Civil society groups removed from COP25 for protesting 'sleepwalking' negotiations

Climate activists during the U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP25, in Madrid, Spain. Photo by: REUTERS / Susana Vera

MADRID — It could either be irony or a sign of the times that a climate conference relocated from Chile to Spain because of protests saw civil society groups ejected by police and then barred from the COP25 venue on Wednesday.

It began when a few hundred protesters gathered outside the main plenary hall to protest what they viewed as a major disconnect between a climate emergency and the willingness of negotiators to take meaningful action. Some civil society representatives said they made a conscious decision to risk ejection from the premises because they could no longer lend their tacit endorsement to a process that appears poised to “sleepwalk us all off a cliff.”

“We really had to remark on the fact that this process is sleepwalking.”

— Teresa Anderson, climate policy coordinator, ActionAid International

The protest was meant to show solidarity with those ongoing in Chile, where COP25 was scheduled to take place before it was moved to Madrid due to social unrest. Civil society representatives inside the venue chanted and banged silverware and bottles together in homage to the “cacerolazo” protests that Chilean protesters have staged in opposition to economic inequality and privatization.

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Security personnel moved in quickly.

“The security, they just corralled us, they pushed us. It was quite scary at times. They forced us out into a courtyard area — outside like a parking area — and then shut the doors behind us, so we were all corralled outside, hundreds of us. And then gradually they pushed us out of the entire place, and then Spanish military police took over,” said Teresa Anderson, climate policy coordinator for ActionAid International.

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Protesters were barred from reentering the venue and were not given any information about whether they would be allowed back in for the remainder of the conference, which is scheduled to end on Friday.

“It’s critical that we have the people that are on the front lines able to engage in these negotiations, and able to be a part of these negotiations, and to feel that they can help to inform these negotiations,” said Cassie Flynn, strategic adviser on climate change at the United Nations Development Programme.

Since security personnel did not scan the attendee badges of those removed from the building as they do when conference participants leave through the official entry points, they now have a record of who was removed, said Dharini Parthasarathy, senior communications officer at the Climate Action Network, an umbrella organization for civil society groups.

“This has never happened before in 25 years of negotiations,” civil society representatives wrote in a joint statement endorsed by 18 organizations.

For many, the removal of protesters revealed a stark divide between what is happening inside the climate conference negotiations, where country delegates continue to argue over highly technical aspects of the “rulebook” that will guide the Paris Agreement’s implementation, and what is happening around the world, with protests regularly drawing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets.

“We really had to remark on the fact that this process is sleepwalking. We know there’s a climate emergency. We’ve had cyclones. We’ve had typhoons taking place during COP. We’ve got strange weather patterns happening in parts of the world where they’re never supposed to happen. Somalia’s experiencing cyclones this week. We’ve had bushfires all over the world,” Anderson said.

Against that backdrop, with the hottest decade in recorded history about to conclude, civil society representatives accused some countries of trying to water down the Paris Agreement rules. They said some nations were falling down on commitments to provide climate finance, obstructing efforts to support countries experiencing loss and damage due to climate change, and pushing for weak rules around the creation of carbon markets, which remains one of the most contentious sticking points in the negotiations.

While these issues are important in their own right, they are also fundamental to the basic premise of the Paris Agreement.

Security personnel removed civil society representatives who protested the lack of progress at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Madrid, Spain. Photo by: Michael Igoe / Devex

Since the national plans that countries have submitted so far would set the planet on a trajectory toward more than 3 degrees Celsius of warming, which would cause extensive damage to ecosystems and climate-vulnerable places, the success of the agreement is reliant on increasing the ambition of those plans over time. The first opportunity to submit more ambitious plans comes in 2020, but doing so requires that high-income countries fulfill their commitment to provide $100 billion in public financing.

“We’re calling on developing countries … to revise and enhance their [nationally determined contributions]. But for these countries to do that, we will need to actually see the associated support provided,” said Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa.

Some delegations, including the United States’ — which, despite the Trump administration's decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, still participates in negotiations — have refused to attach specific finance plans to the issue of loss and damage.

“I think the U.N. needs to really consider what they want this process for. Is it really to protect the polluters, the business NGOs, the oil companies that are inside right now, and the countries that refuse to take action? Or do they want to protect the people that are being affected, the young people, the indigenous groups, the environmental activists that were here with us in the protest?” Anderson said while standing outside the conference venue, barred from reentering.

She added that those civil society members with access to the climate change conference felt an obligation to “environmental defenders who are putting their bodies on the line right now for climate change.”

“We’re the privileged ones on the inside,” she said.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.