How this Alaskan's resolve to act on climate change deepened in Paris

Ten days after I arrived in Paris for the world climate summit, a Brit named Guy gave me a secret invitation to a protest. He told me there would be arrests at the Louvre, France's famous museum.

"Bring a black umbrella," he said. "But if you don't want to be hassled, just show up looking like a tourist, not as press; they've been arresting reporters."

I wanted to check out the action despite the possibility of winding up in a Paris jail cell. It might be a good idea to bring my passport. But no umbrella.

Someone whispered to me a day earlier about a plan to pour molasses on the floor of the museum and, having missed out on a few previous protests in Paris, I hoped to pop by for a few photos.

There had been many protests so far: a raucous group interrupted a business trade show decrying "greenwashing," the term for companies covering up their pollution record by promoting themselves as environmentally responsible. Protesters had also been dragged out of the "Blue Zone" where negotiations were being held. A group of indigenous activists floated down the Seine in kayaks.

Small groups were staging protests everywhere. Strolling through the "Green Zone," a public trade show for nonprofit groups, I turned a corner and there was a silent protest with people holding signs.

How effective were these actions, I wondered? But, more importantly, how can we avert runaway climate change when our economic system is based on fossil fuel consumption? How can we possibly create comprehensive, system change?


And what would be my role in Paris as a lowly school teacher?

I bought a ticket to Paris a year ago. Though skeptical at first, the more I learned, the more I worried about the future: rising temperatures, rising sea levels, shrinking ice sheets, ocean acidification and dozens more indicators. Each time I read the paper, rates were accelerated beyond previous scientific models.

To keep global average warming within a 2-degree Celsius limit imposed in Copenhagen, fossil fuel companies will have to leave four-fifths of our coal and oil in the ground.

Meanwhile, too many of my high school students were graduating knowing next to nothing about the problem they are inheriting. It's an omission in education that, given the science, is criminal.

And it seemed like people mostly did not care too much about these worrisome trends. Some people, including many Alaska policymakers, even denied the science.

I had to go to Paris. I considered what I might think of myself in 35 years. Would I wonder, "Did I do enough?"

With a background in activism, I had some ideas of my own for direct action. When I told a friend I was half-thinking about donning a polar bear costume and going on a "hunger strike" beneath the Arc de Triomphe, he scoffed. "A fast in Paris? The country known for its food?"

A few weeks before I left for the summit, Paris was shaken by terror attacks. The stakes grew higher for me and for the conference. I left the polar bear suit behind.

It was rainy and cold when I arrived. I speak no French beyond the basics and had trouble initially finding my lodging -- the aptly named Place 2 B, a 600-bed hostel temporarily converted to a center for journalists, activists, artists, hackers, and anyone else following the COP (Conference of Parties) negotiations in Paris and wanting a piece of the action.

What was I doing here? Was I just another reporter, a hanger-on at protests, a sideline pundit on negotiations with my own laptop glowing in my face?

My answer came within days. Just outside Place 2 B, a large reception room for the hostel had been converted for a "Creative Factory." A crew of PR gurus from a UK group called "Forever Swarm" had designed workshops on various themes. The format was repeated during each two-day session: talks from authors, designers and thinkers, followed by group work. It was here where I would spend most of time.

In the course of two weeks, international teams created projects to begin to change the narrative around climate change, to recognize system change, to spark collective reflection on our day-to-day lives using imaginative public relations -- art meets politics. It was also in the Creative Factory where I met what would become a fellowship of friends whose interests -- education, art, organizing, writing and photography -- were similar to my own. After two weeks, our Creative Factory community had conceived, designed and initiated 12 project proposals, from an urban garden project to a campaign to foster collaboration in economically disadvantaged communities.

I sat a table with a Brit, two women from France, an Italian, a German, an Aussie and a guy from the Solomon Islands creating media plans and presentation proposals.

I felt the relationships we were building were a microcosm of the COP negotiations. By Saturday, negotiators had collaborated to come up with promises to cut carbon emissions, while our small teams had created projects to help steer society toward system change.

As it turned out, a dozen protesters were arrested at the Louvre. I took photos of 50 people holding black umbrellas and parading around the museum's courtyard and, later, went inside to inspect a pool of diluted molasses. It looked like an art exhibit.

I snapped a couple photos and quickly got back to the Creative Factory. The climate isn't getting any cooler, I thought, and I've got work to do.

Sören Wuerth is a high school teacher in Anchorage. He maintains a blog about climate change at glacierwatch.wordpress.com. The views he expresses above are his alone and do not represent those of the Anchorage School District.

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