From the Colorado Plateau to COP22

by Brooke Larsen

Five SustainUS Delegation who participated in the 2016 Uplift Climate Conference including (right to left) Remy Franklin, myself, an organizer of Uplift, Kayla DeVault, Morgan Curtis, and Daniel Jubelirer.

Five SustainUS Delegation who participated in the 2016 Uplift Climate Conference including (right to left) Remy Franklin, myself, an organizer of Uplift, Kayla DeVault, Morgan Curtis, and Daniel Jubelirer.

It’s been three months since Uplift’s powerful gathering of young climate justice activists from across the Colorado Plateau. Five of us who dreamed, schemed, and learned at Uplift now find ourselves bringing heart to COP22—the UN Climate Change Conference in Marrakech, Morocco. 

    When Kayla reflects on Uplift, she feels that Uplift “strives to incorporate the local voice and have difficult conversations connecting social issues to the environment.” The SustainUS delegation has tried to bring a similar approach to COP22, focusing on learning about the struggles of frontline communities in Morocco. 

Local Moroccan activists are highlighting the ways the Moroccan regime are using COP22 to greenwash their crimes. Photo by Remy Franklin. 

Local Moroccan activists are highlighting the ways the Moroccan regime are using COP22 to greenwash their crimes. Photo by Remy Franklin. 

Across Morocco there are parallel stories to the American West. When listening to local activists talk about drought conditions and the creation of national sacrifice zones, I can’t help but think of the looming megadrought in the American Southwest and the communities experiencing destructive extraction.—from Black Mesa to tar sands in Utah

Some delegates had the chance to venture outside of Marrakech to witness the environmental injustices happening on the ground in Morocco. Daniel and Kayla spent one of their first days in Morocco at a “Systems Change Not Climate Change” conference in Safi, a town a couple hours away from Marrakech experiencing environmental and cultural destruction from a phosphate mine. OCP, the phosphate company, is one of the sponsors of COP22. Niria Alicia, a SustainUS delegate from Oregon, connected Safi to global water struggles (read her powerful blog here).

Toxic waste spilling out into the ocean near Safi. Photo by Niria Alicia. 

Toxic waste spilling out into the ocean near Safi. Photo by Niria Alicia. 

The greenwashing of COP by the Moroccan regime is clear. 

Kayla spent three days at Imider, an indigenous Amazigh community 300km south of Marrakech. For three decades, the villagers have faced exploitation, and most recently they’re fighting against the largest silver mine in Africa. In 2011, the community closed off a key valve delivering water to the Imider mine and have been occupying the area ever since. Kayla reflected on the clear connections between the struggle at Imider and the struggle in Standing Rock. We need global solidarity.

Kayla (Anishinaabe/Shawnee) meets with the Ait Atta tribe at the mider protest camp. Photo by Nadir Bouhmouch. 

Kayla (Anishinaabe/Shawnee) meets with the Ait Atta tribe at the mider protest camp. Photo by Nadir Bouhmouch. 

It can be hard to feel a sense of place at COP22. What is the role of personal story and community struggles in an international space? A protester from Imider spoke to this question at a press conference organized by REDACOP, the democratic alternative to COP. He said one of the best ways to stand in solidarity with the people at Imider is to work on the struggles in your home community. 

We make sense of our experiences here by comparing them to the stories we know. Our thoughts lingered back home, most strongly in the aftermath of the election. When I think of returning home, I remember what brought me to this movement: the red rock. I feel the red earth bleeding. My home state of Utah has been a national sacrifice zone for decades—from nuclear weapons testing to fossil fuel extraction. But the potential loss feels magnified. How many more cuts will the new Republican regime create?

With Trump threatening to pull out of the Paris Agreement, the future of the U.S. in the UNFCCC is uncertain. Even if the U.S. stays in the Paris Agreement, it’s almost certain we can expect little to no climate action from the federal government. Thus, youth at COP22 are focusing on the power of people. At our post-election action, we unveiled a “People’s To-Do List” to turn the focus to the power of our movement, rather than the power of Trump. 

In the wake of the U.S. election, SustainUS organized an action with youth from around the world to grieve and denounce a Trump presidency. They unveiled a “People’s To-Do List” emphasizing the critical role of people power over the next four years. Photo by David Tong. 

In the wake of the U.S. election, SustainUS organized an action with youth from around the world to grieve and denounce a Trump presidency. They unveiled a “People’s To-Do List” emphasizing the critical role of people power over the next four years. Photo by David Tong. 

When I think of the power of our movement, Uplift is on the front of my mind. Now more than ever we must build on the momentum from the Uplift Conference to form active networks that will support one another year-round. We must support one another to resist fossil fuel development, share knowledge and experiences for community-driven, decentralized renewable energy, and celebrate one another and our wild home through art, music, and story. To stand in solidarity with our global allies, we must fulfill our commitments to climate justice by acting in our local communities. 

The true value we’re gaining from COP is in the relationships we’re building and shared knowledge we’ll take back to our home communities. For example, Remy found connections to his work back home in Tucson, Arizona during a high-level evening event called “100% Renewable Energy for 1.5C.” Remy’s research focuses on a just transition. “Almost everyone in Tucson has access to incredibly reliable, relatively affordable electricity,” he says. “This doesn’t mean energy poverty isn’t a problem in Arizona (many struggle to pay their utility bills and there are thousands of un-electrified homes on the Navajo Nation) but in cities, at least, the U.S. specializes in reliable electricity supply. This isn’t the case for many parts of the world.” The question of the hour is, how can we leverage this relative privilege?

Attending COP22 and building community with the SustainUS delegation helps forge the relationships needed for national and global solidarity. By learning from one another, we will create more resilient communities. Just like people left Uplift with relationships, story, and skills to bring back to their homes, the SustainUS delegates will leave COP22 empowered to organize.

    In the wake of an election that laid bare continued injustice at home and our questions about the efficacy of international climate negotiations, I can’t help but think about the struggles in the Southwest. I feel more committed than ever to work on climate justice at a local level.