The deadly terrorist attacks earlier this month have cast their shadow on the climate summit in Paris. Indigenous activists marked the day before the climate summit kicked off with a moment of healing outside the Bataclan Theater, where 89 people lost their lives last month. Dallas Goldtooth, an environmental activist from the Indigenous Environmental Network, says that native people have something unique to offer during tragic times like these.

“As indigenous people, we are well aware of tragedy,” Goldtooth says. “It’s a part of our experience and so we want to acknowledge that moment in this space right here and bring our positive energy and a path forward of sorts.”

The attacks prompted the French government to prohibit all major protests during the UN summit—a decision some climate activists thought was wrong.

“I think the state of France is making a huge error in cancelling the marches,” says Cindy Weisner of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance. “We see the hypocrisy of them allowing Christmas markets to continue, allowing the football matches to continue. And I think the response that would have honored the people that were killed, and the proper way to mourn folks, is to be able to say, we’re not afraid, we’re here.”

LISTEN: “Activists at the UN Climate Talks”

With the major climate justice march in Paris cancelled, activists turned to symbolic protest. They placed thousands of shoes, including a pair from Pope Francis, in the center of the Place de la République to show the breadth of support for strong action on climate change and a commitment to human rights. And nearly 5,000 protesters defied the ban altogether, forming a human chain that stretched through the city along the planned march route—the two-mile length of Boulevard Voltaire. Activists from all over the world linked arms, including many young people.

“In Zimbabwe, we’ve experience floods and droughts, which are affecting our agriculture, which used to be our breadbasket,” says Wadzanai Mudzongo of Zimbabwe. “So it’s leading to hunger and poverty.”

Wadzanai says she was disappointed that the march was canceled, but she’s happy to see so many people in the streets today.

“It’s quite a good feeling because we are out here in solidarity together. People from around the world, from Africa, from Europe. And we are all here to push one agenda. One goal.”

That goal, she says, is fighting to end climate change and to have climate justice.

There was a lot of energy on the streets of Paris, but not much excitement about what’s going on inside the negotiating rooms at the UN summit. Among the groups forming the chain was the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network. Osprey Orielle Lake is executive director, and she says she’s glad that countries are beginning to take climate change seriously but that the national commitments on the table in Paris don’t go nearly far enough.

“Our scientists are telling us 80 percent of fossil fuel reserves have to stay in the ground,” Lake says. “That’s not on the table in the agreement. We know we need to stay at 1.5 degrees of warming of global temperatures. That’s not on the table. The commitments so far don’t even get near that threshold.”

And that’s a life and death concern for many indigenous people on the frontlines of climate change.

“The effects of climate are felt most acutely in the Arctic,” says Allison Akootchook Warden. She’s an artist, activist and member of the Iñupiaq tribe in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska. “We are the ones who pay the price most severely and see the changes the most.”

The peaceful protest took a turn as hundreds of police in riot gear surrounded a group of more confrontational, anti-capitalist protesters in the Place de la République. Police fired tear gas canisters into the crowd. Reports have differed about what sparked the change. Photo: Duc Truong via Flickr

The peaceful protest took a turn as hundreds of police in riot gear surrounded a group of more confrontational, anti-capitalist protesters in the Place de la République. Police fired tear gas canisters into the crowd. Reports have differed about what sparked the change. Photo: Duc Truong via Flickr

Warden says that to protect the most vulnerable people, negotiators need to ensure that a lot of the world’s fossil fuel reserves never get burned.

“We are in an awkward time in the state of humanity, but also a very exciting one. The fossil fuel era is not sustainable. And I’m saying that as a person who sits on land that has supposedly millions of barrels of oil under our land. But I want to keep it in the ground because we cannot afford to burn that carbon.”

Cindy Weisner of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance has been following the climate negotiations for the past 21 years with frustration, not only with the lack of a meaningful deal, but with the type of solutions that are on the table.

“I think that if we’re really looking at resolving the issue of the climate crisis, it’s not going to be based on the issue of carbon markets. It has to be really radical in terms of real commitments to reducing mandatory emissions,” Weisner says. “It’s about keeping oil in the soil. It’s about a transition that’s going to prioritize people directly impacted, and so those are the kinds of things we’re putting forward.”

Many of the climate activists in the streets of Paris want enforceable commitments on emissions reductions, and they don’t want carbon trading schemes. But Ananda Lee Tan of the Climate Justice Alliance says that’s unlikely because the people at the negotiating table are beholden to powerful corporate and national interests.

“What I would call the pollution profiteers are at the table, and the voices who are really demanding systems change rather than climate change are out here in the streets,” Tan says.

Tan says that if we really want to solve the climate crisis we need to make our entire economy and energy system truly local.

“Rather than turning to big ag, we should be turning to small farmers. Rather than turning to landfill and incinerator companies, we should be turning to local recyclers and waste workers. Rather than turning to massive utilities, we should be looking at community-based energy and localized energy solutions.”

“It’s quite a good feeling because we are out here in solidarity together. People from around the world, from Africa, from Europe. And we are all here to push one agenda. One goal.”

And Cindy Weisner agrees that if we want to solve a problem as big as the climate crisis, we need a just transition—not only from fossil fuels to renewable energy, but from corporate power to people power.

“A just transition really begins to build local living economies in communities, where we can begin to talk about energy democracy, zero waste—different solutions that are actually going to cool the planet,” Weisner says.

The peaceful protest took a turn as hundreds of police in riot gear surrounded a group of more confrontational, anti-capitalist protesters in the Place de la République.

Police fired tear gas canisters into the crowd, and soon the square was filled with a noxious haze. Reports have differed about what sparked the change, but a climate activist who would only give her first name, Sheila, says the police response was unwarranted.

“It was a march—it was a peaceful march that was going to happen today,” she says. “People marching for the climate, for the earth, for humanity. These are not bad reasons to march. This is not about people wanting to fight. This is about people wanting to love and to love this space that we live in.”

After the terrorist attacks, the French police used state of emergency laws to put several climate activists under house arrest, and Sheila says it’s all part of an effort to quash opposition to the conference.

“It’s not about safety. It’s about not allowing people to stand up for what they believe in and to speak out against the COP21,” she says.

In order to keep global warming beneath two degrees Celsius, Sheila says we need to fundamentally change the economic system, but that’s not a message that authorities in Paris want to hear.

“The French government wants this agreement to be the agreement that saved the world. They don’t want the voice of dissent marring that picture. They don’t want people speaking out against that.”

The climate justice movement has found ways to make itself heard during the opening week of COP21, and it isn’t about to stop now.

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This story is provided by our content partner Living on Earth, a weekly environmental news and information program distributed by Public Radio International.