As World Leaders Meet in Madrid, the Real Victims of the Climate Crisis Take the Stage

Environmental groups block traffic in attempt to influence outcome of UN summit

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People attend an Extinction Rebellion protest on Gran Via street, Madrid, Spain, December 7, 2019.
People attend an Extinction Rebellion protest on Gran Via street, Madrid, Spain, December 7, 2019.Credit: JUAN MEDINA/ REUTERS

MADRID – After a week of panels, sessions and press conferences, the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid has entered Tuesday its high-level stage, as activists increase pressure on decision-makers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Several heads of state and ministers in attendance are expected in a session, followed by discussions on concrete steps to advance the implementation of the Paris Climate Accord.

Extinction Rebellion activists blocked major traffic arteries in the Spanish capital multiple times over the past few days, but were quickly removed by police. On Monday, activists reached the IFEMA convention center near the airport where the climate summit is being held and blocked the access road. Police removed them. On Sunday, they also blocked Gran Via, one of Madrid's main streets. Extinction Rebellion activists in Spain were joined by several from Israel.

Thunberg, center, stands with other young activists at the COP25 Climate summit in Madrid, Spain, December 9, 2019.Credit: Andrea Comas,AP

During this campaign, environmental activists focused on drawing attention to poor and island nations, who are expected to suffer the most from the consequences of the climate crisis. Sixteen-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was received much like a movie star, after her speech at the UN General Assembly in September made her a household name. She held a press conference with Luisa Neubauer, a 23-year-old German Green activist, along with a number of teens from around the world, including countries in Africa, North and South America and East Asia.

"Our stories have been told over and over again. It’s really about them,” Thunberg said of the young activists from developing countries already facing the effects of climate change, including violent storms, droughts and rising sea levels. “We talk about our future, they talk about their present.”

The young activists presented grim findings on water scarcity, damage to tribal lands and growing fears of rising sea levels.

Ingenious people attend a climate change protest march,Madrid, Spain, December 6, 2019.Credit: JAVIER BARBANCHO/ REUTERS

Hilda Nakabuye, a climate activist from Uganda was quick to challenge the developed world: “Developed countries must be ashamed of themselves given the amount of carbon they emit compared to what Africa is emitting. We almost emit nothing but we are suffering the most.”

Rose Whipple, 18, a Native American community organizer from Minnesota who took part in the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline, contextualized the issue of climate change among broader political concerns – including racism and long-standing marginalization of indigenous groups.

One of the South American participants ended the press conference with a prayer for the future of the planet.

Thunberg delivers a speech at a climate change protest march, Madrid, Spain, December 6, 2019.Credit: JAVIER BARBANCHO/ REUTERS

Thunberg closed the press conference by saying that indigenous people have lived for centuries in balance with nature and now the developed world must listen to them and make use of their valuable knowledge.

The pressure from environmental organizations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in part by halting subsidies for oil and coal, has not received public support in all developing nations. In a special session held by UN scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on shifting to an economy not based on carbon, a number of participants noted the case of Ecuador, where the government decision to end the fuel subsidy led to rioting.

At the same time, Dr. Daniel Kammen from the University of California, Berkley, said that in Kenya international corporations forced the government to promote a plan to build coal-fired power stations – to be built by those same companies – despite the fact that Kenya is capable of generating electricity using wind and solar energy at a fraction of the cost.