From regional to international, Uplifters battle for climate justice

By: Eva Malis

On Sunday November 5th, thousands dawned white jumpsuits and marched towards the last coal mine in Bonn, Germany, occupying it for the full day and shutting down operations completely. This beautifully executed civil uprising, called Ende Gelände (which means “Here and no further” in German), was one of the largest demonstrations of its kind. I had the opportunity to march alongside German activists with other Uplifters and reflect in awe about the scale of people power and potential for saving our climate through mass uprising.

COP22 and COP23 delegates with SustainUS gather for a photo at Uplift 2017.

COP22 and COP23 delegates with SustainUS gather for a photo at Uplift 2017.

The following day, thousands more from all over the world gathered just a few miles away for the first day of the annual UN Climate Negotiations aka COP23. The energy, however, was completely different. The main function of COP23 is for the world’s political leaders to gather and negotiate commitments to climate change mitigation at the global scale. It was from this process that the Paris Agreement was birthed—the only standing international agreement for countries to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change. COP23 attracts politicians, bureaucrats, the nonprofit industrial complex, in addition to activists from all over the world. Compared to Ende Gelände, the narrative of people power and resistance felt lost in the bureaucracy.

Five Uplifters attended the negotiations, bringing the stories of fossil fuel resistance in our region to the international stage. Most of us were a part of the SustainUS delegation—a group of 15 US youth organizers that attended the negotiations to demand climate justice through direct action and storytelling. Together with our delegation and other partners, we pushed the narrative of climate justice through a series of creative actions.

On the morning of November 11, we stood up to false solutions and fake climate leadership. California governor Jerry Brown was honored for being a so-called “climate leader” at the America’s Pledge Launch Event, where Walmart was also being honored as a “climate leader”. Ironically, members of our delegation along with many of our partners and friends from frontline communities have been calling on Brown to be a real climate leader for years. His blatant refusal to ban fracking, close the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility, and protect frontline communities makes us wonder that if supporting fossil fuels makes one a climate leader, will we ever truly meet the urgent needs of our communities and avoid climate disaster? We brought this question to Brown with our comrades from It Takes Roots, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and Center for Biological Diversity, chanting “Still In for What?” and “No sacrifice zones!”. The media took our story and ran with it, allowing us to amplify across the globe our message of challenging false climate leadership. Our messaging against sacrifice zones made my heart throb in its connection to our region, the Colorado Plateau, and it was empowering to connect our similar struggles in intersectional resistance.

Two days later, we mobilized over 200 people to participate in a mass noncooperation against the White House’s ties to the fossil fuel industry. The White House put on a panel promoting fossil fuels, titled “The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation”. We filled the room with people from all walks of life and all over the globe, and interrupted the panel with a song of resistance.

                “So you claim to be an American?

                But we see right through your greed.

                It’s killing all across the world,

                For that coal money.

                And we’ll proudly stand up,

                Until you Keep It In the Ground.

                We the people of the world unite,

                And we are here to stay.”

The SustainUS delegation poses for a photo after organizing a mass walk out of the White House fossil fuel panel. 

The SustainUS delegation poses for a photo after organizing a mass walk out of the White House fossil fuel panel. 

To the tune of ‘God Bless the USA’, the international community stood united against the US administration in their commitment to moving forward without fossil fuels. We threw the values of American patriotism into their faces and drew a clear line between corporate greed and everyday people. Then, we walked out of the panel and held a rally outside, leaving a completely empty room for them to talk to themselves. Apparently moved, one of the panelists from an energy company began to cry after the panel.

Our action went viral overnight. We were on the front page of the New York Times, and Democracy Now did a forty-minute documentary on our action. More importantly, our action set an example of resistance to the White House through a dignified, relatable tone. It showed the power of song to connect and disrupt and deliver a message.

One of our delegation’s priorities at COP was to use this platform to build the youth movement at home and spark a connection between international and local movements.

“I came to COP23 to represent the interests of youth from Colorado who are actively fighting fracking,” says Michaela Mujica-Steiner, a Colorado fractivist who presented a workshop at Uplift 2017. “Our local action to stop oil and gas infrastructure in the Southwest has global implications.” Maia Wikler, organizer of Uplift 2016 and COP23 delegate, states, “The Southwest is especially vulnerable to fossil fuel extraction and development despite the numerous protected public lands and indigenous nations that have called the southwest home since time immemorial.” She continues, “If our country continues to shamefully isolate itself on a global scale by refusing to engage in climate action commitments, we will continue to see the negative consequences of this relentless corporate agenda on the Colorado Plateau.”

In the Colorado Plateau, we face some of the most concentrated and harmful fossil fuel infrastructure. In the international activist community, we met people from the opposite side of the globe that face such similar struggles to our own. Witnessing the urgency and commitment of the organizers of Ende Gelände revealed the potential of our own local movements for climate justice. Sharing stories of resistance, the cross-pollination between our movements is the kindling many of us needed to bring a renewed fire to our local resistance.

Thousands of activists march to the last coal mine in Germany before occupying it and shutting down operations for a full day.

Thousands of activists march to the last coal mine in Germany before occupying it and shutting down operations for a full day.