This post by Shirley Fiske is part a series from the members of the AAA delegation at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany.
The conference itself exuded “green” energy everywhere, from the paperless philosophy to transportation. To connect those delegates or exhibitors who had to get from one zone to another, there were public buses all proudly proclaiming to run on clean energy. There were e-cars, locally- driven, hydrogen cars — no emissions, no exhaust, and the driver engaged with me. The icing on the cake was that you could use free bikes to get around by downloading an app and unlocking them. Recycling bins were everywhere. There was an impressively green energy veneer, at least around the UNFCCC zones.
In downtown Bonn, the train (underground), as well as the trams and buses above ground, and even the underpasses all showed signs of coal and fossil fuel combustion. Sooted tunnel walls with extensive graffiti attested to an industrial base, pointing to the continued use of coal-based fuels. Away from the UN conference however, the contrast with the clean, green energy projected image of the COP-23 campus was stark.
Not far outside the UNFCCC conference center, evidence of alternative voices and alternative realities was apparent – a German activist with protest poster, proclaiming “Germany’s dirty secret.”
The poster showed the open-pit lignite coal mine in nearby Immerath, ready to gobble up that small traditional German town, not far from Bonn. The mine was temporarily closed by environmental groups protesting only the week before. The photo of the military police chasing after the activists reached the front page of the Washington Post. The protester was jubilant (“we closed the mine, we closed the mine”) and went on to say that although Chancellor Angela Merkel always supported the expansion of coal, they had at least brought her to the table as she was forming a new coalition government. He was adamant COP 23 would turn the future away from open pit coal mines in Germany.
As though orchestrated in parallel with the German protest, on Saturday, inside the COP-23 Zones, a new EU-based movement was launched to go beyond coal with partnership between the Europe Foundation and Bloomberg Foundation, partnering with Sierra Club and others. It was launched simultaneously with the unveiling of the America’s Pledge movement in the Climate Action Dome. Germany, whose leadership in the climate change mitigation, clearly has some rough edges that were exposed at the UNFCCC COP-23. Just prior to the meeting, HSBC, the giant banking and finance corporation in Germany, pledged on the first day of the conference that they would contribute $100B USD to “support the transition to low carbon economy and sustainable growth.” They will discontinue financing of new coal fired power plants – a rather passive action but welcomed nonetheless with some silence by the delegates and principals. Anti-coal activism in the US and Europe is slowly growing.
Shirley J. Fiske is an environmental anthropologist at the University of Maryland. She recently chaired the AAA’s task force on Global Climate Change, and has written extensively on anthropology and climate change.