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We Are Mother Earth’s Red Line: Frontline Communities Lead the Climate Justice Fight Beyond the Paris Agreement

By staff - It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm - January 2016

The Paris Climate Agreement of December 2015 is a dangerous distraction that threatens all of us. Marked by the heavy influence of the fossil fuel industry, the deal reached at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) never mentions the need to curb extractive energy, and sets goals far below those needed to avert a global catastrophe. The agreement signed by 196 countries does acknowledge the global urgency of the climate crisis, and reflects the strength of the climate movement. But the accord ignores the roots of the crisis, and the very people who have the experience and determination to solve it.

Around the world, negotiators use the term “red line” to signify a figurative point of no return or a limit past which safety can no longer be guaranteed. Our communities, whose very survival is most directly impacted by climate change, have become a living red line. We have been facing the reality of the climate crisis for decades. Our air and water are being poisoned by fossil fuel extraction, our livelihoods are threatened by floods and drought, our communities are the hardest hit and the least protected in extreme weather events—and our demands for our survival and for the rights of future generations are pushing local, national, and global leaders towards real solutions to the climate crisis.

We brought these demands to the UNFCCC 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) as members of the delegation called “It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm.” Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ), the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), and the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA) organized the delegation, which included leaders and organizers from more than 100 US and Canadian grassroots and Indigenous groups. We helped to mobilize the thousands of people who took to the streets of Paris during the COP21, despite a ban on public protest—and amplified the pressure that Indigenous Peoples, civil society, and grassroots movements have built throughout the 21 years of UN climate talks.

The Paris Agreement coming out of the COP21 allows emissions from fossil fuels to continue at levels that endanger life on the planet, demonstrating just how strongly world leaders are tied to the fossil fuel industry and policies of economic globalization. The emphasis within the UNFCCC process on the strategies of carbon markets consisting of offsets and pollution trading created an atmosphere within the COP21 of business more than regulation. The result is a Paris Agreement that lets developed countries continue to emit dangerously high levels of greenhouse gasses; relies on imaginary technofixes and pollution cap-and-trade schemes that allow big polluters to continue polluting at the source, and results in land grabs and violations of human rights and the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Our analysis of the Paris Agreement echoes critiques from social movements around the world, led by those most impacted by both climate disruption and the false promises that governments and corporate interests promote in its wake.

“Frontline communities” are the peoples living directly alongside fossil-fuel pollution and extraction—overwhelmingly Indigenous Peoples, Black, Latino, Asian and Pacific Islander peoples in working class, poor, and peasant communities in the US and around the world. In climate disruption and extreme weather events, we are hit first and worst.

We are Mother Earth’s red line. We don’t have the luxury of settling for industry or politicians’ hype or half measures. We know it takes roots to weather the storm and that’s why we are building a people’s climate movement rooted in our communities. We are the frontlines of the solution: keeping fossil fuels in the ground and transforming the economy with innovative, community-led solutions.

From the popular movements in Bolivia that defeated the privatization of water, to the grassroots movements that secured El Salvador’s historic mining ban to defend their nation’s water rights, to the Peruvian communities that halted a multinational gold and copper mine, public pressure and direct action by frontline communities has been the most successful strategy to confront the extractive industries. North American Indigenous Peoples played a key leadership in aligning a broad front including, local ranchers, and other key allies to achieve one of the most important recent climate victories: securing President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline. Indigenous Peoples continue to advance the critical fight against tar sands extraction.

In Paris, and before that in the massive 2014 People’s Climate March, frontline communities helped build huge popular outpourings demanding climate action. In these efforts, frontline leadership from Grassroots Global Justice, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Climate Justice Alliance played a key role in aligning the broader forces in the climate movement. We recognize that the urgency of the moment makes broad cooperation a strategic necessity—and that climate justice must be central to the work. When applying a social and racial justice frame in the climate movement, with the active participation and leadership of frontline impacted communities, we call this climate justice.

More than 100 leaders and organizers from US and Canadian grassroots and Indigenous communities formed the historic It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm delegation to Paris for the UNFCCC COP21 and parallel social movement actions. Our multi-racial, inter-generational group represented 35 organizations leading struggles against extraction from Jackson, Mississippi to the mountains of Kentucky and the outer cities of Southeast Los Angeles and Richmond, California. It Takes Roots delegates are leaders from communities living directly alongside fracking wells, oil refineries, coal mines, tar sands and waste incinerators.

In the months leading up to the Paris negotiations, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance led a process to align the joint It Takes Roots delegation and our membership organizations around a set of core demands that spoke to the local conditions our delegates were facing. Through weekly intensives we studied the core elements of the draft agreement and the implications for frontline communities. We developed teams to prepare our direct action strategy, communications plans, logistics and security, and inside strategy, prioritizing our key points of intervention. In Paris these teams continued, with little rest and long days of high-impact actions, panels, workshops, media events, and art and chant preparation. In addition to our internal delegation coordination, several It Takes Roots delegates also played leadership roles in within the broad movement, including the international facilitation body of the Coalition Climat 21 (CC21), and other global climate justice alliances.

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