Filling the empty shoes: A report from the Paris climate talks

Paris – Dec 7, 2015: In the wake of terrorist attacks that left more than 100 people dead, the French Government declared a state of emergency ahead of the long-awaited “COP21” international climate negotiations. The government banned a major march planned by a coalition of groups for November 29th, the day before the talks began.

Paris BlogShoes

Thus two Minnesotans, my mom, Mary Steiner and I found ourselves out before the Paris dawn, using gestures to coordinate with local French activists and international climate justice advocates as we arranged 17,000 pairs of shoes across the Place de la Republic. We had come to Paris to march with grassroots groups from around the world (including, with whose Minnesota offshoot, MN350 I work.)

Instead, we were in the same plaza as the major memorial to the victims of terror we were organizing a “march without marchers” called by the international organization Avaaz, to visually illustrate the silenced call of the people of the world for strong and just international climate agreement. Later we joined a line of thousands people who held hands and displayed art along the route of the cancelled march.

Though some groups marched despite the ban and a few protestors fought with the police, most climate coalition members, including leaders, felt, as we did, that these more subdued forms of protest fit the still-somber mood of a city where makeshift memorials of candles and flowers dotted the streets. As the talks have gone on—they are now halfway through the ParisBlogStateofEmergencyconference—people have continued to find creative ways to raise their voices inside and outside the talks to demand action to address the “Climate State of Emergency.”

An emergency it is. To review the basics: The one thing virtually all global leaders have agreed on in the past is that to avoid catastrophe, we must keep the climate from warming more than two degrees Celsius. The organization I am associated with,, takes its name from the amount of carbon (which is mainly caused by burning fossil fuels like coal, gas, and oil) that can be in the air and have a good chance of preventing climate chaos—350 parts per million. The world blew past that mark (we are at 400+) well before the talks, even though the latest science indicates that any temperature increase about 1.5 degrees is likely to have terrible consequences, especially for communities on the front lines of climate change: the poor, the Global South, island nations, and many others, like coastal cities.

As an excellent New York Times article laid out on the eve of the talks, taking these facts seriously leads to a notion of a “carbon budget,” a finite amount of fossil fuel that can still be burned without catastrophe.  Recognizing this notion—that roughly 80% of all fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground, has big implications: That we need a plan to get to 100% renewable energy in the near future, and that rich countries that have already burned way more than their share need to help developing countries pay the price of adapting and growing differently.

The notion of a carbon budget–and its implication that we need a very different economy–remains politically insufferable for the powerful nations at the climate talks. Indeed the combined commitments the COP talks are seeking to corral would cause the globe to warm more than three or three and a half degrees—an invitation to catastrophe.

Still there is no question that the global climate movement has come a long way. The leaders of the countries that have been the biggest barriers to a meaningful climate agreement are using phrases that might have been considered radical environmentalism in the past.  “Climate Justice” and the need for leadership from indigenous people were on the lips of the Prime Minister of Canada and President Obama discussed “leaving some fossil fuel in the ground” as he had when announcing his rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The fossil fuel divestment movement among countless educational and agitational efforts have clearly blunted the intellectual authority, if not the financial might of the fossil fuel industry and its other corporate allies.

Near the opening of the talks 105 “climate-vulnerable” countries—the majority of those participating—released a call for much stronger and faster action and realistic levels of financial support for a just transition to renewable energy.

Inside and outside the talks people-powered groups are using courage and creativity to push for a treaty that is both sane and just. Since I came here from  Minnesota, here are a few examples with home-town connections:

  • The international Indigenous Environmental Network, led by Tom Goldtooth from Bemidji, Minnesota, led a flotilla of ParisBlogFlotillaindigenous people from around the world on the Seine river as they released a platform calling for comprehensive climate justice and respect for indigenous communities’ leading role in protecting the earth to be included in the treaty. (Unfortunately, indigenous rights are in danger of being cut out altogether.)

  • Minnesota Senator Al Franken arrived in Paris with a group of other Senators (including Senator Merkley, author of the important “Leave It in the Ground Act”) to pledge that they would not let Congress undermine a climate action agreement.

  • Inside the conference center, a SustainUs youth delegation led by Minnesotan Maria Langholz conducted an action calling for a transition to a zero emissions economy.

News reports say the COP21 negotiations are going much faster and more smoothly than in past years: half-way through there is a draft treaty that has many laudable features, and nations large and small are discussing a 1.5 degree limit to global warming. Some commentators fear that lobbyists and fossil fuel companies will wield their substantial financial power to undermine this progress in the coming week.

But representatives from the global South point out that words from the most powerful countries are one are one thing–and actions are another.

As a first time participant in an international gathering like this I am still working to understand all that is happening. Between the inner ring of ministers of major powers and the protestors in the street, there are a whole set of concentric circles of people and meetings. Business leaders, advocates, organizers, representatives of deeply affected constituencies, educators are here to advocate for specific solutions and to meet and plan.

It’s exhilarating to be here—and also unsettling. As lots of good people (and some greedy or misguided ones) go about their work millions of others around the world suffer from the effects of climate chaos. The people that did the least to cause global warming are already suffering  worst.

Depending on whether or not the global leaders back their brave words with action, we are participating in what is either at an inspired convergence or the largest exercise in mass insanity and moral depravity in history.

ParisBlogArtBuildWhere is hope that we are, in fact taking a step forward? Here’s one place I found it: In a cheap but neatly-organized Paris warehouse space far from the heavily secured climate conference an ever-evolving group of people work together at the “Jardin D’Alice.” The day I showed up there volunteers painted signs, banners, and props like cardboard shields for the Indigenous Environmental Network’s flotilla action. Other volunteers were serving free food while leaders of local and international grassroots groups plan to escalate public protest, government ban or no.

Hope, for me, radiates in a series of thin threads from this and other grassroots gatherings around Paris to the millions of people around the world who are eager to act for a safe future. A world with sane climate policies, more and more of us agree, will require big, bold changes that will also make our society somewhat less racist, more women-led, and more democratic and equal.

Given the stakes, step back from the brink of climate chaos is too large or too small. As we speak, one can:

Writing from the Paris art workspace, David Solnit,’s Arts Organizer who also serves as an important thinker in the climate justice movement, noted “What governments fear most is our bodies…our bodies in the streets.” ParisBlogLoveWater

One of the most recent examples of the kind of civic courage that changes what’s possible come from my hometown of Minneapolis. There, in the last few weeks, the Black Lives Matter movement has shown what it means to act in without full regard for one’s own safety or comfort, with the courage that real change demands.

I am really hoping that hundreds of thousands or millions of people find that kind of courage this week, in Paris and around the world, especially, in powerful countries like the United States. If we do, this beautiful world and the many good people in it stand a fighting chance.

Kevin Whelan is the Executive Director of MN350. He has worked as a community and labor organizer for 20 years. If you are in Minnesota, click here to register for the Climate March on December 12th.