As the London 2015 climate march began to assemble in Park Lane, the weather looked poor, with very grey skies, blustery winds, and a very wet fine rain drenching everything. But despite this inauspicious start, it was clear that something quite big was beginning to happen, as the wide Park Lane carriageway started to slowly fill up in front of the makeshift stage, a converted red fire engine, outside the Hilton.
And with perfect timing the rain stopped as the first invited speaker Himaya Quasem spoke on behalf of ActionAid about how climate change is already affecting her village in the south of Bangladesh, with higher sea levels, floods, increased salinity, more frequent cyclones and storms.
As more people joined the protest, Sue Ferns spoke for TUC and Prospect, offering union solidarity for the three central demands round climate, jobs and justice, as well as a transition to a low-carbon future. She decried the insane prospect of steel workers being made redundant while future steel imports will be needed in order to support low-carbon infrastructure.
All the main political parties were invited to speak, and there was some argument among organisers when the Tories failed to respond about whether a platform should be given to other parties, but sense prevailed, and those that wanted were given the platform. The first of these was LibDem, Lynne Featherstone, who used to be a minister in International Development. She spoke of visits to Darfur and Asia, and the changing patterns of rain and drought affecting the poorest communities most. She described Tory policies on renewable subsidy removal, increased subsidy on nuclear energy, and end of Green Deal/Green Investment Bank, as “utter madness”.
Next was Vivienne Westwood, in a bright yellow cardboard crown, who began with her slogan “Politicians are Criminals”. She explained they were all trapped in a rotten financial system at the root of poverty, war and climate change. With global warming at a tipping point, she showed a map of a future world made largely uninhabitable by a runaway positive feedback loop. She said there was no choice between a green economy and mass extinction, but that we, the people can do it. She offered some some specific examples of what can be done to bring about change, quoting Paul Watson, from Sea Shepherd, that regeneration of the ocean could be quickly achieved by stopping industrial fishing. The charity ‘Cool Earth’, she said, have working proposals to save the rainforest with just £100m by working with and giving power to indigenous people. In the UK, she identified the biggest battle as fracking.
Next to the stage was Tina-Louise Rothery, one of the ‘fracking nanas’, who also stood for the Green party in Lancashire against George Osborne. She spoke, eloquently as ever, about the rapid growth of the anti-fracking movement across the country. But she warned that people power was being fought by a Government so hell-bent on pushing through that it has just announced it has taken Cuadrilla’s planning appeal out of the hands of the local Council, over-riding local government.
She invited people to come to Cheshire on 4th December for a blockade at the Upton site.
She was followed by Romayne Phoenix, co-chair of People’s Assembly who, with the news of green organisers under house arrest in Paris, warned of rising government surveillance and intervention here too, and the labelling of environmental campaigners as “non-violent extremists”. Highlighting the fluidity of legality with reference to the powerful, she related the carbon economy and war as products of the capitalist system that thrives on destructive exploitation. Trade treaties such as TTIP expose an utter contempt for democracy. Although People’s Assembly was set up to fight cuts and austerity, she said it also recognises the link with climate change, and she urged people to get involved by attending their 5th December conference.
Afsheen Rashid described the ‘Repowering London’ community energy enterprise, which brings together communities as stakeholders in local green energy products. This inspirational and empowering model is facing problems as the Tories cut subsidies and withdraw promised support.
Kofi Klu spoke for the Pan-African Reparations Coalition and also for the ‘Wretched of the Earth’ Global South bloc that was due to lead the march. He spoke of the continued coloniality of power and the neo-colonialism that today represents a continuing war started by Christopher Columbus in 1492. He called for people’s control of their own resources and reparatory justice, suggesting, very plausibly, that this would have a massive effect in stopping wars and to prevent climate change.
The Royal College of Nursing was represented by Cecilia Anim who spoke about health workers on the front line of climate disasters like Hurricane Sandy, and Matt Wrack spoke for the Fire Brigades Union. He noted the deaths of firefighters in the United States fighting increasingly severe wild fires, and said that as well as combatting the impacts of climate change, we need to deal with the causes. He asked whether the crowd had any confidence that David Cameron would do the remotest thing to tackle either of these fronts, or whether the oil companies would, or multi-national corporations. He said ordinary people must build the international movement to invest in clean energy, and to challenge the orthodoxy of austerity, cuts, and lack of subsidies.
Jeremy Corbyn received a very warm welcome, and he began by thanking the FBU for providing the fire engine being used as a stage, pointing out that it saves people, not banks. He was joined by John McDonnell, Barry Gardiner, and Lisa Nandy, and he said at least another dozen Labour MPs were on the march. He identified the problems facing COP21 as being pollution, climate change, inequality, environmental refugees, war refugees, and resource wars. He urged the COP delegates to listen to the voices of millions telling them it is possible to reduce emissions, to slow the rate of temperature change, and to protect large parts of the environment of this planet, and to do what they had been sent there to do on our behalf. He called for government policies on sustainable transport, on support to encourage rather than close down our solar industry, on creating jobs in a growing sustainable economy. Finishing briefly, he summed up that we need to sustain and protect our planet and our environment, and he reminded us that “we are the very very many and they are the very very few”.
The speeches ended with Caroline Lucas from the Green Party. She said that “to change everything, we need everyone”, and that with similar huge protests in major cities around the world we were showing we were far ahead of the governments and private corporations who try to block us, because we are more powerful than they can imagine. She warned that any announcements from Paris would not be enough and we are facing a future of drought, desertification and disease arising from 4 degrees warming and more. She called for people to take their futures in their own hands rather than leaving it up to the elite in their secure zone in Paris, and called for non-violent direct action wherever necessary.
She also called for huge investment in green jobs, for a serious debate about aviation (not a choice between Heathrow or Gatwick expansion, as neither must be permitted), and a close look at agriculture, with meat production causing more emissions than cars, boats, trains and planes put together. She gave a special shout to the divestment campaign, noting that we have to leave 80% of known oil reserves in the ground. David Cameron’s drawback of solar subsidies, slashing of zero-carbon homes, and his new dash for gas with fracking, all decry his usefulness at COP.
She ended with Arundhati Roy’s quote, “Another world is not only possible – she is on her way” and looking out across the huge crowd, Caroline said she could see that world right now, and that while Paris 2015 will be remembered for the awful terrorist attack, she hoped it will also be remembered for the start of real change as our force together will be irresistible.
With that, the march set off, led by a group of Sami people and indigenous people from the global south representing the “Wretched of the Earth”.
As tens of thousands flooded into Piccadilly, the front banner read “STILL FIGHTING CO2ONIALISM – YOUR CLIMATE PROFITS KILL”.
From the number of police focussed around this front group, and the Police Liaison Officers abandoning any pretence that they were anything other than forward intelligence units, it was clear something was afoot, and indeed, suddenly in Pall Mall, an unauthorised sit-down was dramatically staged outside BP’s offices there. 2nd DECEMBER UPDATE – there’s a back story here which I wasn’t fully aware of. Read this guest piece in New Internationalist from the point of view of ‘the Wretched of the Earth’, and the struggle they had with NGOs over the message of the march.
Mindful of the huge crowd behind, organisers of the sit-down announced it would be over in a few minutes, and it passed without further incident but provided some different shots for the press.
For the first time on a climate march, and apparently not without disagreement among the NGOs, private security personnel were hired to assist. One of their team leaders, from Apollo Events, continually hassled members of the press, and also refused to display his SIA identification, even when challenged. This is a criminal offence he didn’t seem to be aware of. It doesn’t really make organisations like Avaaz look very good when donations get used to pay for such behaviour, and perhaps they should reflect on this.
That aside, the march snaked down through Whitehall to finish at a stage set up in front of Old Palace Yard. I continued to watch the relentless flood of banners, animal heads, dancers, and drummers arriving over the next hour, vaguely aware of a string of celebs performing on that stage.
Meanwhile in Paris, people defied the ‘state of emergency’ ban on protests, and linked arms in their thousands after leaving shoes on the ground in the Place de la Republique, and although entirely peaceful and very poignant at first, later the authorities moved in and provoked the situation resulting in the use of tear gas, sound weapons, batons, some fighting and more than 200 arrests.
Despite the expected largest turn-out in Paris being scuppered by arbitrary repression, with the other events around the world there are estimates of more than three quarters of a million people standing up for climate justice and calling for real action.