyone hearing what we’re saying. Others are.”

In fact, the dynamic between negotiators and protesters is an important one. Elite representatives often argue that ordinary people are too idealistic in their demands for justice. But it is constant pressure from below that foments any change at all. Left to their own devices, our representatives would be highly unlikely to take on the challenge of global warming, given that it undercuts the basis of capitalist enterprise to which they are beholden.

During my time in Paris I met activists from the U.S. (including indigenous people), England, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Norway, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Mozambique, India, the Philippines and Mexico. And of course, the French were out in full force despite the horrific terror attacks barely a month ago that killed 130 people in Paris.

It is a testament to the persistence of climate justice activists that protesters were able to have such a strong presence in Paris on the final day of COP21 despite a ban on public gatherings. A Nov. 29 protest at the Place de la Republique had been planned to kick off the summit, but after the ban the number participating dropped dramatically. Still, many did show up and left about 10,000 pairs of shoes to mark those who could not be there. French police have used violent tactics including tear gas and arrested hundreds. But that did not deter masses of activists from showing up Saturday to “have the final word” at COP21, as organizers put it.

Among those who gathered on the streets of Paris on Saturday was Bill McKibben, the famed author, environmentalist and co-founder of He told me that even the symbolic progress that took place at COP21, compared with previous summits, is to some degree a result of the massive public pressure that delegates have felt for the past several years. “They say their target is 1.5 degrees, but it’s probably going to be 3.5 degrees,” he told me.

As thousands of people streamed by us wearing red to symbolize human deaths from climate change, McKibben struck an optimistic tone, saying, “The only two things that are producing movement [on curbing climate change] is tons of pressure on the outside and solar engineers doing their job in dropping the cost of a panel by 80 percent in the last six years. Between those two things, the fossil fuel industry’s power is beginning to erode.”

Climate justice activists have been relentless in insisting that any official agreement will not be good enough unless it shakes up the entire system that has taken us to the brink of species extinction. “System change, not climate change” has been a common refrain heard at rallies and seen on stickers and posters.

Regardless of how the Paris accord is fulfilled, a mass global movement for climate justice has been building parallel to the annual U.N. meetings and has seen continuous evolution in the sophistication of its approach, its broad-based demands and its militant strength. That movement will continue to manifest and take root in the home countries of the participants — a required outcome if we are to survive the climate crisis.

Watch Sonali Kolhatkar’s video reports from COP21 below (via YouTube):

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.