PARIS— After last month’s terror attacks in Paris, French authorities banned public political gatherings, citing security concerns. But as the United Nation’s climate talks came to a dramatic close here—with the world ratifying the first universal pact to slow global warming—activists rushed to defy that ban.
They filled the streets Saturday, rallying beneath the Eiffel Tower and along an artery of the Arc de Triomphe. For years they’ve been trying to push the world off fossil fuels, and their work helped secure this politically-fragile, all-voluntary deal in Paris. But aside from a few yips of excitement, this wasn’t a day of backslapping and celebration.
“This deal doesn’t change anything for us,” said Bill Mckibben, founder of 350.org, a group that’s organized thousands of climate marches in hundreds of cities over the last decade. As he spoke, people dressed as clowns performed for the riot police blockading the avenue and lining the sidewalks.
To explain why the climate movement isn’t satisfied, Mckibben compares the world’s pledge to cut back on dirty energy to a fat man’s pledge to start a diet. “Our job, the job of the climate movement, is the same,” he told MSNBC. “We’re the fat man’s personal trainer.”
But they’re actually much more. They’re the fossil fuel equivalent of the health food craze in America, a vast and growing community of fitness fanatics, pushing the whole world toward a life of leotards and sliced tomatoes -- or, in this case, solar panels and wind farms.
Bill Mckibben is the proud forefather of this movement. In 1989 he wrote “The End of Nature,” a surprise bestseller that sounded the alarm about global warming. And he actually thought people would listen: He was 20-something, the son of a journalist, and optimistic enough to believe that a reasonable argument would crush all.
“What I didn’t figure out for, oh, 15 years or so, is that reason alone is insufficient,” he told NBC News last year. “In fact, it’s not even the most important thing. These kind of decisions—decisions about what kind of world we’re going to live in—get made because of power, and power alone.”
McKibben decided to build what he calls “people power.” He started in the late 1990s, launching “Step it Up,” an organization aimed at national days of action. Then, in 2007, he founded 350.org, a self-proclaimed “global movement to solve the climate crisis.” It’s named for the parts-per-million carbon threshold that scientists say is safe. (We’re now at about 400 ppm, according to NASA.)
Dozens of other groups emerged in the same time frame. The big, blue-chip international environmental organizations—Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, Avaaz, Friends of the Earth, and many more—developed teams to take on climate change. And all these groups got a boost from social justice organizations, which linked poverty and environmental destruction.
The movement grew from there, expanding as the science of climate change improved. Last September in New York, the movement crested with a 300,000-strong People’s Climate March, perhaps the largest single-city environmental rally of all-time. It was so mainstream that United Nation’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon participated.
By contrast, Saturday’s march in Paris was smaller and grittier, with no more than 10,000 people across multiple locations. But it marks a new stage of the fight and it overcame unusual obstacles.
The climate movement is now trying to make sure that the world's voluntary emission cuts are fulfilled, and then improved upon. They launched this effort despite France’s special state of emergency, which defines every public political gathering a breach of the law.
Hundreds of protestors struggled in the days before just to find a floor to sleep on.
“Under the state of emergency a lot of squats that have housed activists have been raided or evicted,” said Ahmed Gaya, an American organizer who himself was staying in a reclaimed building with dozens of other activists.
MSNBC witnessed the beginning and aftermath of one such crackdown. Activists opened a new squat in central Paris, and within hours the police moved in, pushing out the occupants and guarding the building long into the night.
Many of these same activists took security precautions, locking phones in microwaves during meetings, for example, or writing fake emails in an effort to throw off potential eavesdroppers. “We don’t want something like house arrest or pre-emptive detention or just the police knowing what we’re going to do,” explained Gaya.
They also trained for a potential confrontation with police. In the basement of an arts center, the organizers — a loose coalition that included 350.org staff members — created a mock Parisian street scene, tipped toward chaos by a police charge. “If you keep your space open, and your mind open, you will see that you can deal with the tension,” the instructor said, standing on a chair.
The preparations aren’t as paranoid as they may sound.
On November 29, the day before the climate talks began with soaring speeches from President Obama and others, police arrested nearly 200 environmental demonstrators in a cloud of tear gas. More than two dozen of them are still under house arrest, according to French authorities. And on December 4th, security dragged away additional demonstrators in the middle of speeches at the Grand Palais.
The author and activist Naomi Klein calls the crack down unprecedented.
“I have never seen anything like it,” she told MSNBC. “I have not been winning many friends in France by pointing out that even George Bush did not ban protests after September 11th.”
In a reclaimed industrial space on the outskirts of Paris, artists and activists produced the props for Saturday’s actions. They included banners, signs, and — the defining symbol — a long red line. Unfurled, it represented the boundaries that climate negotiators had just crossed in their historic deal to slow global warming.
“This deal represents important progress,” said May Boeve, Mckibben’s successor as the leader of 350.org. “But progress alone is not our goal. Our goal is a just and livable planet.”