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Finding Peace in the Fight Against Climate Change

Rising temperatures lead to rising unrest among those struggling for a better tomorrow.

Image via Twitter user OutAboutInParis

Amidst the votive candles and white roses dotting neighborhood bistros, the gate of the French embassy, the Place de la République, and wherever Parisians publicly mourn for the victims of last month’s terror attacks, one can’t help but notice the growing presence of rainbow flags. In the United States, it’s a symbol indicating support for LGTBQ rights. Here in Europe, the flag also means peace.


Peace. Paix. It’s a message that speaks to the hearts of mourners, world leaders, and climate activists alike. Leading up to the climate conference, there was justifiable concern that fear and tragedy would eclipse any attempt at climate negotiations in the same city where terrorists so recently took more than a hundred lives. Instead, climate activists and world leaders alike have managed to link the fight against climate chaos to the global struggle for peace.

Image via Twitter user @Agent350

On that first terrible night of the Paris attacks, Jamie Henn, communications director for 350.org, tweeted his concern for the people of Paris with a reminder that “ultimately, this movement is also a prayer for peace.” And at the launch of the climate summit one week ago today, French President Hollande announced to the global plenary, “Essentially, what is at stake with this climate conference is peace.”

It’s a hopeful sentiment in these dark times—and it’s gaining traction. Last month, Naomi Klein co-penned a piece in the New Yorker titled “Why a Climate Deal Is the Best Hope for Peace.” There, she highlighted the “now uncontroversial” connections between rising temperatures and rising unrest. Syria’s four-year record drought—in combination with the ravaging effects of the Iraq War (a war “inextricable from the West’s thirst for oil”)—had created “fertile ground” for religious extremists, wrote Klein.

Since arriving in Paris, she has further unpacked her analysis, telling Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman days ago, “We have to expand our definition of security to put climate action at the very center of that—because there is no possibility for human security in a world that is headed towards 3 degrees Celsius warming, and that is what these governments are bringing to the table.”

Here in Paris, I met with the artist Mona Caron, who developed a poster making very similar connections. Her art is not an image of peace. Instead, it’s a call to arms. The poster displays an oil derrick on top of planet Earth, gushing out drones and tanks on one side, and Kalashnikovs and grenades on the other—all the while radiating heat and destruction over the whole planet.

Says Caron, “The impacts of oil are just so bad and so big that we don’t even know how to speak to it or address it.” Photo: Joe Solomon

Caron’s poster was screen-printed by the hundreds and was the most common sign at the beautiful Human Chain event that took place on the streets of Paris on the eve of the summit. The near-ubiquitous image had a humble start in Caron’s doodles soon after the attacks. “After the terror attacks, obviously I paused,” she says. “I was like, ‘Fuck, what are we going to do?’ Definitely, I understand the mourning, and I understand wanting to have silence as part of the mourning. I understood all those things. And at the same time, I couldn’t help think about how all these things are related.”

Image via Twitter user @amisdelaterre

Caron speaks about “the cascading oil wars that Bush started” and “how terrorism and these wars engender each other.” She told me the Paris attacks are a wake-up call: “We are not at peace.” Heat, oil, terror—all these things are bound up in whether we humans will ever be able to move past our dependence on fossil fuels. In essence, says Caron, we will never have peace without a powerful climate deal.

Yet even peace doesn’t come without its drawbacks. Over the weekend, I connected with Tim DeChristopher, a U.S. climate activist who has been urging his peers to push the limits of the “state of emergency” ban on protests ordered by the president of France. He points out that COP21 isn’t a peace summit, which “happens at the conclusion of a war, generally when one or more sides is conceding to some significant extent.” Instead, our war against fossil fuels is just starting to be waged.

“Of course, it’s true that a more peaceful world cannot be achieved without containing climate change as much as possible,” he says. “But that road to peace involves fighting a war against the richest, most powerful, and most ruthless industry in the world, a war which has barely begun.”

DeChristopher fears the terror of the fossil fuel indsutry. “The truth is that if a serious agreement were to somehow come out of Paris, the fossil fuel industry would begin to fight more powerfully and ruthlessly than any terrorists we’ve ever seen… The best outcome of Paris would be not a peace agreement, but a declaration of war against the continued burning of fossil fuels.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons user

Peace. War. It’s hard to escape these kinds of metaphors in times of crisis. And strangely, we don’t really have a model for uniting as a planet outside of war. Monday’s “family photo” of more than 150 world leaders is completely unprecedented. We’re in brand new terrain here. Yet a bold-enough Paris climate pact would represent the strongest peace treaty the planet has ever seen, and it would represent the start of a true war against the Exxons of the world, who will certainly not go down without a fight.

In other words, Paris will not represent a sunset on the fight for a livable future. Even if a bold agreement is secured, the struggle ahead will be fierce and sometimes ugly. But just like Paris, it will often be beautiful, too.

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