This year has been the hottest on record, with a global temperature rise of 1.1°C. Coincidentally, this year the world will also see the biggest climate change summit since Copenhagen: the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), taking place in Paris this week.
Last Saturday, a group of advocates for a greener future took to Durham’s Market Square to show their support for taking real action at the Paris conference. The rally was, at face value, a little underwhelming, although there were banners, speeches and a good turnout considering the dreadful weather. But this was only a warm-up to the climate march in Newcastle the following day, where some 640-odd attendants were recorded. The president of Durham Young Greens, Jamie Penston-Raja, described how, for him, the Durham event was a “rally in support of the march [in Newcastle]”.
Despite this, I was assured by Durham City Green Party candidate Jonathan Elmer that the event in Market Square had its own purpose: putting “the message out to local communities so that they actually can do real things to contribute to this issue”. Elmer continued to say that by these actions “we can persuade the University, the council… to take the money it currently invests… in fossil fuels, and invest it elsewhere.” Divestment is a hot topic in Durham right now, with St Mary’s College JCR being the latest student body to put the question to a vote. A debate will be held on 7th December at Alington House on North Bailey, discussing whether local power really can make a difference to such enormous issues.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Durham rally was organised by the religious group ‘Churches Together’, and indeed many of the supporters were affiliated to the church. I spoke to one such supporter and asked what he thought the role of religion would be in the climate change movement. His answer was strikingly obvious: “to lead everyone who’s involved in this; we are a force across the world”. This observation is undeniable, with Christianity alone having an estimated 2.2 billion followers worldwide. Crucially, the issue of climate change transcends not just religion but any belief system at all (assuming you believe in climate change itself, that is), because the effects of it will hit every one of us. This implication was accentuated by a comment from the demonstrator: “God loves us and he loves this planet and he wants us to look after it; he wants us to have a home to live in” – religious or not, we all need “a home to live in”.
There has always been debate over the involvement of religion in what are normally deemed as political affairs – but to what extent is the climate question a political one? Of course politics is central to the problem, and to the solution, which must occur on an international scale that can only be coordinated by governmental bodies; but the point I’m making is that religion’s involvement in climate change is not a case of religion making a stand in politics, it’s religion making a stand in the welfare of the planet. And if religious institutions can rally a sizeable movement in support of action, then their contribution is most welcome! The current Pope, for instance, has been the first to release an encyclical solely devoted to climate change and ecology, which has made clear the Catholic Church’s position on the matter: we need to take action, and it needs to be now. Candidate Elmer certainly agrees with the role of religion, describing the faithful as “key actors globally in relation to this issue” and declaring the encyclical “ground-breaking” for the Catholic Church and a dramatic game changer for countries affiliated to Catholicism.
The ‘big day’ was Sunday, when 1,800 cities held demonstrations worldwide, all with essentially one purpose: to show that people care, that they want action, and not another conference without consequence. In a statement given to Palatinate by Regional Green Party Coordinator Shirley Ford at Newcastle on Sunday, she declared that the purpose of such rallies was “to show solidarity with each other [and] to keep the momentum going on all the campaigns we’re doing locally, regionally, and internationally”. Ford admitted, however, that she was “not confident that we will get the deal we really need at the international Climate Change Conference”. This only serves then to heighten the urgency of the rallies. She concluded: “We cannot rely on the government. We have to keep the pressure on.” This is particularly relevant in the North East, where fossil fuels are still very prevalent. The message of the Greens is clear and united: they want to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
Local movements have become even more important now that marches in Paris have been cancelled in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks. With the city still in a state of emergency, protests and demonstrations are difficult. Young Greens President Penston-Raja says they are “basically illegal without very high levels of clearance… which no one is going to get.” This is particularly unfortunate for Durham Young Greens and for People and Planet, who were both planning on travelling to Paris towards the end of the talks to hold a demonstration. With the trip cancelled, they are instead going to organise alternative but similarly motivated events in Durham and Newcastle, “working with other universities who were thinking of going to Paris”. And whilst this may seem a step down from the French capital, Penston-Raja points out the silver lining in creating a more “global movement, instead of everyone just going to Paris”. It would seem then, that the North East is a frontier for a changing world view; if this matters to you get involved and make a stand!
Photographs: Durham Greenpeace, Tommy Pallett